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Cooperative athletic teams increasing from year to year

Woonsocket and Sanborn Central football players board the bus to return home after finishing practice in Wessington Springs Thursday afternoon. The three schools combine to form one football team, the Blackhawks, and split practices and games between the towns. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

LETCHER — For most high school students, days begin around 8 a.m. and conclude before 4 p.m. But not Jarid Bechen’s.

The junior from Letcher wakes up with the dawn and returns home with the sunset glowing in the window. What makes Bechen different from the average student at Sanborn Central is not the prowess he showcases in the athletic arena, but the commitment to doing what he loves most — playing football.

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Bechen plays football for the Wessington Springs/Woonsocket/Sanborn Central Blackhawks, a football co-op that began three years ago.

South Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Director Wayne Carney said cooperatives have increased over the years. This year there are seven more co-op teams — five football, one wrestling and one volleyball — than last year. New football co-ops this year in the area are Menno/Marion and Mount Vernon/Plankinton.

Like Bechen and the Blackhawks, students competing in sports on co-op teams must adjust to daily travel to participate.

He and the rest of his teammates ride the bus every day from Forestburg — where the school is located — to Wessington Springs, 25 miles away, to practice. Practice takes place from 4 to 5:30 p.m., and after practice, Bechen and others board the bus again for Forestburg. He then drives another 11 miles to reach his home in Letcher.

In total, Bechen spends about an hour and a half on the road to play the sport, but the time commitment doesn’t bother him.

“I am really glad that we co-opted,” he said. “If I didn’t travel, we wouldn’t have a football team, so it is definitely worth it. Plus with the traveling, I have made a lot of new friends out there.”

Bechen, who lives on a farm with his father, John, and his mother, Gayle, said getting back late does make it tough to help out on the farm.

“My dad takes care of the farm for the most part, but if I get home at 7 p.m., sometimes I can go out and help him,” Bechen said. “Other times, like when I get back at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., I miss helping out and just focus on getting my homework done.”

Blackhawks head coach Jason Kolousek, who lives and works in Wessington Springs, understands how difficult the travel schedule can be on his players. Yet, Kolousek and his coaches split up some of the practices between Forestburg, Wessington Springs and Woonsocket.

This season, the Blackhawks also play home games in those three places — two in Wessington Springs, one in Forestburg and one in Woonsocket.

“I come up with a practice schedule, and early in the school year, I send them to each coach,” Kolousek said. “I also have a bus license, so I can drive to the games or to each practice.”

Sanborn Central Superintendent Linda Whitney said the school districts share busing responsibilities. Whitney added she didn’t know the cost the districts pay for busing athletes to and from practice.

“I would imagine the trip only takes a couple gallons of gas a day,” she said. “We travel to Woonsocket and then the kids go from there to Wessington Springs.”

Each school’s athletic director makes a schedule of who drives what bus to which game.

Friday, Wessington Springs/Woonsocket/Sanborn Central (3-1) played another cooperative team in Platte-Geddes/Dakota Christian. For that game, the Blackhawks players traveled from Forestburg to Woonsocket and on to Wessington Springs, before heading to Platte.

“This is not three different schools on the field. This is one football program,” Kolousek said. “The kids live where they live. One thing that makes this all work is the kids’ and parents’ positivity.”

Co-op way of life

This year, there are 30 cooperative football teams and 16 cooperative volleyball teams.

Carney said there are more football co-ops than volleyball because the numbers required to play football are higher.

“I don’t think that it’s a secret to anybody that some of the smaller towns have to co-op because of numbers,” Carney said. “I think that is the purpose of the co-op. It is supposed to allow our member schools that don’t have enough students to participate the opportunity to play somewhere.

“In most cases, the schools don’t co-op to form a power. They co-op to give their students a chance to participate in events that they want to compete in.”

A new volleyball co-op this year is the Kimball/White Lake WiLdKats. The WiLdKat volleyball team comes together after both schools spent their previous existence as rivals.

Kimball and White Lake are co-opted in girls’ and boys’ basketball, football, track and field and wrestling. Both schools still maintain separate boys’ and girls’ cross country and golf squads.

“We were one of the last programs left,” Kimball/White Lake head volleyball coach Sarah Deffenbaugh said, adding co-ops are the future of small-school athletics. “We decided as a school district to consolidate pretty much everything. … I think numbers were an issue, but I also think it was a natural step.”

For 11 years, Deffenbaugh coached the Kimball volleyball team before taking over the co-op squad this season. In its final season, the Kimball Kiotes finished 4-19, while White Lake won the District 10B championship and finished 21-7.

In its first season together, the WiLdKats volleyball team is 6-4. The team will be in action today in a tournament in Kimball.

“What makes this an easy transition is that we have been co-opted in basketball and track for the last few years, so the girls all know each other,” Deffenbaugh said. “It is a lot of fun for me to get to know all the girls and watch us become one unified team.”

First-year success

One team making waves in its first year on the gridiron is the Menno/Marion football team.

A year ago, Menno/Marion co-head coach Jason Pasco said the two schools played an amazing game against each other.

The schools, which met on Oct. 5. 2012, played a close game, which Menno won 40-38. In that game, Menno wide receiver Dylan Lehr had three catches for 90 yards and three touchdowns, while Marion quarterback Nick Gortmaker rushed for 67 yards.

Today, the schools are on the same field as teammates and not adversaries, helping the team to a 3-1 record.

“With the co-op, our programs went from having numbers in the teens to having thirty-something kids,” said Pasco, whose team is ranked fifth in Class 9AA in a tie with Deubrook Area and Parker. “Our practices are a lot better now. It is amazing what having good numbers can do for you. We have been able to manage our numbers really well. We even have junior varsity games, which we didn’t have before.”

Pasco is co-head coach along with former Marion head coach Todd Obele. Obele runs the defense, while Pasco controls the offense.

“Coach Obele is a great coach,” Pasco said. “It makes it a lot easier to coach when you have someone that is able to help you out. Our coaches have done a good job, but the fact of the matter is we just have some really good kids at both schools.”

The latest applications for potential co-ops in football can be approved at the January SDHSAA board of directors meeting. Carney said there were no new football co-ops proposed as of August. Volleyball, basketball and soccer teams have until the April meeting to receive approval for newly formed cooperatives.

Carney added any school that wishes to dissolve a co-op must do so 30 days before the necessary board meeting.