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Column: Co-Ops are Never Easy, but can be Very Successful

Ridgway fooball co-ops with Johnsonburg and has been a great success story. Photo by Jared Bakaysa of JB Graphics. See more of Bakaysa's work here

Change is rarely easy.

This week we have a town and a team that is hurting. The West Middlesex football program was faced with the unenviable decision of having to go to a co-op due to low numbers. It’s a problem many small high schools in Western Pennsylvania and specifically District 10 and District 9 have faced, and the fact that it happened at a place like West Middlesex shows that no school is immune.

The Big Reds have a rich football tradition, winning District 10 titles in 2002, 2003 and 2006, advancing to the state championship game in Class 1A in ‘06.

On that run to the title game, they beat Sharpsville for the D10 crown, the school they have tentatively agreed to a co-op with.

As someone who ran out onto the football field every Friday night in the fall in small-town USA, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the feeling can’t truly be put into words. The bond between a town and its high school football team is a special one, and it’s something I’ve got to experience both as a player many moons ago and every fall since during my professional career.

The band playing, the cheerleaders cheering, the smell of concession stand food lingering in the air and the cheers of the crowd gave me chills then and they still do to this day every Friday in the fall (and sometimes Thursdays and Saturdays as well).

I’m sad for the young men at West Middlesex, that they won’t be able to experience that on their home field this season. I especially feel for the senior class that has worked so hard for this moment.

Here in his own words is Kolten Hoffman, the quarterback on that 2006 Big Reds’ team and the current baseball coach and assistant football coach at his alma mater.

The West Middlesex and Sharpsville school districts have been proactive in looking to make this work. I sincerely hope that the Big Reds can find their footing again as a program, that this is only temporary.

If this is a more permanent solution, however, I’m here to say that co-ops do indeed work in football. The example I always come back to is Ridgway and Johnsonburg. These two rivals now co-op in many sports, including football, where the Elkers won four consecutive District 9 titles from 2016-19. The baseball team is housed at Johnsonburg and is another example of the wild success that the two schools have experienced together.

In a more extreme case, Sheffield was forced to cancel its season after one game last year. The young men that still wanted to play went to Warren for the rest of the season, where many of them assumed major roles. And they were welcomed with open arms.

The truth of the matter is that there are a number of factors that contribute to making these decisions necessary. Declining population, sport specialization and other circumstances all play a role. One thing that doesn’t, however, is the commitment from the student-athletes. You don’t get to be a program the caliber of West Middlesex without it. And I’m talking about year-round commitment.

It’s why I have no doubt, whether this is for one year or here to stay, that this co-op will work. Yes, kids want to play for their school, but more importantly, they just want the opportunity to play.

And we certainly wish them all the very best moving forward.

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