A BRAVE NEW ERA
The city rivalry game is no more. Grand Junction won’t play Central on the gridiron for at least two years, maybe longer.
The Grand Valley rivalry game between Central and Fruita Monument? Same thing. Gone.
Grand Junction will still play Fruita, but the only thing that will be on the line will be pride. No conference implications whatsoever after both teams got placed in a Front Range conference, but not the same one.
Such is life in the brave new football world wrought by realignment at the end of last fall, which marked the fall of the Southwestern Conference.
When Central’s football futility the past four years made the Warriors eligible to move down a classification to Class 3A, they made the move. That left four teams in the SWC, and it made no sense for the conference to continue to exist.
So, goodbye SWC, we’ll miss you. Sort of. Actually, not really.
Wax nostalgic all you want, the SWC became an imperfect world when Grand Junction and Fruita Monument became Class 5A football programs. The 5A/4A mix of the five-team SWC was not ideal for football, especially for the two 5A teams, which stood to be penalized in the 5A power rankings for playing three 4A teams.
Any argument against disbanding the SWC probably included the cost of additional travel.
Like Junction and Fruita, Montrose is headed to a Front Range conference, the Foothills Conference, which otherwise consists of Colorado Springs-area teams. If it seems like those three teams now have to travel a ridiculous amount, that’s true. But it’s not new.
Each played as many Front Range teams as it could in the nonconference portion of its schedule. So, the travel is about the same.
The scheduling, on the other hand, is a lot easier.
District 51 Athletic Director Paul Cain recalls his days as the A.D. at Central and the nightmare that was finding Front Range teams that would play a Western Slope team in football.
“My last few years at Central, I’d make 300 to 400 calls to complete a schedule,” Cain said.
Lyle Wright, the athletic director at Montrose, said scheduling became so much easier for the Indians because all of the Front Range teams are now built into the schedule, and the travel is equitable.
The former challenge of scheduling nonconference games is now a breeze. Grand Junction and Fruita Monument are willing to play the Indians because Montrose is an elite Class 4A program, and each 5A team can play one 4A team without penalty in the 5A power rankings.
Montrose then can look to the southwest and get Durango on its schedule with no difficulty.
Wright no longer has to deal with Front Range teams that understandably balk at a home-and-home contract because they don’t want to shell out the $3,000 to $4,000 it costs to travel across the mountains for a football game. Nor do the Front Range teams want to endure a long road trip in which one of 4A’s elite programs is likely to kick their butt.
So, the former SWC athletic directors are liking the new setup. And the coaches are singing a similar tune.
Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens is thrilled with the realignment. He wants the Tigers to be recognized as an elite 5A program, which had been a hard sell when Grand Junction was playing several 4A teams each year.
“If we’re going to play 5A football, then we want to play 5A football,” Owens said.
The Colorado High School Activities Association looks at the enrollments of its football programs every two years and makes adjustments. Hence, last fall/winter’s football realignment and goodbye to the SWC, which is sounding a lot like, “Good riddance.”
But, let’s play the “What if?” game. What if Central has enough success in 3A that it must go back to Class 4A? What if Palisade adds just a few more bodies to its 4A-level enrollment and doesn’t get the exemption it got to remain in 3A during this two-year cycle?
Could the SWC return two years from now? Could the annual football schedule include matchups with all four District 51 schools?
If Junction and Fruita remain the only 5A schools in the SWC, Owens said he’ll advocate against its return. For good reason.
But, what if there are four 4A schools on the Western Slope — don’t forget Durango — and the SWC doesn’t reform, where does that leave them?
Cain said he’s given no thought to the idea of an SWC rebirth. Rather, he said, “I’m just going to wait and see.”
He means that in the broadest context, because there’s more than easier Front Range scheduling to consider.
For one, he said CHSAA is looking at changing its philosophy on classifications.
Then, there are things like conference meetings. Will the Western Slope teams in Front Range conferences always be expected to travel to Denver or Colorado Springs?
Wait and see, we must.
Then, we’ll know whether that goodbye was a precursor to a “welcome back” or the last we saw of the SWC.