BILLINGS — Belgrade athletic director Rick Phillips saw Belgrade's impending change to Class AA coming a long time ago.
A decade ago, to be exact. When Phillips first took the job in 2009, he said there was a notebook sitting on a shelf in his office that said, 'Transition to AA.'
"And that notebook was dated in 2005. It's only 14 years later that this will come to fruition," Phillips said. "It's been a long time coming, that's for sure."
Belgrade will make the leap from Class A to the AA beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. 406mtsports.com reported back in October that Belgrade was eyeing a move to the AA, which would make it the first school in the state's history to participate at all four classifications. The move was made official by the MHSA on Tuesday during its April meetings.
Belgrade, along with Arlee and Great Falls Central, are all reclassifying beginning in 2019. Arlee and GFCC are moving from Class C to Class B. Other reclassification moves include Fairfield and Butte Central, both of which were eligible to drop one spot but opted to stay put. Fairfield will stay Class B while the Maroons will continue to compete in Class A, MHSA Executive Director Mark Beckman told 406mtsports.com on Tuesday.
Phillips said Belgrade's growth has been substantial. The Panthers have gone three years in a row with four teams in volleyball and two consecutive seasons with four teams in boys and girls basketball.
"The numbers in all of our activities certainly warrant the opportunity to go to the next level," Phillips said. "Competitively, there's a handful of sports that I feel that we'll be able to hold our own at the next level."
Phillips admitted that finding games for each of the four teams in the above sports was getting difficult, a good problem to have due to the amount of numbers. He said even though Belgrade is making the jump, he believes the Panthers will still be competitive in soccer, volleyball, track and field and softball, four sports the Panthers have found a lot of success in at the Class A level.
The boys soccer team is the two-time defending state champions and has played in the last four title games. Volleyball has won a state trophy three of the past four seasons, including a 2015 state championship and a second-place finish last fall. Softball has appeared in four of the last six title games, winning it all in 2017, and the girls track team won in 2017 while the boys finished third.
Football will have its challenges. Phillips said Belgrade's numbers are decent but even the jump from A to AA in football is tough just because of sheer size and numbers. Phillips said the school still has the numbers where they could play Class A football, but they decided not to separate everything and make the move in full. Phillips also said even if they decided to stay in Class A for football that would've have only lasted one or two years due to numbers continually increasing.
"I put the pressure on (head coach) Eric (Kinnaman) in football and said, 'You know, Eric, this is our last year in Class A and we've won a state title in every classification so no pressure,'" Phillips said with a laugh.
Belgrade has been getting ready for its impending jump by attempting to schedule more AA teams, with the softball team taking on three AA schools in the span of this week.
Belgrade's move is one more addition to what will be a rapid expansion of the Gallatin Valley in terms of high schools. Bozeman is expecting to open its second high school in the fall of 2020, only one year after Belgrade. In a matter of just over two years, the area will go from one AA high school to three.
"The kids play against each other all the way through middle school," Phillips said. "It certainly will be interesting. It won't be new with who they play against. But being able to be a little bit more on the same level will certainly be pleasant."
Phillips said going forward the high school will need to finish its current remodel. They are in year two of their construction that will accommodate more students and comfortably hold 1,250 students or more.
"The school is growing just in itself to be able to handle the increase in numbers and not be so crowded," Phillips said. "When we open, in 2019, not only will we go into a new classification but we'll basically be opening the doors to a brand new high school."