Forty miles of winding road, a mountain pass and a time zone separate the tiny Interstate 90 towns of Mullan, Idaho, and St. Regis, Montana.
Their dying high school football programs are bringing them together.
Both schools – each with a student body of fewer than 40 – have agreed to a rare interstate football co-op, an effort to assemble enough players to compete in Idaho’s smallest classification.
The Idaho High School Activities Association and the Montana High School Association recently approved the merger, which begins in August. St. Regis students will play for Mullan and compete in the White Star League, a conference of eight North Idaho eight-man football teams from as far south as Nezperce and extending north to Clark Fork.
Two years after canceling an entire season because of a lack of numbers, Mullan suited up nine players in 2017, often playing without a single substitution. St. Regis forfeited its last three games in 2017 after injuries and disciplinary action decimated an already bare-bones roster.
“I’ve never had more than 12 players on my team since I’ve been here,” said Stetson Spooner, Mullan football coach and athletic director, who is entering his eighth season. “It will be nice to have depth and actually be able to bench players if they’re late or skip practice.”
St. Regis coach Jesse Allan, who will join Spooner’s staff across the state line, has never fielded more than eight players in his three years in Montana’s six-man football classification. Allan approached Spooner with the prospect of a merger when it became clear St. Regis couldn’t field a team this year.
Neither program has had a winning season in more than a decade. The last time both programs were relevant in their respective states, Mullan handed St. Regis – a common nonconference foe – an 88-64 loss in 2003.
“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to make something here in Montana,” Allan said. “It sucks to bite the bullet and not have a program of our own, but at the end of the day, it’s about the kids playing football.”
This isn’t the first time a Montana and Idaho football club have combined out of necessity.
In eastern Idaho, Clark County and Lima, Montana – two towns 45 miles apart – have teamed up to play in both Montana’s six-man football league and in an Idaho eight-man football league.
Their remoteness and meager numbers were the primary reasons for the merger, the first of its kind in Idaho.
Mullan and St. Regis, however, are just down the road from other schools near their size.
The prospect of Mullan combining with nearby and longtime Silver Valley rival Wallace never gained traction because a merger – which factors in both schools’ student populations – would bump Wallace up into the 2A 11-man classification.
St. Regis’ former football rival, Superior, just 14 miles to the east, has already merged with Alberton. A merger of St. Regis, Superior and Alberton would be grounds for a jump in classification, something Allan said the Superior-Alberton club wasn’t interested in.
This left one option for St. Regis, which Spooner initially thought was a pipe dream.
“I thought ‘How would this even work? Getting players over the the state line, no way,’ ” said Spooner, a Kalispell product who played defensive back at the University of Montana Western from 2006-2010. “Then the more we talked about it, it became more and more feasible.”
Allan, another young coach who played basketball at the University of Great Falls, said the merger didn’t come without some resistance.
“A lot of the old-time St. Regis people who bleed green weren’t happy about this,” he said. “But it’s the only option we have right now. That could change in the future if our numbers get better.”
If Mullan ever had to have its players representing another school, Spooner said, he would also likely hear grumblings from the purple-clad purists around the historic mining town.
For decades, Mullan often boasted one of the premier North Idaho small-school football programs, often in and out of the Top 5 media rankings until 2004. From 2000-2004, Mullan produced three college football players in eight-man stalwarts Jean Hegbloom (Rocky Mountain College), Derik Stanley (Montana Western) and Jimmy Hegbloom (University of Idaho).
Mullan is also the last 1A football program from District I (North Idaho schools) to win a state football championship, winning back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984.
For years, Mullan’s fortunes have been tied to the Lucky Friday mine, the city’s largest employer. Employment at the underground silver mine has risen and fallen over the decades because of fluctuations in silver prices, taking a pound of flesh out of the football program when families left the area. The most recent hit to employment occurred last spring when workers voted to strike, which is still ongoing.
Spooner said he’s friends with a few miners currently on strike.
“I am kind of torn about that situation,” he said. “I want them to get it resolved, but if they have to bring in new people, I selfishly hope the new people hired bring in some good football players.”
On the other side of the mountain, St. Regis, a timber town, has had some economic struggles of its own, Allan said. Two small mills and its popular travel center right off the interstate – its gift shop claims it has “The World’s Greatest Milkshake” – are the town’s major employers.
Allan, who grew up in Lincoln, played against St. Regis in the early 2000s and remembers when the St. Regis football program was healthy, sharing a conference title in 2003.
Now when he sees a new employee at the travel center, he’s said he hopes they have a fleet-footed son to add to the team.
“Asking freshmen to play 50 snaps a game has been tough,” Allan said. “So (the merger) will be good in helping develop our guys. One time, we had to leave just three players out on the field.”
It may take awhile for the five or six St. Regis football players to get used to wearing purple, playing on a different field and facing unfamiliar Idaho opponents this fall.
But at least their mascot is the same. St. Regis and Mullan are both the Tigers.
The hour time difference will give St. Regis and its coaches time to leave school about 3 p.m. Mountain Time, Spooner said, and be at Mullan around 3 p.m. Pacific Time to practice.
The IHSAA and MHSA initially had safety concerns about the St. Regis students traveling back to Montana after games, some as far as three hours away. Mullan plays its home games in the afternoon, though, and inclement weather doesn’t usually affect the pass until November, which would be postseason time.
“On Mondays, St. Regis would likely just stay down there and go over film” for practice, Spooner said. “Then there could be days we go down there to practice because they have football lights and we don’t.”
Both coaches said they’d like to play two home games in Montana, where the team would wear St. Regis jerseys and helmets. Mullan and St. Regis were approved to get new uniforms last year and would like to show them off this fall.