Ignacio High School may not have varsity football in 2018.
One day after Gunnison High School announced it would not play Class 2A varsity football this year because of a lack of participation, the Ignacio Bobcats could face a similar fate. Six players showed up for a meeting Tuesday, and one parent attended a meeting Thursday. Official practice is set to open Monday. If the Bobcats do not get more players, they could opt to play only junior varsity or cancel the 2018 football season completely.
"We won't know until Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, that kind of thing," Ignacio Athletic Director Rocky Cundiff said Friday. "I know there's at least eight or nine more guys that will play. We're looking right now to host varsity if we're right at 20 kids. If we get 20, we're gonna have varsity."
Head coach Alfonso "Ponch" Garcia was confident Friday night that the Bobcats would have enough players for varsity, saying in a text message to The Durango Herald that he expects to have 24 or more players. In contrast, Class 2A Bayfield, which is only 10 miles away from Ignacio, has 85 players out for football this year and Class 3A Durango has more than 50.
The Colorado High School Activities Association allows athletes to play a sport at another neighboring school if a sport is not offered at their school. Ignacio athletes would be allowed to try out at Bayfield if varsity football is not offered at IHS. However, if IHS does field a junior varsity, IHS student-athletes would need to make Bayfield's varsity roster to play with the Wolverines instead of the Bobcats. Friday night, CHSAA assistant commissioner Bert Borgmann said the organization had not been made aware of the problem at Ignacio.
Ignacio is set to begin the first year of another two-year cycle in the Class 1A Southern Peaks League along with state runner-up Centauri, Center, Dolores and Monte Vista. Last year, former Dolores athletic director and head coach Chris Trusler tried to apply for independent status for Dolores, but that request was never processed. Dolores also has struggled to get enough players to compete in Class 1A 11-man football in recent years.
Even if Ignacio had enough players this year to more ably compete in 8-man football, the Bobcats would not be able to move down in classification to compete this year.
"Our coach doesn't want to do 8-man, and CHSAA wouldn't let us go to 8-man," Cundiff said. "The only thing we can do is go to a junior varsity schedule. The plan is, and we hope it doesn't happen, is that if we have less than 16 kids, we have to look at doing a JV schedule."
A growing number of teams in Colorado has been unable to field varsity teams or complete a full schedule of play. In 2014, Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs forfeited the last two games of its season in Class 4A because the team was down to 12 healthy players after starting with a roster of 40. In 2016, Ignacio had to find a new opponent for its first game of the season when Calhan High School opted to not field a varsity team; the school and also didn't field a varsity team in 2017.
Bayfield was scheduled to host Gunnison for homecoming night in 2018. Now, the Wolverines will hope to find another opponent to replace the game with only three weeks until the season kicks off.
Last year, Ignacio went 4-5 overall but won its last two games of the regular season via forfeit to John Mall High School of Walsenburg and Dolores Huerta Prep of Pueblo.
"They just didn't have enough kids that wanted to come over and play Ignacio," Cundiff said. "Those teams had, like, 14 kids.
"This last year, John Mall tried to get to 8-man. I thought they were going 8-man all the way through the committee meeting, but then the leagues come out and John Mall is still in 11-man football. I give all the respect to the CHSAA football committee. They're trying to make everyone happy. Some schools, maybe their numbers are bigger than an 8-man school, but they aren't getting the numbers out and maybe should be 8-man."
Ignacio is scheduled to play nine varsity games this year, beginning at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at home against Lake County of Leadville. The team's MaxPreps.com page lists 15 players on the roster, though it is unclear if all of those players will join this year's team.
The Bobcats have played 11-man football every year since 1950 and went 8-1 that year. The team has a storied football history with state championship game appearances in 1968, an 86-26 loss to Limon, and in 1987, a controversial 13-12 loss to Lyons.
In 1990, Ignacio played in Class 3A. The team moved in the 2A Intermountain League in 1994 and stayed there for 12 years and went 7-51 in league play. The Bobcats moved into the 1A Southern Peaks League in 2006 and have been there since. The team won the league title in 2009. The team's annual rivalry game with Bayfield came to an end after the 2010 season.
Bayfield football historian Dan Ford noted Bayfield used to play Ignacio's junior varsity in the early 1970s because Ignacio's team was so much bigger than Bayfield. Bayfield won 19 of the final 20 games against Ignacio and has won two state championships in Class 2A since the rivalry ended.
"Hard to believe it has swung so far," Ford said.
Ignacio renovated its football stadium in 2014 with new artificual turf and upgrades. The upgrades were part of a bond issue approved by voters that also included upgrades to the high school, renovation of Ignacio Elementary and construction of Ignacio Middle School. At the time, Bobcat Stadium boasted the best field in Southwest Colorado.
Ignacio has increasingly become a basketball town. Players frequently would leave the football team early to prepare for basketball season, leading to a school rule that penalized players who quit one sport by making them ineligible to play in another sport for half the season.
The Bobcats had new life when Garcia took over as head coach before the 2016 season. Since Garcia took over, the team has gone 7-11. The team had gone 1-17 the previous two years after a 6-3 season in 2013, the team's last winning year.
"When we brought Ponch here, we were excited," Cundiff said. "The dude has personality that makes me want to play for him. He's a go-getter and works his butt off trying to help kids. He's all about helping kids. It surprises me. When we brought him in three years ago, we were ready to really get going and have some fun with football again.
"I know our league has Monte Vista and Centauri that have been loaded the last few years, and we play some tough teams. But that's life. Kids should want to play against them and have the goal to get as good as them. Ponch preaches that, getting better and better. He's fighting. We're fighting."
All Cundiff and Garcia can do is hope numbers are higher when practice opens Monday. A decision will have to be made later in the week about the team's varsity status. Even if the Bobcats get more than 16 players, the demand on athletes to play offense, defense and special teams will be so great that keeping more than 16 players healthy all season will be a struggle.
"I think football is in trouble," Cundiff said. "Schools around here like Mancos, Durango and Bayfield, they look fine, but around the state, holy cow. Schools are having trouble fielding teams. It's scary right now with the low numbers. Then you have kids playing too much. Iron man football, back in the day that was fine, but now it is tough. It makes a person nervous. I support football, but it's getting hard to get kids to commit, and parents are seeing that stuff about (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and brain injuries and are scared to push kids toward football."