NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — PITY the North Dakota football fan. So many towns have consolidated their high school teams that it's hard to read the game program. Last year's Class B, nine-man championship was a classic. On one side was New England-Regent-St. Mary's. On the other: Page-Hope-Clifford-Galesburg. ``They called it, I think, the Hyphen Bowl,'' chuckles Roger Pommerer, superintendent of the New England public schools.
The game is a bittersweet sign of what's happening in North Dakota. Rural schools are losing so many students they can't field sports teams anymore. The athletic cooperatives have brought communities closer. But they're striking evidence that the rural Midwest has not yet stabilized.
``I know a couple of other schools in our conference have literally quit in the middle of the season because their numbers just ran out on them,'' says Mike Schatz, coach of the New England-Regent-St. Mary's team, which won the championship. ``They got a couple injuries to key people and they weren't capable of playing.''
Nationally, there's some evidence that rural population growth is picking up, according to the US Census Bureau. Here in North Dakota, the numbers tell a more familiar story of decline. Overall, the state has lost 5.3 percent of its public-school population - grades one through 12 - since 1979. Take away North Dakota's four largest cities, which saw a net increase in students, and the dropoff is 9.2 percent.
``We're losing farm families,'' says Mr. Pommerer of New England, where high school enrollments have fallen from 120 to 75 since the 1970s. The decline is even sharper at St. Mary's, the local Roman Catholic high school. ``Eventually, I think, the handwriting is on the wall for smaller schools in North Dakota.'' About a quarter of North Dakota's high schools have formed some type of athletic cooperative since 1982. Many school officials view them as the first step toward merging schools completely.
The decision to merge is never easy. Rural midwestern schools are tightly bound up with their town's identity. Shops may close, people leave. But the local school rallies and defines its community until it too closes because so many young people have left for the big city. A proposal to consolidate the state into 48 school districts was defeated in the last Legislative Assembly session.
``It was a super idea. But of course everyone thought: `Oh, if we get in with that big district, we're going to lose our school,''' says Gov. George Sinner (D). ``The fact is that it's what I think is going to have to be done.''
Surprisingly, the athletic co-ops have caused no such uproar. According to Bob King, executive director of the state High School Activities Association, the biggest complaint is from non-co-op towns. They suspect communities are merging programs just to get a better team.
New England Public formed its first football co-op in 1982 with Regent, a small farming community to the southeast that didn't have a high school football team. Last year, St. Mary's gave up its high school football program to join New England-Regent.
``For this community it worked really well,'' says Loran Urlacher, a senior football player from St. Mary's who had initial qualms about the idea. The football co-op has worked so well (undefeated last year, a 6-2 record and conference cochampion this year) that New England Public and St. Mary's have started a girls' basketball co-op this year. There is talk of merging boys' basketball.
``It overflows into other things besides football,'' says Dorothy Sheldon of Regent, whose son is the team's star quarterback. ``Usually the first basketball game of the season is Regent-New England and there isn't the rivalry that you see sometimes.''