As the Butte Central and Anaconda boys and girls basketball squads clashed on the hardwood of the Maroon Activities Center on Tuesday evening, those in the sizable crowd had more to think about than the latest edition of a decades-old rivalry.
Namely, how would it feel to see Copperheads and Maroons take to a field as teammates rather than opponents?
On Wednesday, both schools will hold meetings to discuss that possibility with Central and Anaconda High mulling the idea of forming a single cooperative football team. Declining enrollment paired with mounting national concern over the health and safety of high school football players has fueled the push to combine the programs.
If both school boards approve the decision to move forward with a co-op, they would need to file a joint application with the Montana High School Association by Feb. 1.
During Tuesday’s doubleheader, thoughts on the idea ranged from cautious support to vehement opposition. Some felt it was necessary with both football teams experiencing dwindling participation numbers. Others felt that the idea was out of the question.
One person who expressed measured agreement with the potential move wished to remain anonymous so as not to draw the ire of those who may oppose it.
But no one voiced indifference and all agreed that the rivalry, whatever becomes of it, will always be an emotional one.
Tom Bugni, a Butte Central 1957 graduate who played basketball for the Maroons his junior and senior years, has as strong familiarity with the Maroons-Copperheads rivalry.
His career unfolded when both Central and Anaconda competed in the Class AA-A classification and was sandwiched between the high school campaigns of legendary Copperheads Ed Kalafat and Wayne Estes.
As a junior, Bugni was part of a Central squad that claimed the 1956 Class AA-A state title by defeating Anaconda 54-50 in the championship game.
“It was a great rivalry years ago when I played,” Bugni recalled.
But when asked about the idea of Central and Anaconda setting aside their rivalry and collaborating as a co-op, Bugni was staunchly opposed.
“No, uh-uh,” he said. “Central will be by itself forever.”
Anaconda residents Rich and Carolyn Miller, who have four children attending Anaconda High including junior girls’ basketball player Claire Miller, acknowledged that overcoming the historic animosity of Central and Anaconda’s rivalry might be a tall task but could ultimately be the most feasible options for both schools.
“I think it’s a tough rivalry to get past because it’s so emotional,” Rich said. “But if you look at the numbers, it might be for the best.”
Rich also felt that declining numbers on high school football rosters could be reversed by instilling and maintaining more interest in the sport with students before they reached high school.
“I strongly feel that it would help if smaller schools got kids interested in football from a younger age,” he said.
Carolyn noted that co-ops are becoming more commonplace throughout the state and figured that, if other schools have found success by joining forces with other programs, Central and Anaconda could also find a way to set their rivalry aside.
“I know that it’s worked for other communities,” Carolyn, a former Anaconda golfer, said. “If it came to fruition I think we could mend those differences.”
Dan Harrington, a 1968 Central graduate and former three-sport athlete for the Maroons, was all for the two teams merging as a co-op considering that they have both recently struggled to fill their ranks.
“I think both (Anaconda and Central) are lacking players,” said Harrington, now a Cardwell resident. “I think it’s a great idea.”
But Harrington also conceded that, had the same question been presented to him when he was still an athlete with Central, his answer would have been less enthusiastic.
“We had a fierce rivalry, and at that time I would have said ‘Hell no,’” Harington said with a chuckle. “But now I think they need to do something.”
Also in attendance was Central principal J.P Williams who has family ties to both Anaconda and Butte. He understands the pride and emotions that have been poured into the Central-Anaconda rivalry over the years but felt that, if partnering together will give student-athletes from both schools the best chance to succeed, than that would be the best option to pursue.
“Sports has been a tradition and has a great history between both schools,” Williams said. “It’s important to our schools and community that kids have an opportunity to compete and show their skills.
“I’m in favor of making sure that each community has the best chance to succeed and if that is through a co-op and that’s the best option for each community then I support that as long as it is positive.”