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Low football numbers pose challenge for some Kalamazoo-area high schools – Kalamazoo Gazette

GALESBURG, MI — This fall was not a good football season for Galesburg-Augusta High School.

The team started its season with 24 players, few enough that the school scrapped having a junior varsity team.

With only five seniors and a good number of freshmen and sophomores, G-A was outmatched week after week by bigger, older and more experienced players.

“We were getting our butts kicked every week,”said Don Doorlag, a G-A
assistant coach and father of Bryce Doorlag, a senior on the team.

A wave of injuries made things worse. By its eighth game, Galesburg was down to 13 players and lost 50-12 to
Vermontville Maple Valley.

After two more Galesburg players were injured in the Maple Valley game, Galesburg officials finally threw in the towel and forfeited their final game, finishing the season 0-9.

No doubt, it was a frustrating end to a problematic fall, said Mike Woodard, Galesburg-Augusta athletic director.

“We’re going to look at our options” for fall 2014. Woodard said. “What happened this year was not good for the kids or the school or the community.”

Galesburg’s struggles with its football program are not unique, particularly among Michigan’s smaller high schools.

Covert High School didn’t field a football team this fall, for the third year in a row. The junior varsity team at Hackett Catholic Central High School couldn’t finish its season for lack of players. Neither Bangor nor Bloomingdale had a JV team.

Kalamazoo Christian High School is considering a move to eight-man football, a move made this fall by Lawrence High School. Martin school officials also say 8-man football is an option to consider.

Meanwhile, athletic directors at schools such as Hackett Catholic Central, Colon and Centreville say declining participation in football is causing serious challenges in what has long been the nation’s most visible and popular high school sport.

“Some people are calling football a dying sport. I think that’s an overstatement,” Woodard said.

he added, football programs such as Galesburg are finding themselves “between a rock and a hard place.”

Why the decline?

All that said, football remains Michigan’s most popular prep sport, with more than 41,000 boys playing for school teams in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

That’s about 1,000 more students than track and field, the second-most popular sport based on participation — and one, unlike football, where both boys and girls compete. 

But football participation numbers are on the decline, In Michigan, the number of teams playing 11-man football dropped 9 percent between 2008 and 2012, MSHAA numbers show.

“If you want to talk about all the reasons for that, we’re going to be here a long time,” said Mike Garvey, athletic director for Hackett Catholic Central.

Among the issues cited by area athletic directors: A decreasing number of high school students; an increase in activities competing for teens’ attention; state policies that have made it easier for students to transfer to schools with strong programs; increasing concerns about football-related concussions, and a perception that today’s teenagers are less likely to buy into the time and energy that football requires.

View full sizeThe decline in the Michigan high school population results from a drop in the birth rate that started in the 1990s. Students in the Class of 2014 was born in 1995 and 1996.
Certainly, a major factor is the downward trend in Michigan’s high-school-age population, tied to a decline in the birth rate that started in the 1990s as Baby Boomers moved beyond their child-bearing years and the trend toward smaller families accelerated.

Between 2008 and 2012, enrollment in Michigan high schools dropped 8 percent, and those numbers will continue to drift downward indefinitely.

Still, in boys’ sports, only tennis and golf have seen participation drops larger than football, MHSAA data shows.

For tennis and golf, the drops are attributed to switching those sports to different seasons to settle a gender-equity lawsuit.

For football, the numbers have no doubt been affected by growing concerns about football-related concussions, which have impacted teams on multiple levels.

RELATED STORY: For Kalamazoo-area parents, more awareness and new fears about sports-related concussions.

Under a new state law, players who suffer a possible concussion during a game
can’t return to competition that day and typically must sit out a week or two.

“We’ll pull a kid for a suspected concussion much more quickly than we used to,” said Jerry Weesies, athletic director for Kalamazoo Christian High School. “That’s a real issue” for teams who need every player on their roster.

Plus, more doctors are permanently pulling the plug on
teens’ football careers because of concession-related issues.

“One of our best receivers last year didn’t return this year because his doctor
told him he was done forever” with football, said Marty Klein, Colon athletic director.

Much the same thing happened at Galesburg, Woodard said. A top player
suffered a serious concussion last fall, and that kept him from playing
this year.

The concussion concerns also have some families keeping their sons from playing football altogether, and some in the football community worry that number will continue to grow.

“It’s not costing us 30 boys” from being on the team,” Garvey said about the concussion issue’s impact on football participation. “But it’s a real factor.”

More options for kids

Not only is there a smaller pool of teenagers available to play football, but students today have more options — both in the sports they play and the schools they attend.

View full sizeParticipation in boys’ school sports is down 4 percent in Michigan since 2008, largely because high school enrollment has dropped 8 percent.

Lacrosse, for instance, has grown 20 percent in the past five years.

“Kids have more options, and you have to respect their choices,” Garvey said.

Some schools limit those options. Schoolcraft, Mendon, Climax-Scotts and Constantine are examples of very strong football schools that do not offer boys’ soccer.

“I would say their football coaches are OK with that,” Garvey said wryly.

Like other sports, football also has been affected by Michigan’s Schools of Choice law, which has made it much easier for kids to gravitate to schools with a strong program in their preferred sport.

“We have more mobility than ever” in choosing a school, said John Johnson, MHSAA spokesman. “In some ways, that’s good. But it also works to gut athletic programs.”

Doorlag says Schools of Choice has been a factor for Galesburg, noting one of his son’s former Galesburg classmates now plays for Parchment and another plays for Climax-Scotts.

Perry Baranic, Centreville High School athletic director, says his school has “absolutely” lost student-athletes to Mendon and Constantine, neighboring districts with powerhouse football programs.

Likewise, Colon has “lost quite a few families to Mendon” because of football, Klein said.

Under MSHAA’s current rules, students have to sit out athletes for a semester after transferring to another school.

The MHSAA has heard increasing complaints that students involved in summer leagues and club sports are transferring to be with those coaches in school sports, Johnson said. So the MHSAA is implementing a new rule in fall 2014 that requires transfer students to sit out for sports for two semesters if they have previous ties with their new school or coach.

“There’s several things that trigger the rule,” Johnson said. “Some say the rule goes too far, but others say it doesn’t go far enough.”

And MHSAA rules do nothing to prevent families from planning ahead and transferring their children during the elementary years with an eye toward middle and high school programs.

“I would hope that people aren’t doing that, but I imagine it’s part of it,” said John Carpenter, athletic director at Martin High School. “The fact is, you don’t know the real reason that kids are leaving when they leave.”

A 2012 Kalamazoo Gazette analysis of Schools of Choice data for Kalamazoo, Allegan, Barry, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties found about 10 percent of students attend a public school outside their own district. That was more than 8,000 children.

Why numbers are important

Johnson, the MSHAA spokesman, said declining high school enrollment, Schools of Choice and expanding options in high school activities affects all sports, but it’s particularly an issue for sports that require “big numbers.”

And, no question, football falls into that category.

Although a football team has only 11 players on the field at a time, a high school football program ideally should have both a varsity and a junior varsity team, with players assigned to either offense or defense. Class A and B schools also typically have a freshman football team.

In addition, there should be a cushion in the numbers because of the likelihood of injuries during the season.

View full size

Michigan schools with a football program had an average of 64 players in fall 2012, MHSAA data shows. For high schools in the Kalamazoo region, the average is 63.6, according to a survey of schools conducted by the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Coming up with those kinds of numbers can be especially problematic at smaller schools.

When football numbers fall too low, schools typically resort to two basic options: Eliminate the JV team and/or have the same students play both offense and defense.

Eliminating the JV team is an option that coaches and athletic directors loath. They say it hurts program development, undermines the morale of juniors and seniors, risks injury for undersized freshmen and sophomores, and often results in a losing season.

“If you’re a parent whose kid is serious about football, you’re going to look for a district with a JV team,” said Eric Adams, Lawrence High School athletic director. “You don’t want your 90-pound freshman playing varsity because the school doesn’t have the numbers for JV. You’re gong to look for another team. That’s key.”

But having a varsity team so small that students have to play both offense and defense can be problematic, too, Carpenter said.

Martin schools had a junior varsity team this fall for the first time in several years, but that reduced its numbers for varsity, which ended the season 0-9.

“We found ourselves competitive in the first half” of games, Carpenter said. But in the second half, “we’d be too tired and beat up” because Martin players were on the field for the entire game and other teams could give their players a break.

“That’s us, too,” said Jerry Weesie, athletic director of Kalamazoo Christian High School. “We’re playing some kids more than we should. They’re out there for every play.”

Those issues have a domino effect, athletic directors say. Football isn’t fun when kids are getting beat up on the field week after week — especially if they are losing by large margins to boot. The predictable result is that boys don’t return the next season, and recruiting becomes a hard sell.

“If a team’s not talented, kids end up wondering if it’s worth their time,” Baranic said.

Athletic directors with struggling football programs tend to promote better recruitment as the best cure.

“It’s about hitting the pavement and getting kids to buy in,” said Baranic.

Johnson said there’s good reason that high school athletic directors put a premium on preserving their football program.

“People still want that Friday Night Lights experience,” he said.

It’s not just about the football, he said. Fall games tend to showcase other parts of the school, from the marching band, to the cheerleaders and dance teams, to the sporting events that lead into the football game.

“No other event is that kind of showcase, no other event has those possibilities,” Johnson said. “No other experience brings a school and a community together like a Friday night football game.

“It’s a big deal in so many communities.”

Julie Mack covers K-12 education and writes a column for Kalamazoo Gazette. Email her at jmack1@mlive.com, call her at 269-350-0277 or follow her on Twitter at kzjuliemack.

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Below is a database of 57 schools in southwest Michigan that play in the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference, Wolverine Conference, Kalamazoo Valley Association, St. Joseph Valley League and South Central Athletic Conference.

Readers can call up schools for each league and compare their 2013 varsity football record with the size of their school and their football program. Click on the top of the column to sort the schools by that category. If you have questions or comments about the database, email jmack1@mlive.com.

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