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Oil Boom could soon transform prep sports in western ND

GRAND FORKS -- The Bakken Oil Boom has transformed the way of life in western North Dakota. But the boom may have yet another impact in store, this one on high school athletics.

As the boom progresses, some schools in the Oil Patch are experiencing rising enrollments. And, as families become more entrenched in western North Dakota, high school athletic directors hope their programs grow as a result. The question is when.

"I would expect it to increase in the future, probably as soon as next year," said Jeff Dornfield, Williston High School athletic director. "Right now, though, it just hasn't happened yet."

The main obstacle is workers in the oil industry do not yet enjoy a sense of permanence.

"We get a lot of kids of families who are coming in whose jobs are to prep drill sites, so they have been in multiple schools in the past four, five years," said Mark Rerick, Dickinson High School athletic director who will become the athletic director for Grand Forks Public Schools in July.

Most of those students, Rerick said, aren't involved in activities.

Still, some school districts have already seen an impact. Participation in Williston High School football grew 9 percent between December 2009 and December 2011, according to the North Dakota High School Activities Association.

Two high school football programs jumped from Class A to Class AA because of population growth. They are Stanley-Powers Lake and Watford City, which has a co-op with Alexander and Johnson Corners Christian Academy.

Enrollment data from the state Department of Public Instruction shows that, by and large, there hasn't been growth in high school enrollment in Oil Patch school districts.

Williston grew 2 percent, adding 24 students, between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012. Dickinson shrunk 12 percent, losing 78 students. Divide County shrunk 16 percent, losing one student. Tioga saw zero change.

Big exceptions were Stanley, which grew 73 percent, adding 59 students; and McKenzie County (Watford City) grew 11 percent, adding 12 students.

Athletic participation hasn't tracked with those trends, according to North Dakota High School Activities Association data. The football program at Dickinson, for example, stayed the same.

In Williston, participation grew 9 percent. In Stanley it shrunk 8.9 percent. In McKenzie County, it grew 1.9 percent.

But there are reasons for optimism among athletic directors.

For one, the oil industry is maturing and, with that, gaining stability.

"If oil sticks around, like it's projected to, a lot of these jobs will become more permanent and less temporary. That would allow a lot of these families to come together," said Matt Fetsch with the North Dakota High School Athletics Association.

"I talked to a number of kids who enrolled in January that say that they are interested in playing football next fall," Dornfield said. He's also heard interest in sports Williston High School doesn't yet offer, such as soccer and softball, he said, and the school might offer them eventually.

High schools may see even stronger enrollment growth down the road.

"In the spike in enrollment, a lot of these kids that have come with, from what I have heard, a majority of them are at that elementary age where as they continue to grow older, they will continue to impact the sports at the high school level," Fetsch said.

Enrollment at the elementary level has boomed among Oil Patch school districts, according to DPI data.

Stanley grew 34 percent, adding 139 students. Tioga grew 14 percent, adding 38 students. Nesson, which shares a football program with Tioga, grew 29 percent, adding 56 students. McKenzie County grew 30 percent, adding 160 students.

Williston grew 17 percent, adding 384 students; Dickinson grew 4 percent, adding 103; Minot 4 percent, adding 247.

Folske contributes to the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co. Wayne Nelson and Tu-Uyen Tran of the Herald contributed to this story.