Youth sports are my life. They were crucial to my own educational process, and I still believe in this profession because I honor how much student athletics mean to the development of countless others.

It is with this affection for the games people play, and for that special nook of the world you all still call home, that I followed Travis Magnusson’s resignation as Dirigo High School boys’ basketball coach with interest and received it with sadness this past week.

Not sadness for Magnusson, who was a dynamic player and somehow is probably an even better coach. He is blessed with a wife and family who not only understand the nuttiness of that avocation but are willing participants. He’ll land on his feet wherever and whenever he wants, at the high school or college level, and be a central figure in hundreds more wins before he’s through.

I’m crestfallen because this is yet another shoe hitting the floor in the object lesson of how quickly an empire can fall apart.

It was roughly yesterday OK, maybe four or five years ago – that you could synchronize your watch to Dirigo challenging for a championship in everything that was anything. In the Sun Journal toy department, we unabashedly labeled the Dixfield area “Titletown,” much to the chagrin and annoyance of other communities who felt that their current or recent success was equally impressive.

In any case, we saw no debate that Dirigo’s dominance in all the high-profile sports, beginning with the girls’ basketball program under Gavin Kane at the turn of the century and hitting a triple-crown crescendo with football, baseball and boys’ hoops earlier this decade, was unmatched at that time in the Androfrankford cluster. Wrestling, field hockey, softball, soccer and cheering enjoyed ample success, too.

Suddenly it’s all a reminder that fame is fleeting, and that continuous championship success is conditional. Like marriage vows that need renewal or taxes that demand payment, your good behavior last year or even last month mean next-to-nothing today.

Oh, I’m sure Dirigo still competes harder than anyone on its schedule. That ethos is difficult to erase. But wins and titles are tougher to come by, a reality hastened by the recent, unfortunate decision to de-fund all sports beneath the varsity level.

Participation, already diminished by the trend of families having fewer babies and/or relocating to where jobs are more plentiful and lucrative, has taken an immediate beating. If you’re not in the starting lineup, or at least the primary rotation, there is minimal incentive to stick with sports.

Nine years after its resurrected football program stomped everyone in its path to win a Class C state championship, Dirigo recently made the decision to fall into Class E. Which might as well be called “ER,” because it essentially means your program is on a respirator.

Magnusson knew the loss of this past year’s senior basketball class, combined with a dwindling bench after the slashing of his feeder system, put the program in similarly dire straits. And despite his valiant efforts to give underclass pastimers an avenue through private fundraising, baseball coach Ryan Palmer isn’t far from that rock-and-a-hard-place.

The next inevitable step is that it gets harder to keep good coaches. That trend is magnified by the thankless times in which we live.

Several telling sound bites were attributed to Magnusson in Randy Whitehouse’s outstanding account of his departure. While the coach cited his growing family and lengthy commute from work and home as major factors in the decision, he acknowledged that keeping the Cougars competitive without a JV program had become “almost impossible.”

Magnusson also felt that his reputation of “being a tough coach to play for” made it increasingly difficult to keep athletes engaged from freshman to senior year.

That’s perhaps the saddest part of all, because I remember a time – you know, way back in the dark ages of 2009 to 2012 – when Dirigo, its athletes and their families embraced discipline and put sports in their proper perspective. And none of that should be translated as “reduced emphasis,” by the way.

No bones about it: I cared about the young men who put together that title run as if they were my own sons. And I still follow their lives thanks to social media. One already has his doctorate. Others are becoming dentists, sailors or entrepreneurs. Clearly the community recognized in that era that sports and education are blood kin, not sworn enemies.

It’s soul-crushing to me that the next wave of Dirigo athletes won’t get the chance to taste that success and be coached by the absolute best. It is also a cautionary tale to the rest of us who crow about similar superlatives in other locales, be they in the 207 or elsewhere.

My full-time job today is covering high school sports in a community that I often describe as a cross between 2008 Dirigo and 2018 Scarborough. Scott County is the largest public school in Kentucky, and it wins in everything. Passion for sports is feverish. Conference and region titles are an expectation. The state championship, though harder to take home here without any enrollment or public/private distinctions, is always within reach.

The varsity football, boys’ basketball and girls’ basketball coaches have been in place for an average of 20-plus years. There is continuity and tradition, but there is also a “nouveau riche” aspect, thanks to the arrival of a Toyota manufacturing plant that changed everything in the 1990s.

Whenever I encounter somebody who is a little too self-assured about it all, I try to issue gentle reminders. Stay humble. Stay alert. Be ready to fight for what you know is essential. Quickly as you can snap your fingers, new administration, new voices, new socioeconomic realities, new influences and new philosophies of life can change the scenery.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen Dirigo. And it hurts.

– Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.


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