Mike Kays

Mike Kays

The 2020-21 sports year at Muskogee High had its bumps in the road, but if we’re honest, in a salute to the winter blast of  ’21, those were more like potholes.

Football was hampered by injuries to top performers, leaving a young team and a lack of a legitimate offseason for those underclassmen. It led to the loss of the head coach and the first winless season in school history — albeit an incomplete season of seven games due to the pandemic.

Fastpitch stumbled out of the gate, and a quick coaching staff change occurred at the top. Later in the spring, the softball season never got started due to having insufficient numbers. Baseball won just two games, and for the fifth time in 10 years, a coach has left for greener pastures. Volleyball was again one-and-out in the postseason.

There were some bright spots. Boys basketball shook a slump  of six consecutive one-and-done postseasons and came an overtime loss to being just one game from a state berth.  Girls basketball reached the area tournament for the first time since the three-year state run of 2014-16.

And the primary highlight was a run by a Rougher golfer that flirted with a state championship, a flirt spoiled perhaps by the rain eliminating the third and final round of the championship event. Mesa Falleur was also the Phoenix’s choice for Golfer of the Year, and JaVontae Campbell was boys basketball’s MVP. 

Girls track was having its best year in a while, but had a difficult ending at state.

Boys soccer won an early tournament which ignited hope, but hope wasn’t realized as district came upon them. But an upset of Owasso to close the year ended it on an upswing in a coach in his first full season at MHS.

And while it gets no Ws in the column, an academic state championship in girls tennis will ultimately get better mileage over the long haul.

Overall, many schools had better years. A few would have liked to have had what little success MHS did. 

With new facilities on the horizon for football and basketball, the recent hiring of a softball coach that’s spoken in circles of Keith Coleman — the last coach in any sport to win a state title for Muskogee (slowpitch, 2009) — and a feeling in my gut that Travis Hill has an edge and some nifty staff hires that can turn football back to what it was as late as 2016 — there’s reason to think things will be better in 2021-22.

But, allow me to introduce you to the elephant in the room. 

According to a graph presented to the Board of Education by the Long Range Planning Committee in March, in 2016-17, district enrollment was 6,028, the only increase in the last six terms. Since then it’s dropped to 5,742 in 2017-18, 5,662 in 2018-19, 5,385 in 2019-20 and 4,795 in 2020-21. A couple of schools have merged and/or closed from grades 1-8.

As it stands, Muskogee’s 2020-21 ADM for the high school is 1,505.40 — 27th of the 32 Class 6A programs, and just 290 ahead of Capitol Hill, highest in 5A. That’s well within the most recent year’s district-wide decline.

Some within the athletic circles suggest if Bixby can only go to 6A Division I, all will be right with the world. That would presume all revolves around football. But what about basketball or baseball going against the numbers of those Division I teams — Broken Arrow’s 5,183 triples Muskogee, just as one example. The midrange of Division I is Edmond Memorial at 2,279.

Enid, the lowest enrollment of Division I, is at 1.943 — 539 more than Muskogee. Take that the other way and you’re dropping to 55th — bottom 10 of 5A between El Reno and Altus.  

This trend is possibly complicated by Gov. Stitt’s open transfer bill signed into law this spring. With the improvements voters approved in a bond package two years ago, the idea was that build it, and they will come. 

It might happen. It might not.

Inside the world of green, there’s hope the decline can be reversed. Stopping it, though, doesn’t get the elephant moved. And it’s an elephant that is too often used as an excuse for the tough road Roughers must go.

It’s a legitimate excuse in many cases, but it’s become a perpetual hand-wringing story of woe. And when you’re told you can’t do something enough, it takes on a life of its own.

A continued decline, whether some want to admit it or not, may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Being a big fish in a smaller pond has advantages. Think not? Ask Tahlequah. 

Big runs in recent years in both football and boys and girls basketball have happened in the Quah. The Tigers have declined a little in softball, but have in the past mirrored Muskogee’s best years there. Baseball even had a state trip, and track has always been high quality.

Another thing currently facing Muskogee — the school lacks rivals. Schools with close geographic proximity. 

Are Broken Arrow and Union really rivals? Do they consider it that way? 

Muskogee-Tahlequah was once a rivalry. Muskogee-McAlester has some history. Coweta, which fell on the schedule a year ago, is a quick trip up the turnpike. There are some old-school Roughers who will remember the battles with Hale, Tulsa Memorial and Rogers.

And 5A makes it one level closer to 4A, and if you remember the Shrine Classic’s issue, area 4A teams didn’t want to compete with the local 6A team. This would either help or leave a little egg in the faces of 4A teams. 

Muskogee-Tahlequah may not have the electricity of Hilldale-Fort Gibson, but a trend that makes Muskogee-Fort Gibson or Muskogee-Hilldale a possibility, well, there’s nothing like a little fan energy. Just catch the T-shirt sales highlighting the Battle for the Rock every fall.

Dropping to 5A is no guarantee of success, but it may well be a blessing waiting to happen. Most of the top 6A schools are increasing, meaning further separation looms. Sure, you can make the argument that a split of 6A in all sports would work, but it’s not going to happen and do we really want to water down all state titles in 6A that much?

Again, Muskogee is almost 600 students under the cutoff line between divisions. 

A slide to 5A is a shot in the arm waiting to happen — perhaps not this next enrollment cycle, but maybe in two. 

New facilities look good. But a new hangar in an old airport doesn’t have the same pizzazz that a total reset does.

A numbers advantage?  That packs some punch.

It’s enough to perk some kids up.  

If some quick magic can’t be worked, which seemingly would be on the verge of miraculous, I say let it happen. Help it to happen. 

Big fish, smaller pond, and top-notch facilities.

They’re all positives.

Gold balls are gold balls no matter the As attached. Yes, there’s state and federal money attached to every kid enrolled.  

But which is easier to compete with in what you spend, Broken Arrow or McAlester?

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