Last spring, the Montana High School Association passed a new rule that allowed school districts to decide whether they could allow eighth graders to compete in high school sports.
The rule will affect all sports except for football. For most AA schools, like the three in Billings, the rule is not applicable because they already have plenty of athletes participating.
However, there are smaller, less populated schools in the area, such as Lockwood, that are looking forward to the additional numbers.
At 13 years old, Meadow Mahlmeister was faced with a difficult decision. She could either stay in Lockwood and try to earn a roster spot on high school sports teams or she could stick to her original plan of joining her older sister at Billings Senior High once she became a freshman.
“I thought it was tough. I still wasn’t sure what school I wanted to go to” said Mahlmeister.
It was a decision that had huge implications for the entire family. Her father, Mickey Mahlmeister, reiterated the severity of the situation.
“That was extremely tough. I think that it made me really re-evaluate a whole lot of things, especially what’s happening under one roof,” said Mickey.
In the end, the opportunity was too great to pass up. Meadow has already spent some time on the field trying out for the High School Soccer team.
“I am really excited to be able to go up and play,” said Meadow.
For her team, the additional numbers could not come at a better time. Lockwood Girl’s Soccer Coach Chez Keehn dealt with a lot of challenges last year, including struggling to field a full team.
Since the passing of the new rule, she said they have about five eighth graders attempting to try out for the program. Fortunately, she believes they are ready to help immediately.
“We are blessed with girls who are ready to, I think, step up to that level and play. So, I think it’ll be awesome. It works out for us. Instead of having 11, we’ll have 18,” said Keehn.
Not all schools are desperate for more athletes. In Billings, Senior, West, and Skyview have opted to not accept eighth-grade athletes. Billings School District 2 Activities Director Mark Wahl said that larger schools are not who this rule was made for.
“The eighth-grade participation is designed for our rural schools to make sure that our high school programs could continue to compete when they were short of kids,” said Wahl.
Now, there is worry around the state that some families will transfer in order to receive the additional year of athletics.
“In the state of Montana, you’re going to see some kids floating from one school to the next because of that opportunity,” said Lockwood High School Activities Director Mike Erickson.
"That’s going to be an issue, that transfer policy and how that works. The thing I don’t like about that is them using the schools for their own purposes,” said Wahl.
Administrators like Wahl and Erickson hope that doesn’t happen. Erickson explained that the goal of the rule is to help athletes excel.
“People think this is about the competitive reason. I honestly think that it’s about giving the right kid the right opportunity,” said Erickson.
As for Meadow, her dad wants her to enjoy this brand new opportunity.
“My number one goal is for her to enjoy it and to have a good experience as an eighth grader doing this,” said Mickey Mahlmeister.
Meadow knows that she has a lot to prove heading into her eighth-grade year, and she hopes she can reach high goals for both her and her team.
“I want to show that I won’t get like pushed around even though I’m one of the younger ones. Another one is just give the team a chance to win,” said Meadow.