Numbers were plentiful, success was running rampant in every sport and the Pine River-Backus Tigers were enjoying postseason success at a rate unfamiliar to a small town.
Just two years ago the Tigers' football team won its third straight North Star Conference title, the volleyball team advanced to the Section 7, Class 2A finals, the boys' basketball team advanced to the state tournament and the girls' basketball team made the Section 7, Class 2A finals.
All sports except football entered the more competitive Mid-State Conference this year from the Park Region Conference and expectations were at a high level.
But decreasing student-body numbers, plus low participation rates, have plunged the Tigers into the depths of the conference and section standings.
"We happened to have a couple of classes with low participation numbers," said PR-B superintendent James Madsen. "We had pretty good numbers in our senior class but our junior and sophomore classes were down in numbers.
"Our overall student population dropped from 1,500 and 1,600 to 1,100 this year and our projected student enrollment is under 1,000 for K-12."
Adding to the downward spiral is the resignation of head boys' basketball coach Bob Nelson and his assistant coach, Randy Schwegel. The loss brings less stability to a once-promising athletic department.
Also leaving are Patrick Deegan (athletic director, head girls' basketball coach and head boys' and girls' track and field coach) and Mike Thyen (head baseball coach). Both teacher's contracts were not renewed due to budget cuts. The wrestling team, which pairs with Pequot Lakes, also does not have a coach for next season.
As of April 21, of the 11 sports offered at PR-B, only six have coaches for next year.
The PR-B School District will continue to offer the same number of sports, but the number of assistant coaches will fall as its budget tightens.
The lack of numbers has pushed the football program down to Class 2A.
But what's more alarming to PR-B coaches than the low student population is the low participation rate.
"Boys' and girls' track is down, both basketballs are down and even football was a little down as far as numbers are concerned," said Deegan. "I don't know the future of the programs. I know the future as far as the kids and talent is concerned is pretty good.
"Our junior high numbers were pretty good."
Every school has dips in student enrollment but, according to Schwegel, Cass County's death rate is exceeding its birth rate. "We're just not having any babies," said Schwegel.
According to the 2000 census, the percentage of 5-year-olds and younger living in Cass County was 5.1 percent. The state average is 6.7 percent. The percentage of ages 18 and under in Cass was 25 percent compared to 26.2 percent statewide. The number of 65-year-olds and older in Cass was 18 percent compared to the state average of 12.1 percent.
"People are coming here to retire on their lake home, not to start families," said Schwegel.
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