Complex numbers can become big challenges for small school sports.
From the minimum number of participants to form a team to the maximum use of limited resources, the smallest high schools in the region calculate the mathematics of today with the variable of the unknowns of tomorrow.
“We are good at volleyball. And we look good for girls’ and boys’ basketball,” said Rod Graham, longtime De Beque High School athletic director. “We have seven eliminated for volleyball this year.”
Graham has been rooted in the numbers game at De Beque since 1978, encouraging students to participate in sports and activities.
It has navigated days from scant enrollment to explosive oil shale booms. and busts.
In recent years, the Dragons have won state championships in men’s basketball and women’s track, with a plethora of individual state track and field titles.
With a current high school count hovering around 50 students, Graham said the school continues to promote activities to further engage students academically.
This year, the Dragons are playing a full schedule of college volleyball with seven players. De Beque also has four cross country runners competing this year.
The Dragons don’t offer soccer, but six De Beque kids are playing soccer at Grand Valley High School in Parachute, just 12 miles east of Interstate 70.
De Beque is Class 1A in volleyball, one of 72 schools statewide with enrollment of up to 93 students.
The high school is similar in size to Walden’s North Park (42), Norwood (58), Ouray (52), Nucla (70), and Dove Creek (73).
Ouray, for example, is playing a junior collegiate schedule in volleyball this season due to a limited number of players, a situation De Beque and many 1A schools have faced in the past.
De Beque volleyball coach Leslie Weis said she has to get creative with a limited roster.
“It is extremely hard. But we’re lucky to have some guys come over and help us practice,” Weis said. “That helps a lot. But there really isn’t much you can do.”
She said they focus on skill development and positioning.
“We do a lot of individual skills work,” he said.
The small number helps players learn to depend on each other, he said.
“They have to work together, build each other up,” Weis said.
“We also use video a lot. That’s how we spent most of yesterday’s practice: watching movies,” she said. “That helps figure out the transition and know where to be on defense.”
Looking ahead, Graham said the current eighth-grade classes have a couple of volleyball players who may enter the high school level next year.
And, Graham said, De Beque’s current sixth-grade class is a larger class with several athletes.
PLATEAU VALLEY COWBOYS
The same numbers game is held annually at Plateau Valley High School, located just outside of Collbran on the east side of Grand Mesa.
The Cowboys, with a high school enrollment of 100, are in the lower end of the 2A ranking, which ranges from 94 to 299 students. Plateau Valley’s enrollment has consistently remained in the 100 student range.
Plateau Valley’s license plate mirrors that of Ridgway (107), Hayden (109), Soroco (Oak Creek, 104), Rangely (125), and West Grand (Kremmling, 138).
By comparison, Grand Junction’s Caprock Academy has 160 students. Vail Christian is 139, Vail Mountain is 158, Dolores is 163, and Meeker is 197.
“Athletics and academics go hand in hand,” Plateau Valley Principal Trevor Long said, standing by the sunny bench at a football game Saturday afternoon. “And you can make connecting a lot easier… when you have smaller classes. The connections teachers can make help a student stay motivated to stay on that athletic field.”
Plateau Valley plays eight-man soccer with a growing roster of 21 players, up from low numbers three years ago.
The Cowboys also play volleyball in the fall with an amazing participation rate. Of the 40 girls at Plateau Valley High School, 31 are playing volleyball. The Cowboys consequently have three teams: varsity, junior varsity, and C Team.
“These kids are not afraid to try,” Long said. “They know we need you, we need everyone.”
Long credited the Plateau Valley coaches for creating a supportive and inclusive atmosphere.
“Our coaches understand the big picture because of the small community,” he said. “We need every child to be a part of this.”
Long turned and gestured toward the west side shadows, where generations of Plateau Valley families were gathering for the football game against visiting Hayden.
“Just look here today,” Long said. You have families. You have dads who played on this course. They know exactly what a Saturday afternoon football game is all about here.”
Assistant Principal/Athletic Director John Holmes, who has been with Plateau Valley for 25 years, agreed.
He said that generational connections are part of the fabric of the school and the community.
Large increases in enrollment are not forecast, he said, in part due to limited housing available in the Plateau Valley region.
“There is a unit here,” the Plateau Valley director said. “When kids grow up together, they go through good times and bad times together, it makes it special.”
Just off Long’s side was Wendy Nichols, longtime team photographer and proud mother of a recent Plateau Valley graduate.
“Absolutely, sports help academics,” Nichols said. “With my own son, I wouldn’t have made it without sports keeping him with a reason to study.”
She said the community is lucky because “you have all these people that your kids have grown up with. They come back year after year after year. They become part of your family.
“You see them grow. And they come back and teach here. They come back and train here,” she said. “That’s great to see.”
Nichols is the principal of Grand Mesa High School on the Collbran Job Corps campus.
Traditionally, the Job Corps has some students interested in athletics; they have played at Plateau Valley High School in the past.
“COVID decimated us,” Nichols said. “Two years have passed. But now we are working to rebuild. Our center (Job Corps) is getting bigger.”
She said the residential vocational program was closed during the pandemic.
This fall, Job Corps is back in business with about 60 students. The current limit is 94 students, a figure set by the US Department of Labor.
The department supervises Job Corps participants. The United States Forest Service supervises the employees.
Nichols and his academic staff at Job Corps are members of the Plateau Valley school staff.
“The kids we usually get are kids who haven’t played (sports) in high school,” Nichols said. “They played when they were younger: pee wee, in high school. But a lot of them never got a chance to play in high school.”
This fall, Nichols said, there’s a Job Corps student playing football for the Cowboys.
A few more Job Corps players could join the Cowboys as the number of Job Corps increases, he said.
“The last two years our numbers have grown significantly (for football) and there has been a lot more passion at the school,” Nichols said of the program run by head coach Brian Bristol, a former Cowboys standout.
Glancing at the scoreboard, Nichols added: “Of course we would love to have a better score. But they are working hard to make it better.”