Saratoga activities director Greg Bartlett sent an email out to the Wyoming High School Activities Association just before noon on Wednesday that confirmed what the program had dreaded since Bartlett and former head football coach Kegan Willford amicably parted ways following last season: the numbers weren’t there.
Despite recruiting and lobbying among the student body, officials estimated only 10-11 students would participate in football during the 2018 season. So Saratoga reluctantly forfeited its conference schedule for this year. Instead, the Panthers will play a sub-varsity six-man schedule so those still loyal to football have games to play during the fall.
“We want to play football,” Bartlett said. “We have kids that want to play. We are just in a cycle where we’re short on boys in classes. That trend could change but I don’t know if we can ride it off.
“With any luck this year we get kids move in and we can resume our 11-man season in 2019, but at this point in time I can’t say which direction we’re going after this year.”
Those enrolled at Encampment and Saratoga who still want to play 11-man football would be eligible to play for Rawlins this season, per WHSAA rules.
The decision, even if not openly discussed, had been a long time coming. Enrollment has continued to drop throughout the state and Carbon County School District No. 2, which includes both Saratoga and football partnering school Encampment, has been no exception. There are fewer boys throughout the high school, and with a budding cross-country program, the football team has presented a less appealing option.
Bartlett and Wilford met at the end of last season and Wilford’s comfort toward coaching had changed.
“He came to me and just kind of felt that he didn’t feel it was the right fit for him,” Bartlett explained. “Kids weren’t coming into the weight room as much and I think he might of taken that a little personal.”
Wilford, who lives, teaches and serves as track coach at Encampment, officially resigned in February.
Since that point the administration had no solidified plans for the football program until meeting with football coach applicants earlier in the summer.
“I didn’t want to make too rash of a decision,” Bartlett said. “I felt like we could have played with 15, but we really felt we needed 18.”
Bartlett stated that the school got lucky by hiring a physical education teacher with some coaching experience. He offered Logan Wright the position the first week of July and he accepted. The move is pending school board approval, which Bartlett is confident will happen when the board meets next week.
“When I first had the conversation with Greg, it hadn’t been decided and nobody really knew,” Wright said. “The rumor in town was that there wasn’t going to be a program. For me, I think we could at least field a six-man team and keep the kids who love the sport.”
Wright previously helped coach football at six-man Rock River.
Unfamiliarity with the new coach, Wright believes, helped play a factor in some kids deciding not to participate. He hopes his role as PE and weights teacher will encourage more kids to play football next season.
The decision to not field a varsity team is a historic one for the program. This season will be the first since 1954 that Saratoga will not have a football team playing a season of consequence. Sadly, it likely won’t be the last. Bartlett and Wright don’t foresee the numbers turning around next season.
“We would like to stay an 11-man team,” Bartlett said. “Unfortunately, when you just have these small schools you just don’t have the numbers to keep this all going.”
Bartlett stated he has two contests already scheduled for this fall, including a previously scheduled game against the Natrona County junior varsity. Instead of playing with a full squad of 11, however, they’ll play 6-man.
Both Bartlett and Wright foresee at least another season without an 11-man football team because the numbers just aren’t there. Bartlett mentioned approaching the WHSAA about acquiring a one-year waiver to make the Panthers eligible for Class 1A/6-man next year.
Their hope lies in the middle school’s promising numbers. Bartlett cited the upcoming sixth- and seventh-grade classes as reason for optimism. If the majority of those kids go out for football the program would return. However, the activities director couldn’t help but mention the looming dread.
“If there’s not a bright line of getting back into varsity play I see a huge decline in participation in football here,” Bartlett said. “We’ve got good wrestlers, basketball players, but they ask, ‘Is it worth it to have a career-ending injury in a JV football game with no playoffs or all-conference?’ and they could leave pretty quick.”