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Gunnison football forced to drop varsity program

Still have full JV schedule

by Than Acuff

With low numbers and a young team, Gunnison High School has decided to pare down the football program to just JV for the 2018 season.

Gunnison Cowboy football teams strung together a series of successful seasons including trips to the state playoffs 2013 to 2015 under both coach Bob Howard and coach Shane Zimmerman.

The Cowboys missed a bid to the state playoffs in 2016 and heading into the 2017 season Zimmerman stepped down. Jarrod Hinton took over as the program’s third head coach in the past four years.

Hinton came in with eight years of coaching experience and stepped into a program with just 31 players.

“For a school this size you want to be around 40,” says Hinton. “That’s a good number because you can have a JV team also and that allows you to develop the underclassmen.”

The Cowboys struggled last year as a lot of their players were younger, outsized and overwhelmed by other varsity programs.

“We had a lot of 14- and 15-year-olds playing against 18- and maybe even 19-year-old kids,” says Hinton. “Football is a physical game and that’s a big difference.”

This year the numbers dropped even more as Hinton lost more players to graduation. As of this week during pre-season, he has 19 players out for the team, a majority of whom are still underclassmen. As a result, Hinton and Gunnison High School athletic director Dave Uhrig had to make a call and on August 1 they decided to just field a JV team.

“We decided that we didn’t want to stay in the cycle of young kids playing against upperclassmen,” explains Hinton. “We want to cultivate and develop the underclassmen.”

“It’s something we started talking about last season,” says Uhrig. “You want to give them a competitive experience. The kids deserve that.”

Uhrig added that it is not uncommon for programs to spend a season or two playing just JV, as both Glenwood Springs and Aspen have done that in the past.

“You just have to provide opportunities for the kids to be successful in their development, have fun and be safe,” says Uhrig.

There are a couple of theories about why the program has dropped in numbers. First and foremost is the fact that the team lost a number of players to graduation.

But while both of the youth football programs at Gunnison Parks and Recreation and Crested Butte Parks and Recreation have seen consistent numbers for the past 10 years, those numbers aren’t carrying on into the high school program.

One theory Uhrig and Hinton both share is coaching staff turnover. With three different coaches over the past four years, it’s hard to build consistency in the program and confidence with families.

“There’s been some turnover and the programs that are the best in the state probably have the same coaches for a long time,” says Uhrig.

“Any time you have new leadership, there’s going to be attrition,” adds Hinton. “And that’s all on me now, I’ll take that.”

Hinton also believes that other sports are pulling kids away and families are shying away from football because of the fear of concussions.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for kids in the valley and when you lose one kid to another sport and a couple more to something else, that’s 10 percent of your roster,” says Hinton. “And concussions are a big deal. That turns people away but I think it’s a perception thing. Football is on the forefront because we want to be and we want to take care of it right away.”

Things are looking up though. Hinton points out that once they announced the new JV only format, some players have been returning to the team.

“Once we went to a JV schedule, we picked up three or four more kids,” says Hinton.

Looking ahead, both Hinton and Uhrig hope to bring the varsity team back, but only when the kids and the program are ready.

“It’s kind of like a car,” says Uhrig. “It needs constant attention and if you don’t take care of it, it’s going to fall apart. The hope is that we’ll be able to have a varsity program at our school.”

“It’s a wait and see kind of thing,” adds Hinton. “Were going to develop the kids and the program before we say we’re going to have a varsity. We got to take care of our kids and make sure we’re putting them in a good situation.”

Right now the season for the Cowboys is slated to start Monday, September 10 with six games on the schedule. Hinton and Uhrig are still working the phones to get a couple more before then and throughout the season.

“There’s plenty of games out there, it’s just how do they fit in to our schedule and how far away are they,” explains Hinton. “Making it all work is a challenge.”

The Cowboys will still have a couple of night games to give the full experience of playing under the lights to their players, including the homecoming game on Friday, September 14 against Hotchkiss.

“That’ll be the ‘super bowl’ this year,” says Hinton.

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