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Prep parade: Wellston and Okeene latest to seek path to solve football participation problem

Wellston football's team, shown here at a practice in 2012, will play eight-man football next season. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Wellston football's team, shown here at a practice in 2012, will play eight-man football next season. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

Curtis Wartchow sees no other way to save not only football, but other athletic programs at Wellston High School.

Wellston must go to the eight-man football level.

It’s safer and smarter for the small, rural school northeast of Oklahoma City as participation numbers dwindle. Wartchow, the school’s athletic director, believes if football ceases other boys programs will suffer.

Athletes in a school with an average of 170 students play multiple sports. But not having football could lead them to transfer elsewhere.

Basketball. Baseball. Track. They’d all be hurt.

“This is our chance to try to save it,” Wartchow told the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association Board of Directors. “If we have to continue running an 11-man schedule, we’re probably not going to be able to continue.”

In a time where football participation is on the decline nationally, it’s starting to hit close to home in a big way.

The OSSAA has agreed to allow four programs to play an independent eight-man football schedule this fall, and more are likely to follow. The latest is Wellston and Okeene, a tradition-rich program with back-to-back state championships in 2006 and 2007.

Velma-Alma and Beaver also received permission in the winter.

“When you’ve got football programs like Velma-Alma and Okeene whose got rich football traditions making that request we know we’ve got serious number issues,” OSSAA executive director David Jackson told the board.”

According to National Federation of State High School Associations data, less than 1.04 million high school students played football in 2017, a 2 percent drop from 2016. In the past decade, the numbers have dropped 6.6 percent. Numbers for 2018 have not been released.

At Okeene, the Whippets fell to 19 players in the fall, and they formed a co-op with Aline-Cleo, receiving four more players. They still went 4-6, but it was a struggle late in the season.

Okeene’s school board voted Tuesday to make the change for upcoming season, but also voted to continue playing 11-man football at the middle-school level.

There is no giving up in the community 90 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The school has requested to play 11-man football for years, ignoring an average attendance below 100 students.

It is even tougher in Wellston.

The Tigers forfeited one game and another was halted at halftime. Injuries, eligibility and other factors took a toll. They went winless and have won just two games in three seasons.

“This is a last-ditch effort,” Wartchow said. “It’s embarrassing for your school, for one, to get to that point. But on the other hand, you want to do what you can for the kids that want to do that.”

But this could only be a temporary fix in Wellston.

The Tigers’ average attendance is greater than all other eight-man programs. Only 80 schools can play eight-man football. If more than that request to play eight-man, those with the larger attendance go back to 11-man football.

“I am hopeful and optimistic that those numbers are going to turn,” Jackson said. “The good thing is that would give them a year to plan for that.”

Jacob Unruh

Jacob Unruh is a graduate of Northeastern State University. He was born in Cherokee and raised near Vera where he attended Caney Valley High School.During his tenure at NSU, Unruh wrote for The Northeastern (NSU's student newspaper), the... Read more ›