PARKER — The Poudre High School football team is throwing an impromptu dance party on a Thursday night.
Rap music reverberates off the walls of the visitors’ locker room at EchoPark Stadium as players bounce to the beat while changing out of uniforms and into street clothes.
Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” is the soundtrack to Poudre’s 24-7 conference road win at Legend High School.
Swagger flows through the room.
Forty minutes later, the energy is gone.
Some players are curled up in their seats on the yellow school bus. Others are half asleep with their head on the seat in front of them.
At 10 p.m., the bus is still on the south side of Denver, at least 90 minutes from home.
Such is the norm now that the Colorado High School Activities Association has decided to drastically change football conferences. The result is players missing more classroom time, parents deciding if getting off work early is worth it to see their kids play, and teams traveling significantly farther to new conference opponents that few fans recognize. And it all leaves Poudre School District wondering where the additional travel expenses will come from.
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When the bus arrives back at Poudre more than nine hours later, parents idle in the dark parking lot waiting to take players home. For some families from rural areas, that means another hour-plus drive after the bus trip, which leads to a quick turnaround the next day for school, practice or a non-varsity level game.
“Less than six hours of sleep for a teenager is not really reasonable,” said Kim Yung, the mom of Poudre junior lineman Cole Yung. “There’s several burdens. Working parents don’t get off work in time to get through Denver traffic at rush hour to be at a game in time. The cost point of getting down there and eating out isn’t reasonable for some people. Even if the parents don’t come, somebody has to leave their younger children or take their sleeping children out at 11:40 at night to pick them up and drive them back home (from school).”
CHSAA’s new top-down alignment (called the “waterfall system”) has Class 5A teams sharing conferences based on computer-generated rankings from the past two seasons. Teams are given a seed 1-6, and one of each seed is placed into a conference. The drop from 32 playoff teams to 16 led to the change in which regional location isn’t considered when grouping schools within a conference.
Henry Waterman, the assistant commissioner at CHSAA in charge of football, said balancing conferences was necessary because of the revised playoff format.
If the old conferences had been kept under the new 16-team playoff system, the concern was a power conference — like the former Centennial League shared by Cherry Creek, Grandview, Valor Christian, Eaglecrest, Cherokee Trail and Overland — would have meant a possible state-title contender would miss out on the playoffs. The change only affects 5A football.
Fort Collins’ three 5A football schools — Poudre, Fossil Ridge and Rocky Mountain — were part of the Front Range League until this year. Splitting the local teams up has forced them to play each other in the early weeks of nonconference play with the season in its infancy.
In the old FRL, the costliest road trip was typically to Fairview in Boulder. The tab for that usually ran $600 to $800, while early conference trips this year to Legend (in Parker) and Castle View (Castle Rock) and have run between $1,300 and $1,500.
“By the time we get to the end of this year and look at the true costs, I would guess probably double for transportation costs,” PSD athletic director Russ McKinstry said. “If the waterfall process for football stays in place, the long-range impact is going to be pretty significant on our athletic budget.”
Poudre received the toughest travel slate. The Impalas are the northernmost team in CHSAA’s 5A classification and share a conference with Fountain-Fort Carson, the southernmost 5A team, located 15 miles south of Colorado Springs. Those schools are 151 miles apart, and the Trojans had to miss nearly an entire day of school for a 4 p.m. Friday kickoff in Fort Collins.
“I don’t like getting kids out of class. It’s not good for anybody,” Poudre coach Marty McVicker said. “It wasn’t fair to Fountain-Fort Carson, but it was the only thing we could do to play them at 4.”
Only two of the Impalas’ five conference games are on the road, but they’ll travel 334 miles for those. Poudre traveled 214 miles last season in three road games in its Front Range League schedule; one of those away games was against Rocky Mountain in Fort Collins.
And this is the easy season for Poudre. Next year, when home and road conference games flip, Poudre will travel 652 miles for its three conference road games.
Fort Collins High School is in Class 4A, which still has conferences primarily based on regions. The Lambkins will travel 124 miles for Northern Conference play this season. They share the same league with Windsor, Mountain View (Loveland), Greeley Central, Skyline (Longmont) and Monarch (Louisville).
Rocky Mountain will travel 336 miles in conference play this season and 416 next year. Fossil Ridge will travel 332 this year and 246 the next. The mileage, combined with the need to fight Interstate 25 and Denver traffic, means most road games will cause students to miss the final class of the day.
Travel is also making it more difficult for fans of local 5A teams to see their teams on the road. Likewise, the visitor section at French Field is a ghost town these days, leaving the most important games of the season without an atmosphere to match.
The visitor’s gate from Fountain-Fort Carson fans was $300 (50 fans paying $6 per adult) for its game against Poudre. Eaglecrest fans paid $266 (45 fans) for a game against Rocky Mountain. The visitor’s gate for crosstown games averaged $2,500, and Horizon, a former FRL opponent, brought in $1,254 for a nonconference game against Rocky Mountain. Ticket sales are placed into the PSD athletic budget, so the reduced gate revenue further exacerbates budget issues created by increased bus costs.
“Travel is a piece of it, but also a lack of a desire to travel,” Rocky Mountain coach Mark Brook said. “Your students aren’t going to know the team you’re playing against and the schedules are going to change every two years, so they’ll never get to know those teams because they’ll see them once when they come to Fort Collins.”
Before this season, Fossil Ridge had never played four of its five conference opponents, the lone exception being Horizon. Poudre has never played four of its five conference foes. The other is Lakewood, a team the Impalas played once in the late 1960s or early ’70s, McVicker said. Rocky Mountain has played Eaglecrest, Ralston Valley and Arvada West, but not since 2011.
Most teams have scheduled many of their old conference foes in nonconference play.
“I know we’re in the search of a perfect system, and I know people are working at it and throwing out ideas. We’ve benefited few at the expense of many, in my opinion,” Fossil Ridge coach Zak Bigelow said. “It makes sense on paper, I just don’t like it as a pure, historical traditionalist in myself. I would rather in the beginning of the season you’re traveling, trying things out, scheduling your nonconference, then your rivalry games are at the end of the season.”
One of the hidden troubles has come at the non-varsity levels. JV and C-team games are usually scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, but with the distance between schools, that means the bus leaves Fort Collins before 7 a.m.
Bigelow says he’s had parents of non-varsity players tell him their kid can’t come to Friday night’s game because of how early they have to be out the door to play Saturday.
“I totally understand the reason why,” Bigelow said. “Don’t we want team camaraderie and don’t we want that team to go to the game and support the varsity?”
The conferences are in place for this season and next, the traditional two-year cycle for CHSAA. After that, they’ll be reevaluated, Waterman said. The task of trying to find a system that creates a balanced regular season with the strongest possible 5A postseason is ongoing.
“The schools will, like they did this time, vote on if this is the system they want,” Waterman said. “There is no perfect system out there … The reality is there’s always going to be some people that aren’t going to be happy with the system. We just have to look at what’s best for the greater good and not just the individual. It is a challenge.”
For now, the local teams are taking on the new challenge of new foes and late nights.
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As the Impalas stumbled off the bus after their win at Legend, players dragged their equipment down the sidewalk and into the school.
They quickly went through the process to check helmets and pads back into their lockers before the team gathered outside the school for a postgame tradition.
The Victory Bell sits atop its stand 12 feet off the ground on the south side of the building awaiting its customary ringing, the signal of a win for the Impalas.
Running back J.T. Erickson claws his way up the stone facing as the clock inches toward midnight.
“OK, let’s go home.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
- $600-800: The travel cost of the most expensive Front Range League trip, according to PSD.
- $1,300-1,500: The travel of road trips so far to Legend (Parker) and Castle View (Castle Rock), according to PSD.
- $2,500: Average made from tickets sold in road stand at French Field for crosstown football games this season.
- $266: Amount made from tickets sold in road stand for Mount Wilson Conference game between Eaglecrest and Rocky Mountain.
- $300: Amount made from tickets sold in road stand for Mt. Lincoln Conference game between Fountain-Fort Carson and Poudre.
- $1,100: Amount made from tickets sold in road stand for Northern Conference game between Mountain View (Loveland) and Fort Collins.
- $1,254: Amount made from tickets sold in road stand nonconference game between Horizon (Thornton) and Rocky Mountain, former FRL foes.
Fort Collins football team’s conference travel
- Fort Collins: 160 miles in 2015, 124 miles in 2016, 152 miles in 2017
- Fossil Ridge: 202 miles in 2015, 332 miles in 2016, 246 miles in 2017
- Poudre: 214 miles in 2015, 334 miles in 2016, 652 miles in 2017
- Rocky Mountain: 309 miles in 2015, 336 miles in 2016, 416 miles in 2017