Coaches, Athletic Directors Speak to Dwindling Participation

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By Bill Sterling
Special to the Eastern Shore Post

The football season is underway on the Eastern Shore with local schools playing their opening games in the final days of August before the first day of school.

That early start to the season is just one of several reasons coaches offer for the drop-off in the number of high school students competing in football compared to past years.

Asking athletes to give up their summer jobs is especially challenging at Chincoteague, where the football roster of 22 is actually about the same as recent years. But next year could be different, with 10 seniors graduating off the 2019 team.

Through the years, the Ponies have trotted out some competitive teams despite the numbers working against them. Chincoteague, with an enrollment of 165 in grades 9 to 12, is the smallest public school in Virginia fielding a football team.

“It used to be kids quit their summer job when football practice started, or at least you did your work around practice. Now it’s about practicing around work,” said coach Tony Nock, in his 26th year of coaching and second at Chincoteague after 14 years of coaching at Arcadia. Nock had previous stints at Mary N. Smith Middle School and Broadwater.

“It’s a little different on the island with the tourist industry depending on the youth,” Nock explained. “We try to work with the kids by arranging practices around their jobs, but it became more difficult when the Virginia High School League moved up the starting date of football to late August. We start practice Aug. 1 when our players are really busy with their summer jobs.”

But work is only one factor affecting participation in football, said Nock. “We are fighting a lot of battles. I know some parents are concerned because of all the attention concussion injuries are getting and the fear of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries). Then there are the kids playing one sport with travel ball taking up their time nearly year round. Transportation for some kids in the summer time before there are activity buses available is another problem.”

Nock said he may pick up another four or five kids when school starts, but they will be required to put in the mandated practice time before getting on the field. “It’s a new day. It’s not like it was when everyone played and was out there on day one chomping at the bit for the season to start.”

Still, Nock said his current team is a tightknit group that gets a lot of support from the island. “This is a special place to be coaching,” he said. “The fans love their team and are ready to help any way they can.”

At Northampton High School, coming off back-to-back district titles, numbers are down about 11 players from last year, but assistant coach David Farlow said there’s a clear reason for that. “We graduated 17 seniors from a team that went 8-2 last year. This year we only have six seniors. These things run in cycles.”

But Farlow agreed it’s different from the days when “football was the king.” He explained, “I believe social media is changing our society and kids just don’t feel the need to be part of a group. They are self-absorbed. It’s a shame because football teaches kids how to get through difficult times. It can be work and you must be willing to grind, but football teaches some valuable lessons. Our kids are stronger for having played football, and Coach (J.T.) Edney is holding them accountable and teaching them responsibility.”

But social media is only one reason Farlow offers for the decline in football participation. “There are a plethora of reasons why kids don’t come out like they used to for football. Transportation is a problem for many kids, especially those coming from single-parent homes.”

Farlow also noted that soccer numbers are strong in the youth leagues, but there’s no football available at an early age in Northampton. “Youth football takes money and time,” said Farlow.

Farlow would know because before he joined the high school as an assistant coach eight years ago, remaining on the staff through three head coaches, he was the point man for youth football in Northampton County. He was an integral part of a youth program that produced kids who helped to turn around a high school program that had gone winless for more than three seasons. But now the first exposure to football for many kids is when they reach high school.

Farlow pointed out, however, that football is not the only sport to see a decline in participation. “It used to be 100 kids would come out for the basketball team at Northampton. Now there are only about 30 to 35 trying out. Kids are just not as into sports as they once were.”

Virginia Schools Dropping Football
Broadwater Academy already has been indirectly affected by a decline in football participation. Richmond Christian, a private school in Chesterfield County, has canceled its football season after only five players showed up for the first practice. The school was on Broadwater’s schedule, costing the Vikings a valuable game for a school that has to look a great distance to complete its slate.

A handful of other schools in the state have either dropped football or gone to eight-man squads. Schools who dropped football in 2018 include Charles City and Manassas Park, a state playoff powerhouse not all that long ago. Bruton, a team that has also enjoyed playoff success recently, played an abbreviated schedule last year.

Ron Anson, director of athletics at Broadwater, said numbers are relatively good there, with 25 players on the team compared to as few as 17 in recent years. There are only three seniors on the Viking roster, and Anson expects next year to be even better with a large crop of 11 juniors who have enjoyed past success.

“This junior class was undefeated in football, baseball and basketball when they were eighth graders. We should have a good shot at getting into the playoffs,” said Anson. Coach Eddie Spencer, who coached that unbeaten JV team, is now the Viking varsity football coach.

Anson said planning begins long before the season starts. “We have talks in the spring with the parents of our football players about not planning vacations in August when we start practice.”

Anson added that the middle school football program has 25 players, meaning the school has 50 boys playing football in both programs. “We have a high percentage of boys playing football,” said Anson, who noted that the school’s high school enrollment is about 100 students; less than half are boys.

Still, looking down the road, Anson conceded that the number of football players at Broadwater could be a concern when this year’s junior class graduates.

At Nandua, numbers are up somewhat from last year when the JV squad was so depleted that an abbreviated schedule was played. The Warrior JV and varsity squad total nearly 50 this season.

“It was not that long ago that we only played juniors and seniors at the varsity level, with a few sophomores who were ready seeing some action. Now, we have freshmen seeing playing time,” said Warrior coach Tom Rotkowski, noting that in a preseason scrimmage, he was forced to use a freshman who was playing in his first competitive game ever.

Rotkowski offered a couple of theories on the decline in football participation. “We’re now eight to 10 years since the mainstream media coverage of concussions and the potential effects from playing football, although those close to the game have long been aware of those issues. The impact is that there is enough concern among the parents that we don’t get the fringe players now.”

However, Rotkowski provided another reason for the decline of football participation. “I have discussed this with a number of coaches who agree, but online gaming is becoming a huge factor for kids not getting involved in extracurricular activities. There are students spending up to seven hours a day playing ‘Fortnite,’ and the parents are okay with this because they know where their child is and know he or she is safe,” said Rotkowski, now in his seventh year at Nandua and his fifth year as the head coach. “The crazy thing is that there has been discussion that the VHSL will make online gaming a competitive activity at the high school level in the next five years. There are going to be a lot of sports, not just football, affected by this if that comes about.”

According to Rotkowski, reduced numbers change the way coaches handle their teams.

“There was a time if a player missed five practices, he was off the team. Now, with the numbers being so low, that is not possible. It’s become that the coaches need the players more than the players need the coaches.”

Rotkowski also believes more players would be coming out for football if school started two weeks earlier.

“Our kids are spread out in a rural area, and it is not easy getting them into the building during the summer. This is affecting the smaller schools today, but eventually it will hurt all schools,” said Rotkowski, who was shocked upon hearing Manassas Park had dropped football just a few years after handily beating Nandua in a playoff game in front of a packed stadium.

Arcadia Numbers Up
In an era when many schools are seeing football participation down or only slightly up from historic lows, Arcadia has seen its numbers nearly double since last year under second-year head coach Alan Hall.

Asked what has attracted more than 60 players on the Firebird varsity and JV teams compared to the 17 on the varsity squad when the 2018 season ended, Hall responded, “Having a winning season and making the playoffs for the first time in several years certainly helped. It also didn’t hurt that we had an offense that scored the most points in school history and our team was the fifth most improved out of 307 teams in the state.”
Hall said his numbers are up despite running a rigorous program that amounts to a boot camp in the early weeks of practice when conditioning and strength are emphasized. Hall is a military veteran and three of his assistant coaches are Navy veterans. “We are teaching more than football,” Hall noted. “We are teaching life lessons that hopefully our players can use in whatever they pursue beyond high school.”

Hall, who has coached in both Maine and North Carolina in a 17-year career, said neither he nor any of his staff teaches at the high school. “I feel it’s good our players see fresh faces after being in school all day. My high school football coach was also one of my teachers, and that wasn’t always the best situation.” Hall said he does work with the teachers of his players and seeks help with homework if his players are having trouble in the classroom.
Hall was surprised when he arrived at Arcadia to learn there was no middle school football, which had been dropped in 2004 much to the dismay of area coaches, who predicted the lack of a feeder program would hurt high school football.

Nock, who coached middle school football for four years, recalled seeing 65 kids coming out when there was equipment for only 35. “I said, ‘Boys, look to your right and left, because half of you won’t be here when the season starts.’ I said then that dropping middle school football would drag high school football down,” added Nock, who believes the cost of fielding a team and increasing insurance rates were factors in dropping middle school football.

A Pop Warner team for youth football was established on the Eastern Shore in 2014 with a local team joining a league that plays in Maryland and Delaware. Larry Giddens Jr., one of the founders of the league, said this week that the Eastern Shore will not be fielding a team for the first time in five years, citing prohibitive costs as a major reason. He added that he understands there are efforts to form a local team to participate in Eastern Shore Elite, a football program based on Delmarva.

Wayne Burton, director of Accomack County Parks and Recreation, is in touch with the Eastern Shore Elite league and will soon meet with league officials. Burton, who played football at Onancock High School and Randolph-Macon College, was on the sidelines for local football teams from 1983 until a few years ago, both at the high school and middle school levels. He also recalled times when there were more players coming out for the team than there was equipment. The parks and recreation department ran a youth football league several years ago, but today there is only flag football available. “We don’t have a tackle football league mainly because of a lack of coaches,” said Burton. “You need coaches who can teach the game properly.”

Burton said in his 35 years of coaching, there were minimal issues with concussions. “I would get on a kid more for hitting with his head down than anything else. Teaching the proper fundamentals is the key to avoiding injuries.”

Burton said he understands the challenges high school coaches are facing in fielding football squads today. “There’s not just one thing working against them. It’s a whole host of reasons kids aren’t coming out like they used to for football. It’s a shame because football is a great team sport that teaches valuable lessons you use your entire life.”

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