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St. Mary's suspends football program

We gather here today to pay what may be our last respects to a once great football program.

St. Mary's High School's football team forfeited last week's Southern Cascade League contest to Chiloquin, and the decision was made Monday to suspend the program for the remainder of the season.

The Crusaders simply didn't have enough players to go on. Saturday's contest against Lost River and those to follow against Bonanza and Gilchrist are gone.

I went to practice on Monday and we had 10 players, said St. Mary's coach Dick Maurer. It's a tough call to make, and I feel sorry for the (six) seniors.

The matter was discussed at Tuesday night's school board meeting but no action was taken.

It's hard to imagine a school that has won or shared nine state championships and that played in two other finals having too few players to carry on.

This is a program that once reeled off 76 straight regular season wins from 1974 to 1983.

The Crusaders were so dominant that one former Big Fir League coach, Pat James of Pacific, essentially threw up his hands in disgust and left the state. A couple of years later, Pacific dropped the sport.

Now it's St. Mary that's faced with fourth-and-long.

Among the list of options noted by athletic director Tammy Volk for the 2001 season are playing a non-league sub-varsity schedule or not fielding a team.

If the Crusaders don't field a team next year, will they ever play again?

If you don't have enough students who want to play and if you can't field a competitive team, you've got to look long and hard whether you want to be in the football business, says Sam Naumes, past chairman of the school board and a former St. Mary's player.

St. Mary's dressed down 60 players for home games during its heyday.

But in the past 15 years, things have changed incrementally:

— Larry Walker (principal, athletic — director, biology teacher and football coach rolled into one) left at — the end of the 1984-85 school year. In 1986, Medford High divided into North — and South. Many parents, who had sent youngsters to St. Mary's to — avoid the overwhelming maze of the old Medford Mid-High, were less — apprehensive after the school split. Five coaching changes took place in the — decade after Walker left, and since 1986, only one St. Mary's team has — reached the playoffs. Soccer took root in 1994. The boys who had — gravitated to football for two generations began drifting away. —

St. Mary's principal Barbara Callaway brought in Maurer, a local lumber broker and former Oregon State standout, six years ago.

All Maurer had to do was look at the talent over on the middle school practice field to think the future was bright. Among others was Mac Contreras, now one of the premier running backs in the Southern Oregon Conference. But like Contreras, who enrolled at Ashland High, many youngsters leave St. Mary's for public schools after eighth grade.

We've lost a few every year, Maurer says. It doesn't take too many of those guys for you to go a long ways at the 2A level.

On Tuesday, as Maurer ran through a practice with the remnants of his team, another group of athletes circled the track.

Cross country runners perhaps?

Turns out they were junior varsity soccer players, bigger than many of the football players.

St. Mary's has a proud tradition, Naumes says. We won a ton of championships from the time I was in grade school watching my brothers. But times have changed and sports have changed. Football, as all team sports do, teaches discipline and authority. But you can learn that from basketball and soccer.

Still, the possibility of not having football strikes Naumes strangely.

It's like Notre Dame giving up football, something no one ever thought about, he says. But sometimes you've got to look forward and not backward.

If this is the end of the line for St. Mary's football, let's not too-quickly forget decades of success.

Ed Hummel coached St. Mary's to its first postseason appearance back in 1954. Bill McKibbin took St. Mary's to its first state championship game back in 1959, then made it two in a row in 1960.

St. Mary's then grew into what is now the Class 3A ranks in the 1960s, beating Newport, 28-12, for the 1969 state title. The Crusaders dropped to what is now 2A the following year and won another state crown.

St. Mary's reached the state final from 1978 through 1983, winning five times.

Walker isn't one for nostalgia. Still, a part of him seems to be missing.

It's sad to see it happen, says Walker, who later coached at South Medford and remains a science teacher. I didn't realize it had gotten to that point. I check the paper every week to see if St. Mary's won or not.

I hate to see (the program's demise) happen. The priorities aren't what they were 20 years ago. There was a real source of pride in school, even in the community. The kids represented the town of Medford, and we took pride in that.

But rather than just hang on to a few brittle strands, he wonders if the program's time hasn't come.

In some respects, hanging on at that level just to hang on doesn't make a lot of sense, Walker says. You might as well write the eulogy and get it over with.

Reach reporter at 776-4483, or e-mail gstiles@mailtribune.com