CHSAA looking at ways to help struggling football programs and address rise of forfeits

Thomas Jefferson Fort Morgan

(Dustin Price/dustinpricephotography.com)

AURORA — As preemptive football forfeits and suspension of programs grow more common this season, the CHSAA office is taking steps address reasons behind the causes.

The most common reason for both of these issues is a lack of available players on a roster. Sometimes, this is a temporary problem caused by injuries and ineligibility. Other times, it is simply a lack of athletes interested in playing the sport.

This season, six teams dropped their varsity team before the season. A number of forfeits have occurred this season due to low roster count. In most cases, the programs with low numbers are struggling this season, or have struggled in the past.

Just in the past few weeks, The Pinnacle forfeited its game to Strasburg; Dolores to Centauri; and Sheridan to Manual. The last one had been Manual's homecoming game.

This week, Pine Creek and Palmer mutually agreed to play a modified game, as allowed under NFHS rules. The two schools, their administration and coaches, worked together to find a positive outcome that avoided a forfeit, even as Palmer had just 15 players available to play in the game.

But this all speaks to a larger issue within high school football in Colorado: There is a growing divide among the top-level teams and those that struggle — at the most basic level in terms of number of players, but also in terms of risk minimization, and even to a lack of culture and diminished connection within the community.

This had been glaringly highlighted by the waterfall alignment used in Class 5A football in 2016 and 2017, which saw a number of mercy-rule games during league play late in the season. That led to the creation of a 10-team league in 5A which grouped together like programs that had been struggling. The theory behind that league was the group similar teams together, allowing them to compete.

And that league is working. Smoky Hill, which had the lowest winning percentage of any 5A team from 2014-17, is currently 8-0 and on track to make the playoffs. Denver East has gone from 2-8 in 2017 to 6-2 in 2018. Westminster, which was 2-18 over the past two seasons, is 6-2.

More importantly, these teams are no longer involved in 40-point losses, and roster size is growing in most of the programs.

It's a concept which is gaining steam in other classifications, and could very possibly find a home in 4A — or another classification — for the 2020-22 cycle.

Already, discussions about football's next alignment are underway. And that alignment will have more tools to work with, thanks to the passage of a bylaw earlier this year which will allow more factors outside of enrollment to be considered when creating classes.

Those classes will ultimately be presented to the Classification, Appeals and League Organizing Committee (CLOC) early next year, following a large amount of input from the CHSAA membership at every level.

So what's that mean for football? Well, for starters, nothing is off the table.

The most likely scenario is that similar programs will likely be placed together, meaning that a team that has been struggling may move down a class, or a team that has been ultra-successful may be moved up. Schools will be requesting this via a CLOC declaration form that was sent out this week.

Another potential scenario involves the creation of an eighth classification — 6A. That could mean pulling the top eight-to-16 teams from around the state and grouping them together, which would help to rebalance the rest of the classifications.

It could mean something else entirely.

"We are looking at all options to give kids across the state an opportunity to participate in situations that can help these programs grow," said CHSAA assistant commissioner Bud Ozzello, who oversees football. "We're going to look at things outside the traditional structure."

Through these changes to classifications, the CHSAA office should be able to better address competitive equity, which, in turn, should help programs grow.

Ultimately, the goal behind this approach is to help football thrive at all levels in the state.