It’s rather inconspicuous, even slotted near the top of what seems like a full-length book of MHSA bylaws.
“Any member school will not be permitted to participate in any interschool athletic contest with a school, club team or other groups (teams) that are not accredited by the State Board of Public Education in the state of Montana and, hence, not eligible for membership in the MHSA, if more than two schools would be participating in the event,” the rule reads, in part.
It seems straightforward and fairly reasonable, but for Stillwater Christian, the rule has consequences that, intended or not when the bylaw was written, are all too real.
“Everybody I’ve talked to that is in MHSA is like, ‘Yeah, I don’t really get why this rule existed,’” Stillwater Christian activities director Mark Pond said.
Practically, the rule hamstrings a number of Stillwater athletic programs.
Schools such as Stillwater, which belongs to the Montana Christian Athletic Association (MCAA) and is not accredited by the Office of Public Instruction because it is a private school, are, as the rule states, able to compete in head-to-head competition with MHSA schools, but larger, multi-school events like tournaments and meets remain off-limits.
The rule especially impacts sports such as cross country, track and field and golf, where multi-school events are much more common than duals.
“We’ve got, even on our good years, 10 to 15 kids, and who’s going to do a dual meet with 10 kids?” Pond said of the impact on track and field specifically.
Other sports — basketball and volleyball, for example — are prohibited from participating in tipoff and holiday tournaments that involve local MHSA schools. Stillwater’s activities, such as speech and debate and music, also are affected because they are governed by the MHSA.
The result, at least in Stillwater’s case, is dwindling interest in the affected activities because of the increased cost, time commitment and effort required to work around the rule.
The track team, for example, must travel to Idaho or Washington to compete in meets despite often receiving interest from local schools to participate in meets closer to home. Only one high-schooler in the school of almost 400 students now participates in the sport that has produced more future college athletes than any other at Stillwater.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said Jeremy Marsh, assistant head of school at Stillwater. “We have an opportunity for a win-win ... and instead you have a lose-lose.
“Everybody sees the mutual benefit, but there’s this seemingly arbitrary rule — unreasonable rule, in my mind — that prevents that.”
The solution, Pond and Marsh say, is to eliminate the bylaw, therefore leaving Stillwater’s opportunity to compete in various MHSA events at the discretion of potential hosts and opponents. Most of them, Pond predicts, would welcome Stillwater to their events with open arms.
Pond lobbied the MHSA to change the rule approximately five years ago but was unsuccessful. He and Marsh plan to make another go at adjusting or eliminating the bylaw in the coming months.
This time, Pond says Stillwater will make more of an effort to generate change from the “grassroots” level, encouraging MHSA schools to push the change upon the organization instead of vice versa.
“We appreciate the MHSA schools,” he said. “The ADs I deal with are great and gracious and very welcoming. We definitely don’t want to burn any bridges with them. We’re not enemies with MHSA.”
Pond successfully lobbied to have a similar rule changed in Idaho, so he’s confident progress can be made in Montana, too.
But for now, the bylaw simply “limits opportunities,” as Marsh put it, for Stillwater and similar schools across the state.
“It,” Pond said, “is like you’re beating your head against a cement wall.”
Evan McCullers is a sports reporter and columnist for the Daily Inter Lake. He can be contacted by phone at (406) 758-4463. or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.