'It's a huge relief': Drummond-Philipsburg co-op receives renewal for another year, committee to be formed

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Posted at 11:40 AM, Jan 14, 2023

MISSOULA — The Flint Creek Titans live on.

The Montana High School Association executive board voted unanimously 7-0 to renew the football co-op of Drummond and Philipsburg, also known as Flint Creek, during an executive board meeting at the Holiday Inn Downtown in Missoula on Saturday. The meeting was held in a conference room that was packed with supporters of the program that included parents, coaches, residents from both towns and more.

Included in that vote, the board also agreed to form a committee that would weigh co-op renewals in the future, so it didn't come down solely to the decision of the MHSA and its executive director, who is currently Brian Michelotti. That board would objectively look at each situation individually and decide based upon MHSA rules.

"It's a huge relief. You're always worried about those kids from the smaller school that maybe couldn't travel or do stuff," Flint Creek head coach Jason Ostler told MTN Sports. "I feel like this is the best decision to get as many kids on the field as we can. Whether they turn out to be starters, or kids that play one snap in blowout games. Anytime you can get a kid doing a sport, we're better off than them sitting at home doing nothing."

The Flint Creek co-op of the small, western Montana towns of Drummond and Philipsburg — both of which reside in Granite County — have co-op'd in football since 2014. The program won 8-Man football titles in 2017, 2018 and 2020 and were runners-up in 2021. In 2022, the Titans fielded 27 players and won the 8-Man South Central conference title and made a run to the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

Every three years a co-op is up for renewal with the MHSA, and Michelotti denied the request for Drummond-Philipsburg because their numbers were typically above the average roster size of 21. That led to Saturday's appeal by both schools at the board meeting.

After hearing arguments by Drummond superintendent Dean Phillips and Philipsburg superintendent Tom Gates — which included power points, stats and emotional testimonies — the MHSA board was left to make a decision. John Fitzgerald — the Red Lodge head football coach and Class B representative on the board — put forth the initial motion to renew the co-op for another year while also suggesting the idea of forming a committee that weighs the formation or dissolving of co-op's in the future.

Montana High School Association executive board members as well as supporters of the Flint Creek co-op of Drummond and Philipsburg gather at an MHSA board meeting on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 at the Holiday Inn Downtown in Missoula.

"We're not the biggest team, we're not even the second largest team, we're not the third largest team," Phillips said while showing roster numbers from 8-Man schools around the state. "Yes we do fall in the upper half of those teams, but again, roster size is for many different factors."

According to data provided during the meeting, Ennis led the pack in terms of roster size with 32. Belt had 29 players while Cascade had 28. The Drummond-Philipsburg co-op was tied with Simms with 27 on their roster.

The catalyst behind the argument to keep the co-op was the negative effects both communities could face, particularly Philipsburg. Without the co-op, the school is unsure if it's even able to field a team at all, even at the 6-Man level.

"You drive that drive from P-Burg to Drummond (27 miles) and understand the sacrifice they are making to go to practice, practice, drive back, do homework, that's a long night, that's a long season," Gates told the board. "Nothing is given, it is earned in the Granite County. We have built it. We are going to keep building it.

He concluded his opening statement with, "This will not hurt P-Burg, this will end P-Burg."

Among arguments presented, local economy impact was discussed, with the superintendents saying businesses would be impacted without those games, or if families opt to move out of Philipsburg for an opportunity to compete in sports elsewhere. Because of that, they said, participation opportunities would dwindle not just in football, but in other sports as well if players, and then families, left the community. That in turn affects town population, which hurts the school, athletics, and local businesses, they explained.

The motion by Fitzgerald was seconded by Doug Reisig, the board's vice president and state's superintendent's representative. He added that the goal of the new committee weighing co-op's in the future would be to, "develop a rubric as objective as it can possibly be to help in making decisions in the future as to the continuation or dissolution of co-op's."

That would include the Flint Creek co-op again after this approved renewal.

The motion was then put to a vote where it was voted in affirmation by all seven board members, which includes Fitzgerald, Reisig, Class AA rep Steve Thennis of Helena High, Class A rep Jim Hawbaker of Billings Central, Class C rep Luke Kloker of Fairview, MHSA board rep Krystal Zentner and governor's office rep Jimmy Patelis.

"It's emotional. Even in the room today you saw the passion of those particular individuals that were appealing and tears coming to their eyes and how important this is to their community," Michelotti said. "And from an MHSA standpoint, we understand that. We have rules to follow but we also are human beings and we understand that these are tough decisions to make."

The announcement was met with a round of applause by those in attendance, a moving scene for two communities that at one point were bitter rivals and angry at the idea of a co-op eight years ago.

"To be able to see the two communities come together to support each other, it would've been really easy for my kid to go to Drummond for practice versus clear up to Philipsburg, but I was 100% for it because I know Philipsburg schools needed the support of all of us," Brooks Phillips, a Drummond parent, said. "I think that it's been wonderful and amazing to have the two communities come together and work so hard together and then last night while we were playing basketball, fight like rivals."