Two weeks ago the Craig Middle School eighth-grade football team finished its season with a 16-0 win against rival Steamboat Springs. The win was the final middle school football game for the team as it finished the season 7-1 and 15-1 overall.
One loss in two years by most would be considered a great result but for past and present middle school athletes there is a mental asterisk next to their middle school dominance.
"Other than Steamboat, we didn't play anybody," said Moffat County High School freshman Evan Hertzog, whose class didn't lose a game in football or basketball in middle school and won both district wrestling titles. "It almost gets boring when we win by so much."
Winning in basketball and football at CMS is about as common as the Yankees finishing on top of the American League East.
The eighth-grade team's loss to Steamboat Springs was the first time a team had lost a football game since the current senior class at Moffat County High School lost when they were in eighth grade.
The Bulldogs' football schedule this season consisted of Rangely, Hayden, Meeker, Soroco, Steamboat and East Grand. To put that in perspective as far the sizes of schools the Bulldogs faced, one can look at enrollment numbers at CMS compared to the high schools that they feed into. The enrollment at CMS with just seventh- and eighth-grade students is 417. That is more than the high school enrollment for all of the other schools except Steamboat and East Grand (Middle Park).
"We always have more kids to choose from," said eighth-grade football coach Gary Tague. "It gives us chance to have more athleticism and as you can see by our records, we usually do."
At the same time, lopsided victories aren't always good for the winners.
"I would rarely play more than a half," Hertzog said, who is now the quarterback on the freshman team.
"After killing the same teams over and over, it stops getting fun," said freshman Josh Keadle, who played basketball, football and wrestled in middle school.
Moffat County High School boys basketball coach and seventh-grade football coach, Mike LeWarne expressed similar sentiment as the athletes.
"It would be nice if we could play larger schools," LeWarne said. "It would prepare the kids more for high school competition."
Where are the games against the teams the high school plays?
Rifle is just as close as a drive to Rangely. East Grand, located in Granby is farther from Craig than Rawlins, Wyo., and Vernal, Utah, both larger cities with higher middle school enrollments.
At first it seems like adding those schools would only be a call away, but it isn't as easy as just calling up athletics directors and adding them to the schedule.
The scheduling situation
Don Guffy has been the CMS athletics director for eight years. He is well aware of the lopsided wins that a majority of the CMS sports programs experience.
"I've been very aware of the situation for a long time," he said. "But trying to get different teams is like opening up a Pandora's Box."
According to Guffy, he has looked into games with Vernal, Grand Junction, Rifle and Rawlins, among others.
"Rifle plays on Thursday, Grand Junction plays on Sunday, Vernal has an intramural program and Rawlins can't travel out of state," he said. "I could go on and on about why we can't get anybody else."
Of those options Rifle may come the closest to being feasible but, "We can only get our kids out of school for an athletic event once a season. Taking them down to Rifle on a Thursday night means they'll get back pretty late then we have to worry about them being tired at school the next day."
Cross country and wrestling are two programs that travel outside of Moffat, Routt and Grand Counties for competitions.
"Cross country travels because we are the only school around with a team so they have to go somewhere to find competition," Guffy said. "The wrestling team goes down to Montrose, but their parents take them to the tournament, not the school."
Tague feels for the predicament his A.D. is in.
"We're at a dead end here," he said. "As much as we'd like to see somebody else, it is nearly impossible."
What others say
Nearly every time middle school sports scheduling is discussed a story comes up. It is one nobody will go on record to discuss, but it is commonly talked about. Several years ago when Rifle and CMS did compete against each other, CMS went down there and crushed Rifle in football. The blowout wasn't appreciated by the host and Rifle has refused to play CMS since.
Ted Donahue has been the athletics director at Rifle Middle School for only a few months and was unaware if CMS was on their "don't play list" but he did say that with his school's full league schedule it would be difficult.
Rifle is in the P.E.G. League, which stands for Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
"We have such a short season for all the sports, it is tough to get anybody else in the schedule," he said. "But if we lost a game or a team moved from our league, I wouldn't say no to playing Craig."
In addition, Rifle students are off for a week in the fall, which makes its seasons even shorter.
Wendy Hall took over the A.D. job at Steamboat Springs Middle School this year and already understands Guffy's difficulties of scheduling for teams in this demographic.
"With our location, we already have to travel more than anybody," she said. "With transportation costs increasing, it is also hard to look to travel elsewhere."
She also recognized the same discrepancy in numbers on her teams compared to others.
"I've seen our teams play others with just 12 athletes when we have 40," she said, "When it comes to football and basketball, that makes the scores lopsided."
The flip side
There is one sport that seems to defy the strength in numbers theory. In volleyball, neither Steamboat nor Craig has put up dominating numbers.
The eighth-grade Bulldogs went into their final season tournament without a win.
"It is a flip side in volleyball for such big numbers," Hall said. "We have enough for three teams and other schools only can field one so we're trying to get playing time for everybody and they play with their best all the time."
Diana Booco, the CMS eighth-grade coach, said she had a hard time getting to her 30 players every practice.
"We can't do much one on one," she said. "It is hard to keep them all occupied at practice."
Post middle school
The last two years the freshman football team has opened up its season against the Hayden varsity, both times the teams have earned their first-ever losses in that game, but the loss is almost refreshing.
"I learned a lot more in that game than I did in any blowout in middle school," Hertzog said. "This year has been a lot more challenging."
A struggle that some high school coaches have mentioned is that the freshmen come in expecting to win every game and once they start losing it gets in their head that they aren't improving.
"Part of that, at least in basketball, is that we have more coaches than other teams in middle school," eighth-grade boys basketball coach Brett Sperl said. "Our coach-to-athlete ratio is a lot better than Steamboat and our kids learn more those first two years. Then in high school, those things even out."
Tague didn't see why athletes should get frustrated once the reach high school.
"The kids are realistic and they understand about the sports situation," he said. "They should be glad they get to play tougher competition and lose a couple in high school."
Still Sperl said it would almost be nice to have a couple more losses in middle school.
"We've had three straight years of undefeated teams," he said. "It would be nice to have a couple of timely losses here and there."
It's not often to hear a coach hope for a mark in the "L" category but for Craig Middle School athletics apparently there's no other options.
"Geographically, we have to bow down to what's available," Guffy said. "It's just something we have to adjust to."
David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or email@example.com.