Small school syndrome

Bottom half of 3A bracket full of small schools that play at larger levels

When he was growing up Kip Hafey remembers wanting to be just like the Moffat County quarterback.

"I watched them run on the field under the lights," he said. "There was no other sport that got that chance and the quarterback ran the show."

In high school he finally got his shot and learned what it was like to be a role model for the elementary and middle school students and to have the community know and support him.

Now, as football coach at Moffat County, Hafey is beginning to see the same for his athletes.

"It's what is great about a smaller community," he said. "They rally behind a team and it makes a child in elementary school look up to those guys he sees in a uniform."

The four schools left on the bottom half of the Class 3A football playoff bracket -- Moffat County, Steamboat Springs, Florence and D'Evelyn - all have that small-town mentality.

This week, the Colorado High School Activities Association released its enrollment numbers for the 2004-2006 school years and Florence, Moffat County's opponent Saturday, is the smallest school in 3A with 563 students. D'Evelyn, a school from unincorporated Jefferson County, has an enrollment of 604. Steamboat Springs has 631 students and Moffat County's enrollment stands at 760.

Of the 37 schools in Class 3A, Moffat County is the 13th smallest, yet those four schools remain among the field of eight in the playoffs.

"It's great isn't it?" said CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Bert Borgmann. "You look at the smallest school, Florence, winning last year and they're back again this year. It is always great to see the little guy do so well."

About 20 years ago, CHSAA split football into one more class -- there are currently seven football classifications compared with five classifications in most other sports --to keep schools competing against each other closer in enrollment numbers.

Moffat County and Steamboat Springs are 4A in all sports except football.

"We did that with football because of the physical nature," Borgmann said. "A school has a definite advantage if it has twice the kids out because they can send more at you to pound on you."

Even now, there are schools in 3A twice the size of some of their competitors. In the first round of the playoffs, Florence faced Skyview, a school with an enrollment of 1,298.

"We could hold up against Skyview," Florence coach Mark Buderus said of his team's 63-26 win. "But we couldn't go in there and compete week in and week out with schools that size."

Alamosa, a school with 649 students, won the football crown two years ago. Coach Manny Wasinger said he's been fortunate with the quality of players he's had, but agreed that if his football team was in 4A like the school's other sports team it would have been tough to win it all.

"It's a disadvantage for us in terms of sheer numbers, but I think there's a certain degree of toughness smaller schools have to have in order to compete," he said. "I think that's a quality that not all metro area and big city schools have. For us, the younger kids, knowing they have to play, sometimes have to compete above their abilities."

Steamboat coach Mark Drake wishes that he had more numbers to work with but there's no secret to his team's success this year -- the dedication of his seniors.

The senior class has suited for varsity since they were sophomores and this year they have carried the Sailors to a 9-1 record.

"How could you not want these kids?" he said. "You can't say enough good things about them."

D'Evelyn has 43 total players out, but with an 11-0 record, it is apparent the small numbers haven't kept the team from winning.

"When you have that many more students you have that many more chances to have outstanding athletes," coach Chris Baker said, referring to the bigger schools he sees in Denver. "This year we've been fortunate with limited injuries but two injuries and we're down to a JV player. We have outstanding athletes but if we were to play a 4A school, they would have twice as many to send against us because they have three times as many students."

What Hafey and Buderus believe is that what it comes down to is building respect for a program in a smaller town and getting the right athletes out.

"We've been blessed with size and talent," Buderus said. "But a lot of it has to do with the fact that we've got younger kids wanting to be football players when they grow up."

In his second year as head coach, Hafey has been working to develop what Buderus has in his small town south of Cañon City.

"We want the younger athletes to want to wear the Bulldog Blue," Hafey said. "With success, numbers build and so does awareness in the community."

On the sidelines this weekend of Steamboat Springs and Craig, the next David May (Steamboat's quarterback) or Aaron Sanchez (Moffat County's running back) may be watching, just as Hafey was15 years ago.

"The small-town recognition is great," he said. "It is what establishes a program for success."

David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or dpressgrove@craigdailypress.com.

Melinda Mawdsley of the Steamboat Pilot & Today contributed to this story.

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