On fall Friday nights, some of the area’s most anticipated high school football matchups occur when Dalton High takes on its rivals from another school system, Whitfield County’s Northwest and Southeast.
But Dalton Middle athletes haven’t had the same chance to compete against their counterparts from Whitfield County since 2007, when a split left the Cougars and Lady Cougars — and for a time, Murray County’s Bagley and Gladden — out of the North Georgia Middle School Athletic League.
Despite meetings within the past year at the highest levels between the two school systems to address the separation, it doesn’t appear the county schools and the city school will regularly compete against each other in the near future.
“We are willing to try and work something out, but I don’t think anything is going to happen soon,” said Missie McKinney, an assistant principal and the athletic director at Dalton Middle.
With only one middle school for the Dalton Public Schools system, the campus at Cross Plains Trail is home to 1,609 students, according to statistics on the Georgia Department of Education website. By comparison, the largest school in the seven-team NGMSAL — which includes the five Whitfield County middle schools as well as the two public middle schools in Murray County — is North Whitfield, with an enrollment of 852. With 460 students, Valley Point is the smallest.
Sean Gray, who recently was hired as Southeast’s head football coach, led the football program at Valley Point the past five seasons and is finishing up his final year as athletic director at the school. He doesn’t see any way for a level playing field to exist with Dalton in the league.
“For us to play (Dalton) would be like Gordon Lee playing teams from metro Atlanta every Friday night or Dalton High being in the same region with Gwinnett County schools,” Gray said. “It is just too big of a size difference.”
Brian Suits, Dalton Middle’s principal, knows his school’s size is a barrier to being able to play against local competition. Without a local league, Dalton has played schools in Catoosa and Walker counties, but some of the teams have to travel to Rome, Cartersville and Chattanooga to find games.
And with more travel comes more costs.
“We have maintained there are ways that we can work on that,” Suits said. “We are big. We admit that. We have proposed ways to achieve parity, for lack of a better term, but nothing has been worked out.”
But even when traveling to find competition, Dalton is still the big team on the block.
In a comparison of middle schools in counties surrounding Whitfield, none come close to matching the sheer size of Dalton.
Catoosa County’s Heritage Middle is the next biggest school in this part of the state, with 1,033 students. LaFayette Middle is the largest middle school in Walker County with a population of 937 students. The enrollment of Sonoraville East Middle in Gordon County is 900.
Dalton has the 12th largest middle school in the state.
Too big for this league
In spring 2007, the NGMSAL included Dalton, Bagley and Gladden and all of the Whitfield County middle schools: Eastbrook, New Hope, North Whitfield, Valley Point and Westside. Like Dalton, Bagley had a much higher enrollment than the Whitfield schools at the time.
But then Stan Stewart, Westside’s principal, announced to Suits and the other principals that the Whitfield schools were breaking away from the league and forming their own association. In an email sent by Stewart on April 5, 2007, he wrote that the split was needed so the smaller county schools could compete “on a more level playing field.”
Since then, Bagley and Gladden eventually were welcomed back into the league after Stewart said the two schools voluntarily balanced out their populations.
Stewart, the NGMSAL president, believes the change has met its goal of competitive balance. Despite being the smallest school in the league, Valley Point has won three straight eighth-grade football championships. The recent league soccer championship game between North Whitfield and Eastbrook went to sudden death and was decided by penalty kicks.
“We’ve had some wonderful things and balance throughout the league,” Stewart said. “As a principal who has been in a middle school league for many, many years, there were some years where your kids knew that no matter how well they practiced or how hard they worked, there was no way they could compete with a school so large.”
McKinney said Dalton’s numbers advantage has been overblown.
“I understand completely where the county schools are coming from, but the reality is that when it comes to our size, even though we have more enrollment, we probably have the same amount of kids that try out for sports as most of the other middle schools do,” McKinney said.
“Some of the county schools actually have more kids try out for some of the sports than we do. We have a larger pool to choose from, but if you look at the athletes, it is the same number that try out and play at the other schools.”
In college football, if you aren’t affiliated with a conference, you are considered an independent. Schools not affiliated with a conference have to fill out their schedules and aren’t guaranteed a set schedule of teams to play.
For Dalton Middle, the need for increased travel to fill out the schedule creates challenges financially for the teams — more spent on travel, decreased gates at home games — and academically for the students.
“The more time we spend on the road, the less time you have for homework,” Suits said. “From an academic standpoint, it does create some concerns. And for some places, the trip is so far they have to miss out on class by leaving early. Plus, we are everyone else’s ‘pick-up game,’ and if there is a problem, we are the first ones that are cut. Our opponents are going to make sure they play their league games first.”
For some sports, that isn’t as big of a problem because the school has come up with other solutions. Suits said in boys basketball, the school formed its own league with “five or six” teams that competed within what amounted to the school’s own intramural league. But the school also had a traditional team that competed against other schools.
“That worked out well overall because some kids are getting some skill development and competition, and then you have that one team that travels,” Suits said. “We need to be about learning skills, and not just winning a trophy. This is a place where kids need to be able to make mistakes and have a safety net.”
Dalton’s size is prohibitive not just for play outside of its school but also in encouraging participation. The Cougars football team had 27 eighth-grade players from a total class of 505 students. Even dividing that number in half based on gender, it’s a 10.7 percent participation rate. The seventh-grade football team had better results, with 47 players on the roster for a participation rate of 18 percent.
“Because of our size, you worry about kids feeling like they don’t have a shot at making the team,” Suits said. “If we just worry about starters and not building depth and building participation, then we are hurting ourselves down the road for our teams and the high school teams.”
Steps towards reconciliation
This past fall, Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Jim Hawkins initiated talks with county schools officials in order to see if some sort of resolution could be approached. Hawkins, Suits and McKinney met with Stewart, Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Danny Hayes and other principals of the league’s member schools.
“My reflection is that everyone has a point of view that is very compelling,” Hawkins said. “We put it all out on the table. If the coaches want to play each other and we can figure it out, then it is great. If both sides don’t want to, then I can understand that. We all have to shake our heads yes.”
Hawkins said he initiated the meeting because of the concerns from the middle school administrators and coaches regarding travel and other concerns. It was a meeting Stewart said he welcomed, and he considered it a productive first step.
McKinney said ideas floated at the time included Dalton splitting teams, essentially making a Dalton “White” and a Dalton “Red.” At issue is how to find equitable solutions in how to split teams — and for Dalton, how to find twice as many coaches.
“It has to be something that works out for the kids and for the school,” McKinney said. “If we were to have two teams, you have to look at finding more coaches and dividing up practice time. Those kind of factors really do come into play. We’re not opposed to doing that, but there hasn’t been an agreement. People want to tell you how to do it, and there has to be some trust.”
McKinney said the questions raised in that first meeting are good ones which need to be addressed in order to make any further progress.
“If you make us have two teams in each sport, how do you do it?” she asked. “Do you divide them alphabetically? With the number of athletes we have, we couldn’t do two teams in some of our sports. We barely have enough for softball. We could do more than one soccer team and possibly football, but you have to have the finances to support that.”
Something that did come of out of the meeting was that county schools aren’t prohibited from playing Dalton.
“One of the things their superintendent brought up was, ‘Could we start with the baby steps of some of the schools putting us on their schedule?’” Stewart said. “No school in our county is forbidden from playing Dalton in any sport as long as the coaches want to work it out.”
Days after the meeting between the two school systems, relations between Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools chilled considerably as Dalton High went through a Georgia High School Association investigation and eventually had to forfeit four football victories for using an ineligible player.
The Catamounts football player had been a starter at Southeast the year before, and Southeast officials notified the GHSA that Dalton was breaking the rules by playing a student who had not made a “bona fide move” into the Dalton district.
The controversy surrounding the forfeitures, Dalton High Principal Debbie Freeman’s public scolding of Southeast administration at a news conference announcing the decision by the GHSA and the forfeitures themselves put the discussion of middle school athletics to rest quickly.
“I expected more courtesy and consideration from another district and am disappointed in the actions of the reporting school’s administration,” Freeman said at the time. “At this point, I believe that we have reached out in numerous attempts to build that relationship (with Whitfield County Schools). I believe that now, after we go through the appeals process, it will be their opportunity to reach out to us.”
Stewart said after the controversy, both sides backed away from the table.
“There were a lot of hard feelings, and at that point everything was put on hold,” Stewart said. “That group of seven principals wasn’t close-minded at all, but the wound seemed open so badly that we felt like we needed to table this right now. We as a league haven’t made any other overtures.”
“(The ineligible player situation) didn’t help any,” Hawkins said.
Despite the cessation of talks in the fall, none of the parties contacted for this story are against future discussions.
“I want whatever ground has been gained to remain positive and for the two sides to meet again,” Stewart said. “Just speaking for myself, it looked like our group was going to try to find scenarios that could work.”
McKinney said the next step would be to have coaches from the two systems meet and see what solutions were possible.
“It is a joint decision, and it is going to have to have a lot deeper discussions between the coaches who actually have to make this work and not between principals and (athletic directors),” McKinney said. “I just don’t know if now is the time. It’s a big thing. Maybe in time, we can revisit it. Our numbers aren’t going to change in the next few years.”
Suits agreed that the solution will come from the ones directly impacted by whatever decisions are made.
“The best solutions are when coaches get together and administrators get out of the way,” he said. “It is a thorny problem.”