A year removed from its first-ever trip to the state tournament, the Chetopa volleyball team will ditch its green and yellow uniforms for maroon and gold ones.

Due to low numbers at Chetopa, the school will combine its volleyball team with its sister district school, St. Paul, in 2020.

“It came down to the fact that Chetopa didn’t have enough girls on campus that had a desire to play,” Chetopa-St. Paul USD 505 Superintendent Craig Bagshaw said. “Our school board made the decision that we would do whatever it took to secure the opportunities for all of our kids. We did not want them to lose that.” 

Chetopa head coach Jill Blackledge and St. Paul head coach Mark Haight will serve as co-head coaches for the Chetopa-St. Paul volleyball team, with Blackledge in charge of game decisions.

“Mark is behind this,” Blackledge said. “He’s been great. I’m excited to work with him. We’re going to get together and find out where we agree. We’ll put our heads together to figure out what’s best for the team.” 

Bagshaw said that Haight has taken the integration of both schools’ volleyball teams in stride.

“When Mark Haight came down here, I asked him to be a coach of a program and he’d never coached volleyball before,” Bagshaw said. “That man has done everything to be an amazing coach. He knows he can learn a lot from Jill. He wants to be helpful and has no agenda or ego.” 

St. Paul, which is also in the same Three Rivers League as Chetopa, was a formidable opponent for the Green Hornets a season ago.

“We played St. Paul six times last year,” Blackledge said. “I know what girls they have, the positions they played and what they’re capable of. They were going to be a dang good team this year, and now we can add what we can do to that mix.” 

Blackledge said when she conducted a survey to see how many girls would come out in the fall, the number hovered between six and eight. When one player transferred and another decided to sit out the season, Blackledge and Chetopa Athletic Director Jaunc Bradshaw began brainstorming solutions.

“There’s been year’s past where some of our kids have gone to Oswego to play,” Blackledge said. “But if I want to take our skills elsewhere, we wanted to stay in our district and make our district as strong as possible.” 

Chetopa will bring four girls to the team while St. Paul will have over 20 represented.

“It creates more opportunities for girls across the district,” Bagshaw said. “We can have a varsity, a JV and a C-team. There will be more opportunities for everybody to play. Those few extra athletes created great opportunities for all the girls.” 

Chetopa’s four players will travel with Blackledge to practice each day to St. Paul. Chetopa’s girls would be dismissed at 3 p.m. from school with practice ending around 5 p.m. to ensure a return home by around 6 p.m.

Once the regular season starts, Chetopa and St. Paul will stay at their respective campuses for practice.

The biggest hurdle remaining for the new Chetopa-St. Paul volleyball team is coming up with a schedule for the season. In addition to scrapping Chetopa’s schedule, KSHSAA discourages teams from participating in large tournaments.

“That’s one of the big problems we’re facing right now.” Blackledge said. “We’re in the same league, so that helps out some. We’re wanting to do two home games in Chetopa and two in St. Paul. Our ADs are working on the schedules to work around the COVID-19 stuff. So our schedules are kind of unknown.” 

While organizing a co-op is shocking on the surface for a school that just went to state for the first time ever, Blackledge sees the value in joining St. Paul.

“We just don’t have the girls at the school,” Blackledge said. “I don’t want to force girls to play just to have a team. Now that we’re a co-op with St. Paul, it’ll force everybody to work hard to earn a spot. I’m excited for that.” 

“The response overwhelming has been great,” Bagshaw added. “The community and the board wants the girls playing volleyball. The only concern is the logistics. Those were conversations that had to happen. Everybody is uncomfortable with some change. But once they understood how it will be a positive experience, they got OK with it.” 

With Chetopa returning some of its top talent from last year among the four girls, in addition to a strong returning corps from St. Paul, this year’s team could be one of the most talented in Class 1A.

“Our expectations are getting back to Dodge City,” Blackledge said. “We did it at Chetopa with eight girls. We have a strong league this year. Being with St. Paul, we’re loaded with setters. We have strong hitters. We have the talent to do it.” 

Bagshaw believes this year’s volleyball campaign could serve as a litmus test for future co-ops.

“I really think we’ll be exciting to watch,” Bagshaw said. “It’ll be a great first step for future opportunities to compete in sports together as other participation in sports decline. We’re looking at combining for middle school football.” 

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