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Gogebic Miners explore move to 8-player football

BESSEMER –All signs point to football in Gogebic County moving to the eight-player format. Whether or not the Gogebic Miners’ co-op remains intact is the bigger question.

Bessemer’s board of education decided to look at moving to eight-player football at its Monday night meeting. The district did not discuss or make any motion to leave the three-team co-op with Ironwood and Wakefield-Marenisco.

“Our conclusion right now is that playing 11-man football is not a viable option,” Bessemer board president Jim Partanen told the Daily Globe after the meeting.

The district will be looking at alternatives.

“I guess it’s to start the ball rolling and see what can be done,” Partanen said.

Ironwood athletic director Dan Martinson said he told the board of education there Monday night that they will be moving to eight-player football for next season. How that looks is the question.

“Whether that is as a co-op program with Bessemer, Wakefield or just as Ironwood still needs to be decided,” Martinson told the Daily Globe. “I know that at this point Ironwood is open to exploring all options I would expect things to be sorted out relatively soon.”

Athletic directors from each school met last week to look at the projected numbers and discuss potential options. Martinson said everyone there agreed a change was needed.

Ironwood joined the co-op in 2017 and the Miners won three games that year. However, the team hasn’t won any games in the three seasons since, including the virus-shortened 2020 campaign.

Despite having three schools together and one of the largest combined enrollments in the West-PAC, Bessemer expects the total number of players in grades nine through 12 won’t hit 30 for the 2021 season, according to information put together by board member Dick Matrella. In past years, the Miners have fielded around 40 players.

While the Miners’ varsity team had a lot of seniors in 2020, they were unable to keep a JV team going. Next year, the concern is having Gogebic Miners’ freshmen and sophomores going against the other team’s varsity juniors and seniors, Martinson said.

“That scenario raises legitimate safety concerns and also further hurts numbers because parents are reluctant to let their kids play in this situation,” Martinson said.

The ADs agreed eight-player football was the best option, he said. The Bessemer board accelerated that action separately Monday night.

Sticking with the three-school co-op as an eight-player team was discussed by the athletic directors even though the co-op’s enrollment would be too high for the team to be eligible for the MHSAA postseason.

“It’s not the best scenario to not be able to make the playoffs, but I guess our thought is we’d rather be playing some type of football than nothing at all,” Wakefield-Marenisco athletic director Mark Lane said.

Fielding an eight-player team individually will be difficult for any of the schools.

For Wakefield-Marenisco, it is not a viable option, unless something drastically changes, Lane said.

“If we all went our separate ways, I don’t know how that would look numbers wise,” he said. “For God’s sakes, we’re struggling to play 11-man between the three schools.”

Part of the challenge isn’t just the size of the student body but their interest in playing football.

“We have tons of boys out for basketball,” Lane said. “We just can’t get enough for football for whatever reason.”

Bessemer may or may not be able to.

“Based on the kids that have consistently played football through the years, it would be tough,” athletic director Mark Movrich said. “Based on the number of kids that could be playing football, the answer would be yes.”

Ironwood wouldn’t have been able to field an eight-player team in the 2020 season, Martinson said. They had nine players on the Miners with four on varsity and five on junior varsity.

But Martinson expects a school of Ironwood’s size could pull it off if necessary.

“I know we have a bigger eighth grade class, but we’ll also have to try to recruit in our building kids who played previously and haven’t come out the last couple of years,” Martinson said. “Whatever way it goes, I hope it’s beneficial for all our kids so we can get out there and compete and make it fun.”

The co-op was moved into the smaller division of the West-PAC in time for the 2020 season despite having one of the highest enrollments in the conference. The move was thought to give the Miners more competitive games, and that may have been the case, but all but one of the team’s games were crossover games against the bigger schools anyway.

Most of the games against smaller teams wound up not being played because of the delayed start to the season and in-season cancelations due to the virus.

This isn’t the first time there have been issues with the co-op.

Bessemer looked at either pulling out of the co-op entirely or merging with just Wakefield-Marenisco before the 2019 season, as discussion focused on the level of competition they faced in the large division, but they decided to stick with the Miners’ co-op.

The West PAC Iron Division will potentially lose Norway next season as well. The Knights anticipate moving to eight-player competition in 2021, joining the West division of the Great Lakes eight-player conference.

Bark River-Harris, Gwinn, Ishpeming (which didn’t compete in varsity games in 2020), Manistique and West Iron join the Miners and Norway in the Iron Division.

The Copper Division consists of Iron Mountain, Houghton, Hancock, L’Anse, Westwood, Negaunee and Calumet.

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