Fans won’t find the Kelliher/Northome Mustangs on the football field this fall. Instead, they’ll cheer on the North Central Stars.

That’s the name of the new co-op that was formed between Kelliher/Northome and Littlefork-Big Falls over the offseason. The co-op, which is for football only, will last for the next two years.

Decreasing participation numbers caused the nine-man programs to merge, said co-head coach Steve Geerdes.

“It was basically the down numbers for the programs and trying to generate interest,” Geerdes said.

K/N had close to 20 players on its roster last fall. L-BF had even fewer players, numbering at only about 13, which forced the Vikings to forfeit a game due to lack of available players. The new combined roster boasts 28 players.

Geerdes, previously the Mustangs’ head coach, will share coaching duties with former L-BF head coach Dave Westerman. The team will play its first two home games in Littlefork and the last two in Kelliher. Kelliher will host any playoff games.

The co-op has been christened the North Central Stars and has adopted colors representing each school: royal blue for K/N and orange for L-BF.

“We had a bunch of different options,” Geerdes said regarding the name. “We had the kids vote and could never really find anything that seemed to fit. There was kind of maybe a little bit of nostalgia for the Minnesota North Stars. I think it was just really that people liked that, and it was simple and easy.”

The Littlefork-Big Falls School Board unanimously approved the co-op in February, though the decision was not one made lightly, school board members told the International Falls Journal.

Bigfork had also expressed interest in co-oping with L-BF, and a L-BF board member in January made a motion to explore a sports relationship with International Falls, according to the Journal. The motion failed.

Though Littlefork is only 21 miles from International Falls -- compared to a 58-mile jaunt from Kelliher -- school board members said they preferred merging with Kelliher/Northome due to the size similarity of the programs and an ability to retain more of their own identity. International Falls plays 11-man football in Class 3A, three classes above the nine-man tier L-BF and K/N competed in.

Littlefork-Big Falls players also prefered co-oping with Kelliher/Northome over International Falls.

Geerdes said scheduling practices has been the most difficult aspect, but that the merger has otherwise gone off without a hitch.

“Practice time has been limited,” Geerdes said, “but when you get the kids together, you would assume they went to kindergarten together. I mean they interact with each other great. This summer they went out camping, fishing and hunting together, so you would’ve thought they’d known each other their whole life.”

The same could be said for the newly combined coaching staff.

“We knew each other’s background a little bit,” Geerdes said. “But it’s been, I would say, a really smooth transition.”

North Central will field a nine-man team in Section 8 this season. K/N finished 7-2 and advanced to the Section 8 semifinals last year, where they fell 22-16 to Kittson County Central in an overtime heartbreaker. L-BF also progressed to the section semifinals last season, losing 56-6 to Mountain Iron-Buhl in the Section 7 playoffs to finish the year at 6-4.

The presence of 11 seniors should help the team through any growing pains.

“Our strength definitely is our senior leadership,” Geerdes said. “We return a lot of seniors from last year, from both schools, and they have a lot of starting experience.”

Geerdes cites halfbacks Matt Kennedy and Ben Jourdan, tight end Cam McRoberts, safety Anthony Cipriano, and offensive linemen Ethan Dreher and Ethan Koisti-Nistler as the team’s leaders.

“Those six have been our senior leaders,” Geerdes said. “And they’re split right down the middle: three from each school.”

Among the other top returners are junior fullbacks Jacob Pendergast and Tim Barthel, Geerdes said.

The co-op’s inaugural game couldn’t have gone much better, with the Stars routing Isle 60-16 on Aug. 30 in Littlefork -- and that was before a 54-0 steamrolling at Ely on Sept. 6.

Combining forces has not altered the goals for the new team.

“We have pretty high expectations,” Geerdes said. “Every year we expect to be contending for the section championship.”