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Freeman Academy, Marion join forces in athletic co-op

FREEMAN -- A pair of neighboring schools low on participation numbers have teamed up to participate for the next three seasons. Freeman Academy and Marion agreed to a cooperative deal for athletics starting this fall. The new co-op is called the ...

FREEMAN - A pair of neighboring schools low on participation numbers have teamed up to participate for the next three seasons.

Freeman Academy and Marion agreed to a cooperative deal for athletics starting this fall. The new co-op is called the Freeman Academy/Marion Bearcats, a combination of their previous nicknames. On their own, Freeman Academy was the Bobcats and Marion was the Bears.

The two schools will co-op in boys' and girls' sports in basketball, golf, cross-country and track and field, along with girls' volleyball. Marion will continue to co-op with Menno for football and in wrestling with Freeman Public. Also, Marion and Freeman Public will both be part of the Freeman Academy boys' soccer team.

Freeman Academy and Marion had been struggling in recent years with fielding teams, and both had discussions with other schools prior to joining each other.

Marion had been talking with Parker, Freeman Public and Canistota. Freeman Academy had discussed co-oping with Freeman Public.

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After neither of the small Class B schools could find a partner, discussions began to take place with each other, agreeing to join forces through the 2018-19 school year. The two schools are 14 miles apart.

"It was just kind of a mutual respect thing right away and we had an agreement as to the direction we wanted to go and we were both in the position of kind of low participation numbers," Marion Athletic Director David Colberg said.

Freeman Academy Athletic Director Nathan Epp said the school wanted to find a partner similar in size, as opposed to being "engulfed by someone." Marion had 36 students and Freeman Academy had 26 last school year in grades 9 through 11, according to the enrollment numbers on the South Dakota High School Activities Association website.

"We were looking for a 50-50 partnership as much as possible and Marion is in a similar situation," Epp said. "So it is kind of a natural fit for both of us."

Now, they do not have to worry about fielding teams this upcoming season, and hopefully into the future.

Last season, Marion had only six players out for girls' basketball.

"Our girls were just run ragged by the end of the game," Colberg said. "It was just hard for us to compete."

Colberg, who will be the assistant athletic director for Freeman Academy/Marion, said there has been between 15 and 20 girls at open gyms this summer.

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"We can finally have enough players," Colberg added.

Epp was the Freeman Academy girls' basketball coach last season. He said they had 17 players on the team, but that included a handful of middle schoolers.

"It makes it tough to maintain viability over the long-term," said Epp, who will be the head athletic director for the co-op.

The cooperative will go all the way down to fifth- and sixth-grade sports. The increase in numbers should also mean middle school athletes no longer have to compete in varsity sports.

"Those middle schoolers, they should have a program for themselves, which they haven't been able to do again because of numbers," Epp said.

The similarities between the two schools made it easy for new uniform colors, as well. Marion was maroon and white, while Freeman Academy was maroon and gold. The Bearcats' colors will be maroon, gold and white.

The schedules are also set for this season and everything thing else is in place for the Bearcats.

"We are just very happy with agreement that we came up with Freeman Academy and they have been very supportive of us and we are very supportive of them," Colberg said. "We are looking forward to some really good seasons."

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