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Duluth, Range face shrinking numbers in football

Bemidji's Ernie Heifort, left, makes a tackle during a playoff game against Duluth Central last season. Central's impending closure leaves Duluth with two high school football teams: Denfeld and?East. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

Duluth is the highest-profile city in the Northland to lose a high school football program this year, but it's not the only one.

Duluth Central's impending closure and its merger with Duluth Denfeld athletics this school year means one fewer public school in Duluth is offering football, a trend that's spreading to other areas of the region.

Nashwauk-Keewatin formed a co-op with Greenway in 2009, Cotton merged with AlBrook this fall, and Wrenshall and Mesabi Academy recently suspended their programs due to a lack of numbers.

At Tower-Soudan, coach Scott Chiabotti barely cobbled together enough bodies to play one more season of nine-man football.

"There's been a lot of tradition for all our athletics at Tower-Soudan and it's a huge source of community pride," Chiabotti said of the school that faces closure next spring after a St. Louis County school district referendum passed last fall that eventually will reduce the number of high schools from seven to four. "It's sad to see it go, but at this point our high school is getting so small that it's really hard to offer our students a lot of variety in our classes."

Sixteen players grades 9-12 -- including seven underclassmen -- came out to the Golden Eagles' first practice Monday, the same paltry total as the previous two years.

"We really need to stay healthy," said Chiabotti, in his 18th season with the program and one of two St. Louis County Conference activities directors. "We're a couple key injuries away from not finishing our season."

That's what happened at Wrenshall a year ago.

Only 13 players -- nearly three-fourths of them freshmen -- came out for the Wrens in 2009. After losing two seniors to injury in their lone game against Nevis, coach Jeremy Zywicki pulled the plug on the season.

"I couldn't justify putting all those young kids out on the field competing against those juniors and seniors, so we decided to forfeit the season," he said. "Hopefully, next year we'll be back to the varsity schedule."

Wrenshall, which has not experienced an overall drop in enrollment, will have a junior varsity team this season.

Last year's squad had only one member of the sophomore class (and he quit) and no seniors were expected to play if the school had fielded a team this year.

"We've had a couple of classes come through where we haven't had a lot of kids participate in athletics, and that's really hurt us," said Zywicki, a K-12 physical education/health teacher at Wrenshall.

The same situation existed at Mesabi East in 2004, when the Giants disbanded their varsity program for three years. But coach Steve Grams and athletic director Jim James, among others, were able to generate enough interest at the youth level to keep the program alive.

"We started with the seventh- and eighth-grade program, and then the ninth grade," Grams said. "We took it step-by-step every year and finally made the decision to field a team. Our record wasn't the best, but we didn't care about the record at that time."

Approximately 20 players returned in 2007 when Mesabi East reformed and the Giants finished with 17 healthy players the following year. Thirty-nine players came out for the squad this year, potentially creating another difficulty.

"It's a nice problem to have, but I told my AD, 'We only have 40 jerseys, so if anyone else comes out we're going to be short jerseys,' " Grams said.

Perhaps they could borrow a few from Wrenshall.

Due to tight fiscal budgets, Wrenshall, like many schools has needed to hold fundraisers to purchase essential athletic equipment. Zywicki said the football and volleyball teams raised more than $8,000 last year to buy new home and road uniforms.

"Unfortunately, we didn't get the opportunity to wear them too much last year and we won't be wearing them this year, either," he said.

Rick Weegman is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. The Duluth News Tribune and Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.