Belgrade and Manhattan high schools have spent the past several months exploring the potential of a co-op for soccer beginning this fall.
The proposal was discussed at Belgrade’s school board meeting on April 13, and Activities Director Rick Phillips expects a vote to take place at the May meeting after more information is presented to the board and the public has had an opportunity to comment.
Public comment, Phillips noted, has been difficult to generate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have been closed since March 16th, and school board meetings have been held via live stream to practice social distancing.
“I’m open to anybody that wants to shoot me an email about their concerns or their questions,” said Phillips. “Tell me what you like about this or what you dislike about this co-op, and the board wants to hear those too before they make a decision.”
Phillips said the idea of a co-op came to his attention this past fall. A handful of Manhattan athletes compete along with Belgrade soccer players during the club season and were interested playing for Belgrade. Manhattan does not offer a high school soccer program.
Phillips was receptive to the idea, but noted it was it was too late to do anything for the 2019 campaign. Forming a co-op is an intensive process that requires school board approval as well as approval from the Montana High School Association.
So, Phillips approached Principal Paul Lamb about the idea, and things have progressed from there.
“Obviously we didn’t have great numbers last year and so it certainly made a little more sense to me. So I went to Paul and said, ‘Hey Paul how do you feel about us possibly entering into a co-op with Manhattan to assist with our participation numbers for soccer,’” Phillips said. “And we have done it in softball before, so it is something we’ve done.”
After talking to the MHSA in January, and then submitting a formal letter in February, Phillips got together with Manhattan Athletic Director Pat Lynch to run through a 16-point check list provided by the MHSA that included such things as grades, eligibility for athletes, and shared funding. That will be presented to the Belgrade School Board in May.
“That’s really what our board is waiting on. Our board is waiting on the looks of that document,” said Phillips. “They just want some more information and they certainly want the public to have an opportunity to chime in about their feelings about the co-op. One of the questions that came up in the board meeting was, well, we don’t like the possibility of a Manhattan kid taking the place of a Belgrade kid. That’s a legitimate concern.”
Following more than three decades competing in Class A, Belgrade moved up to AA beginning with the 2019-20 school year. The school’s programs went from boasting the largest enrollment in A to the smallest in AA, and the soccer teams struggled to field full varsity and junior varsity squads.
That’s where Phillips feels a co-op will not only help Belgrade, but continue to promote soccer within the Gallatin Valley.
“My thought is our numbers are low enough that we would be able to keep everybody in the program. The question might be at what level would they be at,” he said. “There might be a Manhattan kid that takes a varsity position from a Belgrade person, but it wouldn’t necessarily prevent that Belgrade kid from playing unless our numbers are exceedingly too high.”
Coaches, Phillips noted, prefer to have about 18 players on a roster, meaning 36 between varsity and junior varsity. Belgrade's boys had just 25 players this past season. If the co-op were approved, four girls and two boys from Manhattan are expected to participate this fall and then about six more in 2021.
If the school board approves the proposal, which would likely be a three-year co-op, Phillips expects the MHSA to follow suit.
“I don’t see them saying no to it,” he said. “I think they love seeing the increase in participation across the state regardless of what it is. Soccer, in the lower ranks, they truly need another team in this valley.”
Coaching vacancy ... Belgrade is currently seeking a head coach for the boys team after Jeff DeBuse resigned in January. Interviews are complete Phillips said, and he expects to offer the position next week following hiring committee recommendations.
Public comment ... For those who would like to comment about the co-op, Rick Phillips may be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.