Matthew Sisson hustled across the Trinity High School parking lot from the football locker room to the practice field.
Two visual aspects set the senior apart from the rest of the team: He was running by himself because he his team bus ran late for practice, and he was wearing a New England Tigers football uniform, complete with the No. 3 jersey he wore for the Tigers last season.
The uniform is simply a way for Sisson to hold on to his hometown heritage. Plus, he couldn't let a perfectly good jersey go to waste.
"I have no other use for it," Sisson said.
Not since January that is, when the New England and Dickinson Trinity school boards took the opportunity to avoid each school's enrollment issues - that consequently were affecting both football programs - by approving a new football co-op.
"We were extremely excited about them (New England) coming to us, because it offered us an opportunity to stay at the classification we wanted to stay at," said Trinity superintendent Kelly Koppinger, a 1977 graduate of New England High School.
Because of low enrollment among male students, New England boys wouldn't have been able to play football this fall and Trinity would be one year from confronting reclassification issues it didn't want to face.
Koppinger said without New England, Trinity male enrollment is shrinking so rapidly it could have been considered a viable candidate for a nine-man program by the 2007-08 school year. Plus, Trinity had only 26 junior high students out for football last year. This fall, numbers have slightly increased with the addition of about 20 New England students from grades 7-12.
The superintendent added the decision to explore the co-op with New England was taken seriously once Trinity boosters were shown the declining enrollment numbers.
"It was the initial shock of just realizing what out-migration has caused for all area schools," Koppinger said.
In New England, enrollment has dropped to 91 total students in high school and junior high. Forty-three of those students are boys and less than half of them play football.
The lack of bodies is why New England athletic director Daryl Jung views the co-op as nothing but a "win-win situation."
"It gives us an opportunity for our kids to play somewhere," Jung said. "Being in (Class) AA ball and needing more numbers, I think it's a fit for them to get those added numbers."
There should be few lingering questions as to whether the marriage will work after the Titans rolled to a 47-0 win over Valley City in their first game of the season Friday.
Still, there is one lingering question in the New England community that could last as long as the co-op does. When the co-op was first mentioned, the utmost important issue for New England parents was to know if their children would see the field or be relegated to the sidelines because they were unfamiliar with 11-man football and Trinity's playbook.
Titans coach Randy Gordon said the question was answered before practice even began and backed it up in the first game of the season.
"I'm a coach, I'm not a politician or anything like that," said Gordon, a 1972 graduate of New England High School. "I'm not going to pay attention to what town they're from."
And he hasn't. New England players are getting as fair of a shot to play as any player from Trinity. Only nine players from New England are on the senior-dominated varsity roster and one started against Valley City. The rest all saw the field, some in substantial substitute roles.
Senior Casey Olheiser, who had been a two-way starter last season in New England, came off the bench for the Titans on both sides of the ball. However, the lineman said he wouldn't have it any other way. Senior Jesse Hewson was also a two-way starter in New England but is now primarily a backup for the Titans.
"I think it's worth it," Olheiser said. "It's better than not going out and not being a part of that team. You're going to look back 10 years down the road and say I'm glad I did that."
Ten years into the future is exactly the time New England officials had in mind when the co-op was first pursued.
"The last two years in New England, our kids didn't hardly even practice," Jung said. "They just stood on the sideline. You have seventh graders that need basic fundamentals."
With an army of coaches, Trinity is providing the necessary practice time for junior high and freshman players who were unable to gain basic experience in New England.
Lately, the handful of New England upperclassmen have come to terms with sacrificing their final seasons as Tigers to benefit several younger athletes.
Sisson, a senior defensive back who will see time at returner, wide receiver, quarterback this season, was puzzled when the possibility of a co-op with either Dickinson Trinity or Mott-Regent was mentioned after football season last fall.
"I didn't quite understand why," Sisson said. "Once they explained to us, I started to understand that's probably the right decision. They were saying it's for the long run and not for us guys right now, which is what I could understand. Then there was another part of me that didn't really know if I wanted to."
Sisson and other New England players admitted they gave serious thought to transferring to Mott-Regent. However, after a few talks with Gordon and some of the Trinity players, any talk of transferring quickly fizzled.
"We all figured, it's our senior year, we kind of wanted to stay in New England instead of transferring schools," Sisson said.
Today, the players from New England and Trinity consider themselves a singular unit.
Although "New England" is conspicuously absent from the official team name, the players have greater concerns.
"It's been easier than I thought," said Sisson, adding he is enjoying practice and the opportunity to play for a state title contender. "I'd like to help out and get another state championship."
Some Trinity players have even taken steps to show their support for their new teammates. During practice, a few Trinity players can be seen wearing orange New England practice jerseys.
"It's been fun just to see how the kids have been working together," Gordon said. "Where each one, they're all looking at each other with different eyes now."
Senior running back/defensive lineman Dan Carr said after a preseason practice that when they step on the field, it makes no difference what town each player is from.
Carr and Jordan Rising were two of the players who made phone calls to New England players in the offseason, urging them to attend football camps with the Titans and join them for playground football sessions.
"As much as them being great athletes, we've also developed a great friendship," Rising said. "They didn't come in with bad attitudes. They all came in positive."
The majority of the Dickinson Trinity community and the New England area have welcomed the co-op with an open mind. Trinity players made a visit to New England's school the afternoon before their first game so the community, teachers and students would be able to put faces with names and numbers on the field and in the playbook.
Gordon believes the initial strong relations between the two communities will lead to nothing but a strong working relationship in the years to come.
"I don't think there has ever been any problem at all," Gordon said. "And not saying that there won't be. Who knows? But so far it's really been going very smoothly. The problems that could arise, I'm going to do my best for them not to happen.
"Again, I think it could be the easiest thing in the world too."