“Even five years ago, our football numbers were declining. At that time, we didn’t have a JV schedule. Anyone that showed up to play football, freshman through senior is playing varsity,” said Steve Hutson, CHS athletic director.
Clayton began attempting to merge its football team with Maplewood-Richmond Heights in 2019, under the-Athletic Director Bob Bone.
“There was a lot of energy and excitement around that opportunity,” said Hutson.
Attempts to set up a co-op agreement were made annually through the 2022-2023 school year but were unsuccessful due to hesitancy on the part of the MRH School Board. MRH High School discontinued its football program in 2015 due to low participation.
Continuing to face declining participation numbers in football and with a large 2022-2023 senior class leaving, Hutson made one final attempt to start a co-op with MRH but was declined.
Last fall, Brentwood High School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Stephen Ayotte approached Hutson during a walkthrough of Gay Field in preparation for Brentwood to host a district soccer game there. A partnership grew from there.
We just meshed very well, our two communities value a lot of the same things. We’re both very good from an academic standpoint and we have good athletic history.
— Stephen Ayotte
Both schools have struggled for years with declining participation in football programs, barely managing to field varsity teams. Despite this and unlike Clayton’s team, Brentwood has experienced success in their football program, having won eight of the last nine years, and finishing second in Class 1 District 2 in the 2022 season.
Brentwood also has a strong community football culture, with high attendance numbers at home games. Admission is also free, encouraging families with younger children to attend.
Co-op proposals moved swiftly through boards of education in both districts and were unanimously approved by the Clayton Board of Education in their February 1 meeting.
While there was enthusiasm for prior merger attempts with MRH, there was little input from coaches, parents, athletes or community members prior to the decision with Brentwood.
“We first heard about it in December (from our coaches). And we didn’t really get much input into it,” said Patrick Mertz, CHS Junior and varsity football defensive end and offensive center and guard.
Hutson maintains that the enthusiasm for the original co-op proposal with MRH remained with the Brentwood proposal. “Most of that (community input) happened with the original cooperative sponsorship that was going to happen with Maplewood-Richmond Heights,” said Hutson.
Cooperative sponsorships (co-op teams) involve two or more schools that share a contiguous border,
CHS player Thomas O'brien rests after a hard game.
hosting a MSHSAA sponsored team together. All sponsorships must be approved by the MSHAA board of directors based on reasons such as insufficient numbers, lack of staff, or facilities. Sponsorship agreements must last for at least one year. Class and district placement for co-op teams is determined by the combined enrollment of the schools. Clayton and Brentwood are currently placed in Class 4 and Class 1 respectively. A co-op team will remain in Class 4.
Clayton last won a Class 4 football state championship in 2004. However, the program’s success and participation has declined significantly since then.
CHS football defensive coordinator and Science teacher Doug Verby began coaching football the following year, in 2005, as the head freshman coach.
“And that year (2005), we had well over 100 people in the program. Obviously it was a huge thing that people wanted to be a part of the state championship team. We had 45 freshmen just for football,” said Verby.
There were approximately 30 healthy varsity players on the CHS team in 2022 and 20 on the Brentwood team, a significant decline over the past several decades for both teams.
Verby attributes shrinking football numbers at CHS to a variety of factors, including concussion scandals in the NFL, the Rams moving to LA and the increased number of varsity sports available at CHS. Verby believes low participation numbers dampened chances of success for the team.
Due to low participation numbers, most high-level CHS players hold both offensive and defensive positions, increasing strain on their bodies and minds during games.
“It’s not uncommon for people to play both ways, but Clayton has kind of an interesting situation where most people play multiple positions on both sides of the field,” said Mertz.
Increased numbers with the merger would hopefully allow players to specialize in fewer positions, and experience less strain during long games.
The main deterrent to potential football players is the high risk of injury. “Injuries really kill us,” said Mertz.
Mertz suffered a concussion during the homecoming game this year. He experienced headaches and vomiting after the game. Shortly, after going through the concussion protocol, he returned two games later. “There were at least six or seven injuries this season and four of them were starters,” said Mertz.
One argument in favor of the merger is that increased numbers will allow the formation of a JV team, and the presence of a JV team will decrease the risk of injury for all players. The current lack of JV teams frequently places freshmen and sophomores, who lack experience and physical strength, in varsity games.
“The true benefit of JV is to put kids facing other boys at the same developmental level as them physically,” said Ayotte.
Younger players on varsity also feel pressure to win that is disproportionate to their level of experience.
JV is a way of “learning in a less stressful environment,” according to Mertz.
But Mertz also believes that the creation of a JV team will do little to decrease injuries. “Football is a violent sport, people are going to get injured just the same,” said Mertz.
Football is a violent sport, people are going to get injured just the same.
— Patrick Mertz
With the creation of JV program, Hutson and Ayotte plan to allow any coach to apply for the new head coach position, and all current coaching staff will be offered jobs in the new program.
Mertz is excited for the new changes the merger is bringing to the team but he notes that the process won’t be seamless, “It’s going to take a minute for us to mesh,” said Mertz.
Hutson hopes that the merger creates a positive experience for all involved, “We need to develop an environment that’s inviting for all players to have the opportunity to create purposeful relationships with each other,” said Hutson.
With the merger comes logistical challenges such as safety concerns with increased attendance. To help continue to provide a safe and welcoming environment for fans, administrative teams from both schools will be present as well as the school resource officers.
In addition, barbecues and other community-building events will be held prior to the start of the season, as well as summer contact days to promote bonding between schools.
Home games will be split (4 at Clayton and 2 at Brentwood) between teams and each team will have a homecoming game. Clayton is also looking to create a new, unified logo design for helmets and jerseys and create opportunities for cheer and band programs to work together.
“There’s just so much opportunity to bring folks into communities together,” said Ayotte.
Despite all of the change and excitement, the merger may not be enough to return CHS football to its state championship glory. Clayton has no elementary or middle school football feeder programs, meaning that the first time many CHS athletes step onto a football field is their freshman year.
“There’s a huge learning curve that has to happen when comparing to some of these other traditional sports that people have been playing their whole life,” said Hutson.
This causes CHS teams to struggle in terms of skill level and team chemistry, perhaps even increasing the rate of injury to inexperienced players.
While Brentwood Middle School has a football program, it is not part of the co-op agreement.
The lack of a feeder program “puts us miles behind our competition,” said Mertz.
Is a high school co-op with a strong, experienced program enough to bring Clayton’s football back to its glory days?
Only next year’s record will tell.