NEDERLAND — Marked by vitriolic lows, progressive highs and a small group of passionate people fighting one uphill battle after another, the past year has been potentially the most eventful period in the history of the football program at Nederland High School.
Last summer, the Panthers hired Beth Buglione as the first female head football coach in Colorado preps history. Despite the momentous hiring, Buglione took over a contentious eight-man football program embattled by low numbers and public outcry stemming from the administration's decision following the 2016 season not to renew the contract of former football coach Aaron Jones, who had coached the Panthers for over a decade.
Now, with the struggling program proving to be increasingly unsustainable for the small mountain school, the future of Nederland Panthers football itself is very much in question.
A committee was formed to review the school's athletic and activity offerings, and recommended the school focus solely on boys soccer in lieu of football. On Wednesday evening, Nederland held a public meeting to give families and community members a final opportunity to voice their opinions about which sports the school should offer next fall to principal Carrie Yantzer before she makes a decision on whether or not to continue football at Nederland within the following week.
Led by athletic director Rick Elertson, the meeting was attended by roughly 30 people and lasted for about 90 minutes. The discussion centered around dwindling participation in the school's athletic programs and how to play a numbers game in order to keep them afloat with at least one team sport for boys to play in the fall. It appears that Nederland fielding a soccer team instead of a football team for the 2018-20 two-year cycle is the most likely outcome.
"I felt the meeting was very passionate and heartfelt," Yantzer said. "From my lens, I really appreciated and valued what they gave. I think it was very straightforward. We stated what the facts were and where we're at, and what needs to happen. Any time you have to make decisions like this, it's hard because you're not always going to make everybody happy. We're just trying to do what's best for our kids."
Having graduated 11 seniors from the year before and ineligible for the playoffs from the beginning because the team is classified as an independent, the Panthers were forced to forfeit their first game of the season — Aug. 26 against Hayden — because they did not have enough players who had completed the minimum of nine practices required for gameday eligibility. After playing their first two games with the minimum nine players required to begin an eight-man football contest, the Panthers also had to forfeit their fourth game of the season — Sept. 15 against West Grand — because they did not have enough players.
Also hindered by academic ineligibility and inevitable injury, the Panthers were outscored 258-44 while losing all seven of their games.
To begin evaluating Nederland's athletic and activity offerings, Elertson surveyed Nederland Middle School students on which sports they wanted the high school to offer next fall. Of the boys who voted, Elertson said 71 percent said they would be interested in playing soccer and only 47 percent expressed interest in football. Ultimate frisbee, which is a coed sport in the fall, received the second-most votes.
Elertson said he also met with all eight football players who would be returners next season and half of them said they would consider playing soccer in the fall. Several said they would only want to play football at Nederland and several said they would be willing to play at a school in nearby Boulder, which they would be eligible to do under Colorado High School Activities Association guidelines.
After Elertson presented his survey findings to the committee members, 24 voted to bring back boys soccer, two voted to keep football and two wanted more information. That vote formed the basis of the committee's recommendation to the Nederland administration.
"The purpose of the committee was to analyze all of our programs here," Elertson said. "We looked at participation numbers, K-12 programs and basically we wanted to know, 'Where are we and where do we want to be?' Through that process, football kind of jumped off the page right away because obviously we forfeited two games and we barely had enough players to play the games.
"So we started having conversations about what our philosophy should be in terms of what sports we offer. One thing that came up was that we need to have feeder programs so that kids aren't experiencing sports for the first time in high school. The other big challenge is that we have an enrollment of 117 kids. About 55 are boys. Basically, the current reality is that we can't offer both team sports in the fall. Our reality is that we have to choose."
Nederland has not had boys soccer for the past five years. That program was halted because of similar issues with dropping enrollment numbers and low interest.
In November, Nederland reported an enrollment of 139 students to CHSAA for the upcoming 2018-20 two-year cycle. The actual total has thinned to 117 recently with a number of prospective students going to other schools like Boulder High and Fairview High.
Participation is a problem throughout all the athletic programs at Nederland, but is particularly severe in the boys sports. Basically, the same 10 male athletes at the school play all of the sports year-round. Nederland is also losing students to other schools for academic reasons, and the low numbers make academic ineligibility impossible to hide on its athletic teams.
"This decision isn't about the elimination of football," Elertson said at the meeting. "It's about the development of all of our athletic programs. We just need to get these kids participating and find out what they want to do."
Another major detriment to the sustainability of Nederland's football program, Elertson said, is that the area has no developmental youth programs for football. The local Peak to Peak youth soccer organization has been providing the area with a developmental system for 17 years. Soccer is also more cost-effective, doesn't have the negative injury-risk perceptions of football that are contributing to the sports participation numbers dropping nationally, and it would also be easier to find a soccer team opportunities for games, according to Elertson.
"It breaks my heart to see football leave this school because I love football and I've played here for three years," football quarterback and middle linebacker Damon Vigil said. "I grew up with the sport, I love it and for so many kids, it's changed their lives to be a part of it. It's a tough situation but I'm in it for whatever is best for our school. If it means that more kids come out and have a better time playing soccer and have a good experience like I had with football, I'm all for that."
Buglione, who did not attend the meeting, previously served as an assistant coach at Philomath High and Sheridan High in Oregon. She also was the coach, general manager and owner of the Independent Women's Football League's Corvallis Pride after initially playing quarterback for the team. Buglione has also coached a semi pro Nineman men's team and has served as an official. If Nederland continued its football program, she was planning to come back for a second season.
Though she was stunned and disappointed that the football program at Nederland was likely to be replaced by boys soccer, Buglione said she was grateful for her experience there.
"I think our kids had an amazing season," Buglione said. "We were successful in getting their GPAs up and they were improving with their language, picking up trash and things like that without having to ask them. I think our proudest moments were the reaction of other teams to our sportsmanship. I sent a letter to all the parents and the kids and I told them to go out for soccer. It doesn't matter what sport you play, as long as you're having a good experience."
As for whether or not she experienced any blowback or resistance from parents or players who did not want a female football coach, Buglione said she did not.
"The refs, the players, the parents, they were all amazing," Buglione said. "It was a non-issue."
Yantzer said she hopes to announce the final decision on Monday. Should the football program continue, the Panthers would likely be an independent again for the 2018-20 cycle despite some earlier optimism over the school applying to enter a league and regain postseason eligibility. If the school does cancel its football program, CHSAA rules would allow Nederland student-athletes to play football for the school in the Boulder Valley School District closest to their home address, which would be either Boulder High or Fairview High.
Nederland currently offers CHSAA-sanctioned sports in boys basketball, girls basketball, cross country, football, girls soccer, skiing, track and field and volleyball. The school's girls sports have also struggled with participation but to a lesser degree. The Panthers girls cross country team won the 2A state championship in the fall.