Athletes of the Week: The North Fork Miners

Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 11:09 PM MDT
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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - From archrivals to teammates, our athletes of the week are the North Fork Miners.

For nearly a century, the Hotchkiss Bulldogs and Paonia Eagles battled in every sport. The two towns are 10 miles apart, separated by the North Fork Gunnison River. Their rivalry started in 1925.

But earlier this year, the Delta County School District decided to merge the two schools. Rivals would become teammates...some parents were skeptical.

Athletes also had concerns about the idea of turning a century-old rivalry into a brand new alliance.

“Looking ahead from the past couple years, just knowing that it was going to happen, it was kind of scary,” reflects Dakota Shelden, a senior who had attended Hotchkiss schools since kindergarten. “You think, what if certain kids don’t want to be on the team, what if certain kids think it should be their way?”

Both Hotchkiss and Paonia High Schools had a declining student body for years, after a number of coal mines in the area were shut down. The school district says that was one main driving factor behind the merger.

Despite those losses, both athletic programs remained competitive. Each school won multiple state titles over the last decade, including back-to-back football championships for Paonia in 2013 and 2014. Football in particular would help bring the two communities together.

“The biggest game of the year was always the Hotchkiss-Paonia game, whether it was held here in Hotchkiss or up at the town park in Paonia,” says Amy Miller, who worked for both schools over the last decade. Miller was the Athletic Director in Paonia High School’s final year.

After months of rebranding, North Fork High School opened on the former Hotchkiss campus in August. Their mascot? The Miners.

Just weeks into North Fork’s first school year, that merger has proved to be a success both on and off the field.

“Once we all started just getting together and talking about different plays and different things, we all just came together and became a big family,” Shelden said before the Miners’ first ever home football game on Friday.

North Fork football started the season 2-0, with road wins over Center and Monte Vista. But that was nothing compared to what the team did playing on their home turf for the first time.

In Friday’s home opener against Olathe, the Miners scored 28 points before even taking a snap on offense. After starting the game with two punt return touchdowns and two pick-sixes, North Fork finally got their first possession of the football. Blaine Peebles ran for a nearly 80-yard touchdown, and Mordecai White had a 55-yard touchdown run of his own.

The Miners led 41-0 after just one quarter, finishing the first ever game at North Fork High School with a 55-0 win.

“It just really has been amazing to watch these kids rise to the occasion, make friends, and become teammates with their former rivals,” says Miller, now the Assistant Principal and Athletic Director for North Fork. Head football coach Curtis Hintz agreed that the merger is off to a good start.

“Everybody’s done a great job of being all in, and combining these two historic schools to become North Fork,” Hintz said. His Hotchkiss Bulldogs team went 6-1 in their final year. “The sense of pride is there, and it’s an exciting time for these communities.”

North Fork football will try to stay undefeated in their homecoming game, which is Friday night against the Grand Valley Cardinals.

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