Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-story series by the Burlington Free Press on the current state of high school and youth football in Vermont, how it reached this point and what can be done to sustain the sport.
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Not all that long ago, Mount St. Joseph Academy lorded over the world of Vermont high school football. The golden-domed Mounties, the state’s very own Notre Dame in miniature, had just capped an unlikely run to the program’s 17th Division I state championship — more than any other team.
The Catholic school’s cross-town rivalry with Rutland High School was arguably the biggest game of the year in the state. In any sport. Since the mid-1930s, the annual gridiron clash split the football-mad city into two for a week each autumn.
“It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys, so to speak,” said longtime Rutland coach Mike Norman.
Today, that past seems hard to fathom.
The Mounties haven’t reached the playoffs since that 2005 crown. Norman’s Raiders haven’t faced MSJ since its drop from Division I to Division III after the 2009 season. And after joining forces with Poultney High School the past two seasons to form a cooperative team, there’s a very good chance the tradition-rich program’s attempt to stand on its own this fall might not get off the ground.
“I don’t know if there will ever be a MSJ-Rutland game again,” MSJ coach Tucker Peterson said. “I’m still happy we have a team and a program and are staying loyal to it.”
The hard truth: Mount St. Joseph is not alone.
Participation numbers are down across the state. School enrollment is dropping even more fiercely. The high-water mark has passed, the peak is behind us. High school football in Vermont, at least as we knew it to be, faces a crossroads, and the path it takes in the coming years could ultimately decide the sport’s future.
How did we get here? What could that future hold? The Free Press interviewed more than two dozen people involved in the sport — from coaches and players to parents and officials — to assemble a clearer picture.