News Obits School/Sports Community Opinion

— There was little doubt about what Decatur wanted.

It wanted to play football.

“Our community has made it very clear,” Coach Bill Brockert said early in pre-season camp. “They’ve played with 13, 14 or 15 guys before, so if that’s all we have, they expect us to have a football team.

“We’re trying to do the best we can. If the community wants a football team, which they do, we’re going to try and do our best to put one together.”

Unfortunately, a spirited effort can only take you so far. Reality can be a cruel thing in a small town like Decatur.

Despite its program’s best efforts, there simply weren’t enough kids committed to playing football this year. So, on Aug. 13, Athletic Director Bobby King had to punt away the 2009 season.

Having to cancel the season devastated King, a former football player at Little Rock Mc-Clellan. He knew what it meant to the handful of kids who were still showing up for practice and to the coaches who tried so hard to make it work.

“We knew this was coming,” King said a day after the decision was announced. “We knew this was going to be tough.

I haven’t slept in several days, and I feel really bad about it, being an ex-player and ex-coach. It was a very hard decision.

“It’s not like we haven’t given it our all.”

King wasn’t the only one struggling with such a decision.

Decatur became the third Class 2A school in Arkansas to cancel its season because of an insufficient number of players.

Hartford, like Decatur a member of the 4-2A Conference, called off its season earlier in the summer. Hector, a member of the 5-2A Conference, canceled its season the same week as Decatur.

Two other 4-2A Conference members, Hackett and Western Yell County, were just a few injuries or defections away from having to call it quits, it looks like they will scrape by.

It’s become an all too familiar problem for the 4-2A Conference. This is the second time in the past six years Decatur and Hartford have had to cancel their season. Decatur also canceled its season in 2003, and Hartford did it in 2005. Johnson County Westside canceled its season in 2003.

Class 2A schools often have problems coming up with the numbers to field football teams. Enrollments are small, so there is little leeway when it comes to losing players.

Sometimes, success in one sport can mean trouble for the next. That’s the case at Hackett, where the basketball team made a run last season to the semifinals of the Class 2A state tournament. Several players who the coaches had expected to go out for football decided to skip the football season to prepare for basketball instead.

Football Coach Eddie Ray understands their decision, but there is no question it leaves his team in a tough position. He’s been going through drills with a small number of players.

“I understand it. There’s a core group of them, and they felt like they had a chance to win a state title in basketball,” Ray said. “But if I had them on the football field it would help us a lot.”

Western Yell Coach Phil Collins understands the frustration as well. His career dates back to the 1960s, and he has won atbig schools like Russellville and has turned around fortunes at small districts throughout central and Arkansas and Missouri.

The Western Yell job has been especially challenging. The Wolverines went 0-10 last season in their first year under Collins, and depth was such a problem that Western Yell had to finish a 42-0 loss against Greenland with only nine players.

One player couldn’t make the game that week because he was attending a funeral. Some skipped the game because of other commitments, and first-half injuries cut the number of available players to nine in the second half.

“That could wipe you out really quick,” said Collins, who is hoping to be able to suit up 15 or 16 players for the season opener this year. “It’s irritating, but there’s not much you can do about it.

“We have some guys who have worked hard all year and done everything that we asked them to do, and then others that are here today, gone tomorrow.”

Decatur’s entire school district enrollment is roughly 500, so the coaches already had their work cut out for them with so few students to choose from. Brockert said he “beat the bushes” during the offseason, trying to coax more students into joining the team after the Bulldogs went 1-8 last season.

He and his two assistant coaches made like telemarketers, calling prospective players and trying to get them to join the team. King pitched in as well by mailing letters to parents, but few responded.

When fall practices opened, it was obvious it was going to be difficult fielding a team. Brockert said many of the students were on vacation when practices began, some had jobs, and others simply couldn’t make it to practice consistently because of transportation issues.

It hasn’t helped that Decatur’s enrollment has declined in recent years. Around 2004, whispers about consolidation prompted almost 100 students to head for nearby Gentry.

More fled in the past year when the state had to step in as the school district’s budget deficit worsened and reached crisis mode.

Then, five returning players were ruled ineligible because of grades, just another body blow Decatur couldn’t absorb.

When no more than seven players showed up for early fall practices, about half of what the team needed to play, King knew the decision he dreaded to make had to be made.

“If we would have had those five, that would have given us 12,” King said. “Maybe the trigger wouldn’t have been pulled and maybe we could have waited until school started. Then we might have had three or four more.”

That didn’t happen, though, and Decatur was forced to cancel its season again.

The Bulldogs still plan to play junior high football this fall and want to return to playing at the senior high level in 2010.

Of course, that won’t do the seven players who were showing up for practice any good, particularly this week, when they were supposed to open the season against Southeast High School of Cherokee, Kan.

Friday night lights will shine throughout northwest Arkansas, but it’ll be dark at Bulldog Stadium.

“It’s been a tough road,” King said. “I feel like I’ve been beaten on and beaten on and beaten on. You fight back and fight back and can’t make any progress.

“Decatur’s been hit hard in the past six years.”

Sports, Pages 6 on 10/07/2009

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