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Big changes ahead with Pirate football travel, league

The Pagosa Springs High School football team is facing a dramatically different schedule for the upcoming season due to a change in leagues mandated by the Colorado High School Athletics Association.

“We are a 2A school in football,” explained PSHS Athletic Director Sean O’Donnell. “For all other sports we are 3A, but only 2A for football.”

PSHS is in the Intermountain League, according to Archuleta School District Superintendent Mark DeVoti, but since the only 2A schools for football left in the league after last year’s student count were Bayfield and Pagosa, both schools were forced to move to the Western Slope League.

“From the league we had last year,” O’Donnell said, “Centauri High School, Salida High School, and Buena Vista High School all have less than 300 kids this year, so they have all dropped down to 1A.” Monte Vista was already down at the 1A level last year.

“There’s a committee at CHSAA that decides the cut-offs for all of the different classifications,” O’Donnell explained. “It turns out this year that the cut-off number was 300 for 2A football.” He expressed frustration at the arbitrary nature of this decision, but he elaborated that state-wide CHSAA had to have a certain minimum number of schools in each classification.

“Cortez played in our league last year, but they have close to 800 kids, so they are a 3A football school.” O’Donnell went on to explain that Cortez had petitioned to be able to play at the 2A level last year, but according to CHSAA rules they are only allowed to do that for one year, and now they are back up at the 3A level.

“Then Alamosa ended up going to Colorado Springs to be in the Tri-Peaks league,” O’Donnell continued, “which left Pagosa and Bayfield sitting down here in an island all by ourselves without a league.” He explained that Alamosa was originally in the Tri-Peaks league; they had not been in the Intermountain League for very long, and they didn’t waste any time going back, because they were used to playing those schools.

O’Donnell related that, in the end, “We were asked to do what was best for the classification, not necessarily what’s best for us, so we ended up being in the Western Slope League, which created a phenomenal amount of travel and expense.”

“We had a dilemma,” explained DeVoti. With the prospect of some extremely long road trips, “Do you send an extra bus driver? Do you pay for a hotel room and stay overnight? Or do you drop out of athletics?”

There were six 2A schools in the Western Slope league: Grand Valley, Coal Ridge, Basalt, Aspen, Gunnison and Olathe.

“They weren’t exactly happy about Pagosa and Bayfield coming in, either,” O’Donnell said. “They’re very upset. They don’t want to have to drive down here.”

Things could have been much worse for Bayfield and Pagosa if O’Donnell hadn’t stood his ground with the Western Slope schools.

“Bayfield and I had to fight for them to change the schedule,” he explained. The Western Slope teams were going to flip-flop their schedules, where everyone a team played at home last year would play away this year, then just plug in Pagosa and Bayfield. This meant that Pagosa and Bayfield would have been making all of the trips up north, but none of the northern schools would have had to travel down here.

“I appreciate the fact that the Gunnison football coach stood up and supported us and came up with a better idea,” said O’Donnell.

The athletic directors worked out a system of travel partners, where two schools that are close to each other will travel to play another pair of neighboring schools one week, then the next week the pattern will switch and those two schools will do the travelling.

“Chances are it could snow,” O’Donnell worried. “That’s why we scheduled it the way we did. We put those long trips at the beginning of the season, so we’ll be going to Aspen the second week of September.”

Lizard Head pass and Leadville are possible routes, but if all goes well and the weather cooperates, the plan is to go over Red Mountain Pass. “The worst-case scenario is you’ll have to go all the way to Moab and then to Grand Junction to go around, which is a possibility.”

Not only was the route an issue, but the logistics of the trip were a concern. “We investigated different ways of making the trip,” O’Donnell said.

The cheapest way would be to have two bus drivers, with one driving up to the game while the other slept, then switching so the fresh driver made the trip back after the game.

However, the cheapest way is not always the safest, O’Donnell explained.

“You’re talking about a guy that’s going to get on the bus at six o’clock in the morning, with the other bus driver and the rest of the team, and he’s going to spend the whole day riding all the way to Aspen. He’s not going to sleep. There’s no room for him to lie down and sleep and relax. He’s going to stay awake, and then we’re going to put him on a bus at eleven o’clock at night in Aspen and tell him to come all the way home in the middle of the night.”

DeVoti also brought up the point that as soon as the bus gets back to Pagosa after a long trip from Aspen, the kids still have to get in their own cars and drive home.

O’Donnell continued, “It came down to, I don’t care what it costs; we’re not going to be a news story. We don’t want that publicity. If we’re going to put students at risk to save money, we’re going to have a hard time defending that.”

Another option O’Donnell considered was based on what Durango does. “If you wanted to give your kids the absolute best competitive advantage, the best thing would be to go up Thursday, stay the night and then play Friday.”

As a 5A school, Durango is forced to travel great distances to find teams to compete against, so the team will often have a short practice after school on Thursday, get on the bus, travel as far as they can, stay Thursday night in a hotel, then get up Friday morning to finish the trip. That way the players are fresh, relaxed and ready to play the game.

“But then you’re still talking about staying again Friday night,” O’Donnell said. “We’re already in declining budgets. This was a frustrating situation. We looked at it every different possible way we could and this is the way it worked out. It was definitely not, in any way, shape or form, our choice.”

There had to be a compromise between not paying for hotel rooms at all, which is not safe, or paying for two nights’ worth of hotel rooms, which is too expensive.

PSHS Coach Olin Garrison laid out the plan. “We’re going to leave at about six o’clock in the morning,” he said, “and we’ll make some scheduled stops along the way to get out and stretch and have lunch. Then, hopefully, we’ll get there in time to go through a pretty good stretching routine and get them back into the right frame of mind to play a football game.”

Garrison explained that the bus can hold 40 people, and there will be 30 players between varsity and JV, along with himself, three assistant coaches and one volunteer. Added to this will be the gear and equipment, which will not all fit in the compartments below the bus.

“It’s going to be pretty demanding to keep focused,” Garrison said, “especially with teenagers.”

Garrison had another idea to help mitigate the cost of getting a hotel room for the entire team after the game. “Like with Aspen, we’ll find a smaller town, away from Aspen, that’s not quite as expensive to stay the night.”

Garrison explained that there will be four games that will require travel: Aspen, Coal Ridge, Gunnison and Alamosa. However, only Aspen and Coal Ridge are far enough away to force an overnight stay.

With three assistant coaches and one volunteer, Garrison said there is no need for additional chaperones. “I’m old enough and grumpy enough,” Garrison laughed. “They can quadruple me.”

“The way we get out of this,” O’Donnell explained, “is we either have to change the cutoff number between 1A and 2A so those schools in our area move up to where we are, or their numbers need to come up so that they move back into our classification, or, if 1A football had a different method of choosing their playoff qualifiers, they might be interested in doing a combination league.”

Out of the three options, the last one is not only the most cost-effective, but also the only one that there is any way of controlling.

“This is not unheard of,” O’Donnell said. “They do multi-classification leagues.”

However, because each classification has a different method for determining who qualifies to be in the playoffs, “It’s hard sometimes to even get those schools to play us,” O’Donnell complained. “If they’ve got a team they think is going to be good enough to make the playoffs, those schools will typically not play the 2A schools because it hurts their chances of making the playoffs, which is frustrating.”

Another possibility that was considered would be to play independently. “There is a wildcard system,” according to O’Donnell. “You earn points for winning or losing according to the classification of the team you’re playing and their record. If you beat teams with good records, you get more points. That’s how you qualify for the playoffs. It was feasible, but then we couldn’t schedule anybody, because from about the middle of September on, everyone else has league games, and there’s no one to play.”

O’Donnell explained that local school officials tried every option possible before finally arriving at the current plan. “We even investigated splitting that Western Slope League in half, into a north and a south, and just trying to do something with Olathe, Gunnison, Pagosa and Bayfield. That didn’t work either. That fell through.”

O’Donnell finished by saying, “I know there’s a perception out there that we wanted to be in this league.” However, he emphasized, “It is not by choice.”

Garrison had the last word on the subject: “These are some good football teams. Olathe has been in the state playoffs before. Aspen’s in the playoffs a lot. Coal Ridge is pretty good. We have to raise the bar, and we’ve already talked to our kids about that.”

He finishes by cautioning, “We got stuck in with the Western Slope League, and we’ve got to do a lot of travelling, but we’ll just have to handle it. I don’t want too much said about it, because I don’t want our players to use it as an excuse.”

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