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Played out: Small-town Mackay football at a crossroads

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

McKelvey

McKelvey

The numbers baffle Jack McKelvey.

Mackay High School currently has five boys in the sophomore, junior and senior classes.

Combined.

Three of those boys are on the football team, which McKelvey is coaching for his 24th season. Sophomore Colt Kraczek is one of the two boys foregoing football for academics (“a brilliant mind,” McKelvey called him).

“He could probably help us,” McKelvey said, pausing for a moment. “Anybody could. We need bodies.”

When Mackay opens its football season against Butte County on Sept. 3, nine players will don the red and white. And for the first year in their history, the Miners are playing a JV schedule.

This is a long fall for Mackay, which won eight state titles in 19 years. Coaches, officials and former players say the decline is due to people moving away.

“Our enrollment here at school dropped so rapidly and so low, it’s been hard to hang onto what we had,” McKelvey said. “It’s a numbers game.”

Reaching the mountaintop

Mackay's Kris Krosch heads down the sidelines on a long run during a playoff game against Raft River in 2000. Post Register file

Mackay’s Kris Krosch heads down the sidelines on a long run during a playoff game against Raft River in 2000. Post Register file

McKelvey, 54, was born and raised in Mackay, went to Idaho State University and returned to his hometown as a high school teacher and boys basketball coach at the age of 22, right before Mackay football began its golden age in the state’s smallest sports classification.

In 1985, then-head coach Mike Marinac, offensive coordinator Herb Whitworth and assistant coach McKelvey simplified the offensive playbook, running the single wing and daring defenses to stop it. In several games, Marinac told the offense to run one play until the drive ended.

“He walked out of the huddle, then turned around and said, ‘Don’t you dare huddle up until you score,’” said Jared Lambson, 47, a 1986 Mackay graduate who played quarterback and safety.

McKelvey became head coach in 1986. A year later, the Miners won their first state championship, 20-6 over Oakley, with a team of 30 players.

A town enamored with football became obsessed.

A handful of fans sat in the stands or stood on the sidelines during Mackay home games, but hundreds sat in their cars, lights off, on the track surrounding the field. When Mackay scored, fans would honk their horns and flash their lights. The tradition lives on today.

“Who needs a cannon when you’ve got horns going off left and right?” said Kelvin Krosch, 26, who played quarterback at Mackay and graduated in 2007 with a class of about 25 students.

Members of the Mackay High School football team celebrate after winning the 1997 A-4 11-man state championship game 16-14 over Hagerman in Holt Arena. Post Register file

Members of the Mackay High School football team celebrate after winning the 1997 A-4 11-man state championship game 16-14 over Hagerman in Holt Arena. Post Register file

The fever wasn’t exclusive to home games. Mackay fans routinely outnumbered other fan bases on the road. For away playoff games, the entire town would pack into buses and travel often hundreds of miles to watch the Miners play.

“You could’ve robbed the whole town blind,” Lambson said.

It took nearly 10 years for the Miners to win another state title, but they were always in the hunt. And when they reached the mountaintop again, it took years for them to leave.

Mackay won the 1A 11-man championship every year from 1996 to 2001, each season with 32 to 35 players. They also won three straight boys basketball titles from 1999 to 2001 with teams mostly made up of football players.

Despite some resistance, Mackay transitioned to the 8-man game in 2003, as mandated by the state. But the success didn’t wane. In 2005, the Miners won another state championship, this time with 21 players.

During the renaissance, several Miners played college football, including Krosch, Lance Rosenkrance and brothers Nick and Josh Whitworth (all four played at Idaho State).

“We knew we were going to win,” McKelvey said. “We haven’t had that these last few years.”

Shifting demographics

The town of Mackay has shrunk. In 1950, Mackay’s population was 760, according to the U.S. Census. In 2010, it was 517.

Since 1950, the mines that defined Mackay have shut down, forcing many of its residents to find work and homes elsewhere.

But the population drop was quick, not steady, and it has been a small factor in Mackay football’s decline.

Mackay’s population was 574 in 1990 and 566 in 2000, and the 2010 Census estimated Mackay would have 494 residents by 2013. That drop is significant, but several current and former Mackay residents believe a demographic shift is the main reason for Mackay football’s decline.

The median age of Mackay residents was 47.5 as of the 2010 Census. In 2000, it was 44.3.

Mayor Wayne Olsen said during the winter, the city turns off water to 60 residences. Most, if not all, of those homes belong to “snowbirds,” people who live in a cold weather place for most of the year but move south during the winter.

“We have developed into a summer retirement community,” Olsen said. “That’s one of the reasons why we have to develop our tourism — to keep people in our community and to keep our schools going.”

Olsen said Mackay tourism — which revolves around fishing, hiking and other outdoors activities — has increased in recent years. But there’s little incentive for families to move to or stay in Mackay.

One of the biggest employers for Mackay residents is the Idaho National Laboratory, but the commute spans over 50 miles, and the INL ended its bus service to Custer County earlier this decade.

Legislation has also affected Mackay, like when then-governor Jim Risch pushed to move local property taxes from school funding and into the state general fund in 2006.

Population decline is not just a Mackay problem, either. The 2010 Census showed a nearly two percent decrease in rural population nationally from 2000 to 2010, with the same percentage increase in urban population. In 1980, 46 percent of Idaho’s population lived in rural communities. Less than 30 percent resided there in 2010.

Kelvin Krosch moved back to Mackay after college and brief stops in Jackson, Wyo., and Sun Valley (where he still works as a manager for a plumbing company). He mainly returned to be close to family, and he acknowledged how rare it is for a Mackay native to move back.

Lambson lives in Arco, and his brother Brad (a 1991 Mackay grad) lives in Challis. Rosenkrance (class of ‘88) lives in Montana, Nick Whitworth (class of ‘97) lives in Portland, Ore., and Josh Whitworth (class of ‘99) lives in Boise.

“Mackay’s still home,” Brad Lambson said. “I’ve got deep roots there. My family has lived there since the 1880s.”

Jobs drove these former Miners to their current homes. Other than ranching, job opportunities are slim in and around Mackay.

Krosch wants his 2-year-old son, Kru, to attend Mackay High School, but he worries about its future.

“By the sound of it, there won’t be a school,” Krosch said.

A minor lull?

Mackay High School principal Leigh Patterson said the high school often had 60-plus students per year in the 1990s and early 2000s. This year, the senior class at Mackay has seven total students, and the junior and senior classes each have eight, according to Patterson. But the freshman class has a student body of 12, and Mackay’s kindergarten through sixth grade classes have 101 total students (more than 14 per class).

The concern is that those numbers will diminish over time if families move, but for now, this current wave of small high school classes appears to be passing. The football team, however, might never recover.

McKelvey can think of four boys who have left Mackay for other schools in recent years. One is Tyler Techick, the only senior boy at Mackay.

Techick played offensive and defensive line for the Miners the last two seasons and wanted to continue his varsity career, so this year he’s playing for Butte County High School, which discussed forming a JV co-op with Mackay last season.

“The kids coming up are going to be great athletes in a year or two, but I won’t be here,” Techick said of Mackay. “There are ups and downs. It just so happened I was a senior during one of the lulls.”

McKelvey said Mackay will be a JV team for only a year or two, but that could be enough time to persuade incoming Mackay freshmen to play elsewhere.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jared Lambson, an Arco resident. “I believe they will return and be as strong as ever one day. They just couldn’t maintain the numbers.”

If the Miners become great again, they will likely do it without McKelvey. He estimates he’ll retire from coaching in one to two years.

In 2009, the Miners — led by Krosch’s brother, Kole — lost the 1A Division II state championship game 64-62 in two overtimes to Salmon River. In 2011, Mackay missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994. The Miners have gone 5-12 since McKelvey returned as head coach in 2013 (Rosenkrance was head coach from 2006 to 2012).

Mackay is going into this season with one reserve. If two players go down with injuries, the Miners won’t be able to play.

“It’s hard to believe,” McKelvey said. “We had a program that was second-to-none in small schools.”

He paused for a moment.

“Any school, for that matter.”

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