“I think it was successful all around”
by Than Acuff
After two seasons of JV games, numbers are back up and the Gunnison high school football team is set to return to a robust varsity schedule next year.
In 2017 Jarrod Hinton came into the Gunnison Valley and took over the Gunnison high school football program. Gunnison Cowboy football teams strung together a series of successful seasons, including trips to the state playoffs from 2013 to 2015 under both coach Bob Howard and coach Shane Zimmerman. But Hinton was the third head coach in four years and the program was struggling.
Hinton came to Gunnison with eight years of coaching experience and when he started workouts that August he had 31 players and a robust varsity schedule on tap. While he knew it was going to be a tough season, the schedule was set and his team struggled to a 0-9 finish.
“Our largest class was the senior class but there was a pretty big gap in-between so we were playing freshmen and sophomores against varsity opponents,” recalls Hinton. “It was just not ideal.”
Hinton and Gunnison high school athletics director Dave Uhrig got together and decided the most reasonable option for the two years following that 2017 season was to drop the program down to play a JV schedule.
With the large senior class graduating and some negative connotations to playing only JV games, the numbers last year were down to 19 players.
“There was a knee-jerk reaction of disappointment,” says Hinton. “People around football carry an extreme sense of pride and they always have that vision for playoffs and a state run.”
Nevertheless, Hinton had his sights set more long-term.
“We wanted the kids to have a positive experience, get numbers up and build from there,” explains Hinton, “and try to get them better at football along the way.”
The team finished its first season of JV games 4-5. Hinton believes that it was a success.
“Morale was exactly what we wanted and we stayed safer and kept kids in the program,” says Hinton.
Following the 2018 season with just 19 players, numbers were up to 29 for their second season of JV games, including four players from Crested Butte: Jojo Cerio, Rocky and Nico Marchitelli and Price Smolen. The Cowboys finished the year 6-2, including a varsity game against Hotchkiss at the Gunnison Homecoming.
“I think it was successful all around,” says Hinton. “We had increased buy-in and confidence in what we were doing. We were able to run plays the way they’re meant to be run and we got way better at executing the basics.”
With the Colorado High School Activities Association requiring a two-year cycle for schedules, Gunnison is now in a place to return to varsity play next year in the Western Slope 1A league against familiar opponents from the past such as Hotchkiss, Olathe, Paonia and Meeker. More important, with kids finishing up two successful years of development as a JV program, numbers are looking strong for the coming years. The team is losing six seniors, including Cerio, but there were 14 eighth graders on the Gunnison middle school team so Hinton is hoping to get as many as 35 for the 2020 season, which will include four varsity home games Friday nights under the lights.
“I think we have the capacity to keep growing,” says Hinton. “Kids are attracted to what we are doing and because of the successful year this season, we may pull in a couple of kids out of the hallways in Gunnison and Crested Butte. We will take as many as we can get—you can’t have too many.”
Bigger numbers, especially in the younger classes, does have its trials though.
“Now we have to figure out a way to get the younger kids time and experience in games without throwing them to the wolves with a varsity schedule,” says Hinton. “If we can get up to 35 kids, you can send half of them to a sub-varsity game to play.”
While Hinton believes high school athletes should play multiple sports, he has no plans for spring football other than a middle school camp in May. There will be summer football camps available and then the kids return to the season on August 10.