Dwindling participation numbers have forced three metro private schools to submit a plan asking the Minnesota State High School League to allow them to field a cooperative football program for at least the next two years.

Blake, Minnehaha Academy and St. Paul Academy have reached an agreement to become one football program beginning this fall.

According to a Blake news release, Blake expects to have 15 to 20 football players for the 2015 season. Similar numbers are expected at Minnehaha Academy and St. Paul Academy.

“There’s been a declining trend in participation numbers,” Blake athletic director Nick Rathmann said. “Last year we had a varsity team only. We didn’t have enough players for a JV. The kids had to go both ways, and they were getting beaten up. SPA could not play a playoff game because a lack of participation. With district scheduling, we needed three schools to come together to make the scheduling work and all three of our schools work well together.”

Rathmann said the national spotlight on football-related injuries is a big reason for the drop in participation.

“I can only speak for Blake, but this is reflective of that trend in the sense that people are worried about injuries,” Rathmann said. “But we think football is the greatest team sport there is, and we want to see it continue.”

The team, which has yet to adopt an official name, is taking steps to address injury concerns, including making sure every coach is certified, upgrading equipment, getting a working agreement with Twin Cities Orthopedics and having a doctor and trainer on site at every game.

“We’re expecting to have about 55 to 60 kids out for football this year,” Rathmann said. “With our combined enrollment of about 1,100, that should bump us up to Class 5A. We won’t have to have kids go both ways. With all of the new rules in place limiting hitting, we think we’re putting kids in the best possible position to continue to play football.”

The agreement marks a significant milestone for at least two of Minnesota’s longest-running football programs. In 2011 Blake and St. Paul Academy celebrated the 100th anniversary of their first game, played on Nov. 3, 1911. But success has been fleeting for all three teams. They have just four state tournament appearances between them, two each for St. Paul Academy (1979, 1982) and Blake (1991, 1992).

The cooperative still needs approval of the district coaches advisory board and the high school league. Rathmann said he expects those decisions Wednesday.