Tim Sperber’s lengthy 8-man football coaching resume helps convey the distance between the tiny, tradition-rich Palouse schools in Colton, Washington, and Genesee, Idaho.
A short stretch of U.S. Highway 195, a couple of miles of gravel road and a state line separate two diminutive high school towns with multiple championship banners.
Sperber had two stints at Colton in the 1990s and early 2000s that included several deep postseason runs, including a spot in the 1997 state title game.
Eleven miles east, he led Genesee to a 2017 state title game appearance before recently stepping down.
Many of the same surnames have run through the neighboring communities for generations, forging a mutual, across-the-border respect in myriad Colton and Genesee boys and girls sports that have produced college athletes at a regular clip.
Tension has eased over the years.
“You can still see on the side of a (Genesee) building where someone wrote Colton back in the 1960s. It was a big-time rivalry back then, but it’s been a long time since they’ve played each other in football,” said Sperber, a Coeur d’Alene native. “Half the kids from these towns are related.”
Despite having different governing bodies, schedules and league rivalries, the schools have mirrored each other in ways, all the way down to their royal blue jerseys.
They’ll be wearing the same uniform this fall.
Due to a lack of football numbers, Colton, a postseason regular in the 2000s with a state quarterfinal appearance as recent as 2016, has combined with Genesee to play an Idaho schedule.
Interstate football co-ops are rare but not unprecedented.
Mullan, Idaho, and St. Regis, Montana, began their 8-man football partnership in 2018 due to dwindling numbers, but Colton’s cross-the-border-move holds statewide significance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association ruled this summer to postpone fall sports to the spring of 2021 due to coronavirus concerns, but the Idaho High School Activities Association opted to resume its regular fall schedule.
Colton’s six football players – combining with Genesee’s 16 players in a home season opener on Friday against Timberline – are the only Washington high school students approved to play high school football this fall.
The WIAA approved the merger in April.
“It’s kind of like winning the lottery,” said sophomore Angus Jordan, a Colton sophomore who is now Genesee’s starting quarterback. “I know a lot of other players (in Washington) who were upset they couldn’t play this fall.”
A merger was coming
Twelve-year Colton athletic director and longtime resident Jim Moehrle often scanned the size of his sideline last season as the Wildcats’ head football coach, where depth was a problem.
Colton, which finished 4-8 in 2019, had just over a dozen players on the team, including an eighth-grader, and Moehrle knew the 2020 team would be even leaner with the graduation of a few seniors and a small upcoming freshman class.
Moehrle said he had already begun to explore possible future mergers in 2018, including the much larger Pullman High School, a school 12 miles north.
Colton’s longtime league rival, Garfield-Palouse, sent its football players to Pullman last season due to a low turnout, but Moehrle believed if the Greyhounds agreed to welcome a half-dozen of Colton’s players, they’d rarely see the field.
Colton, which has a student enrollment in the 40s, also weighed out the possibility of playing among the few 6-man football programs in Washington, but travel would have been an issue.
“The closest 6-man schools are more than a 2-hour drive,” Moehrle said. “And we’d only have six or so players out for football, which isn’t enough to have depth for our own 6-man team.”
Coaches and players tried to recruit more players in the offseason, but had little luck and proceeded to reach out to Genesee while trying to work out the logistics of a possible interstate merger.
Across the border, first-year Genesee coach Alex Schnebly had an offseason turnout north of a dozen and welcomed the idea of Colton players adding depth and skill to a Bulldogs team that struggled in 2019 (1-8).
Schnebly inherited a few experienced commodities, too, including Moehrle’s son, offensive lineman Jaxon Moehrle, who was a first-team 1B all-state selection last season.
The merger didn’t affect Genesee’s 1A Division I classification.
“Even if Colton (had to play in the spring), it would likely eliminate football for those six kids,” said Schnebly, a former Sperber assistant.
“This wasn’t about state championships for us or to make us a better team, but to give these kids a chance to play this year.”
Owen Crowley, a senior receiver and defensive back, was a freshman on the Bulldogs’ team that made its run to the 2017 state title game.
He wants to get back to the playoffs and is happy Colton can help.
“It was exciting when we got the news Colton was coming over,” Crowley said. “We’ve always had that mutual respect.”
Colton gets approved
In WIAA meeting minutes posted on April 7, Colton’s request to play in Idaho was included.
“Due to low participation in football, and an ongoing relationship with Genesee High School in nonleague contests over a period of years, Colton has initiated discussion regarding the potential to combine with Genesee and play in the Idaho league,” the minutes read.
“While Pullman is approximately 12 miles from Colton, there is a concern by the Colton administration that the different skill set and larger school atmosphere would discourage Colton students from participating. The next-closest Washington school is approximately 40 miles from Colton, while Genesee is only 8 miles. While 6-person football may be an option, the travel to other 6-person schools would be significant. (WIAA Executive Director) Mick Hoffman shared that he has talked with Ty Jones, Executive Director of the Idaho Association, who is supportive of the combine. (WIAA District 9 Executive and Oakesdale athletic director) Ken Lindgren added that District 9 is in support of the combine, with the hope that the football program will grow, and Colton HS will once again compete with other District 9 schools.”
The WIAA appears to have approved Colton’s request on April 15.
“(District 8 WIAA Executive and Gonzaga Prep athletic director Paul Manfred and District 1 Executive and Lynden Christian athletic director Harlan Kredit) moved to approve the request of Colton High School to combine with Genesee High School and play in an Idaho league for the 2020 season,” the minutes read.
District 7 Executive Greg Whitmore, the athletic director at Lind-Ritzville, told The Spokesman-Review that Colton’s half-dozen football players are the only Washington high school students the board has approved to play football out of state this fall.
“They were the only (players) we approved to play in Idaho,” Whitmore said. “There were some schools hoping to play in Oregon, but that’s not happening.”
A fall without football in Colton
The Friday night lights that illuminated a portion the highway won’t be on this fall, widely believed to be first time Colton hasn’t fielded a team since the school began playing the sport.
The Wildcats produced former Eastern Washington, Montana State and Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer – a 1972 Colton graduate – and helped groom Mick Dennehy, who won two state titles as Colton coach in the 1970s before becoming the head coach at Montana and Utah State decades later.
Colton, which earned four state titles between 1975-1998, has produced Division I talent since, including former Southern Illinois quarterback Josh Straughan, who threw for nearly 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in eight games in 2016 before a short stint in the Canadian Football League.
In recent years, the majority of Colton’s championship banners have come courtesy of a girls basketball dynasty that won 10 state titles in 11 seasons.
Clark Vining, Colton’s former football coach, led the dominant run.
“It hurts to see that football won’t be played here this year,” said Moerhle, a 1988 Colton graduate who was worked in the district for 25 years. “But what we have now is better than nothing.”
Genesee has pride, too, and produced its share of football minds.
The Bulldogs have won Idaho state titles in nearly every sport in the 2000s. Most of the school’s recent state titles have come in softball, with four state titles in the 2010s.
When Genesee won its previous state football title in 2005, it was paced by quarterback Justin Udy, now the offensive coordinator at Montana State.
Former Genesee defensive end Reggie Tilleman was a team captain at Montana before exhausting his eligibility in 2018, and the Bulldogs’ 2017 state playoff was run was paced by Edward Becker, now a linebacker at Idaho.
“With all the work I put into both teams over all those years, this merger warms my heart,” Sperber said,
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.