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Sports teams all over are seeing a decline in numbers; B-A is holding steady
January 25, 2022
Who would have thought a decade ago that Juniata Valley and Williamsburg would have to combine to field a football team? These two schools have had a storied rivalry and now depend on each other for gridiron success.
Their situation is not unique. it is a part of a growing trend of fewer students participating in high school sports. Numbers published by National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), high school sports participation actually declined in the 2018-19 school year for the first time in 20 years. In general, every sport saw a drop in participants.
Fortunately for coaches at Bellwood-Antis, B-A has managed to buck the trend, for the most part. B-A Athletic Director Charlie Burch, he believes there is a negative trend as well.
“Overall, we have seen a decline in high school sports participation in our country and state,” said Bellwood-Antis athletic director Charlie Burch. “Some sports have been impacted in Bellwood and the ICC (Inter-County Conference) more than others. Five years ago, the ICC moved up all ninth graders to help field junior varsity teams. However, I still get a lot of cancellations and have to fill those empty spots in our JV schedule.”
Take Glendale, for example, which played a varsity football game with only 14 players this year. Even though they still won the game, it was very tough on the players and the coaches physically and mentally. Coach Dave Trexler from Glendale told the Altoona Mirror, “It’s very difficult because the most important thing to me as caretaker of this program is the safety of my players. Playing a game with such low numbers adds not only to a player’s physical workload, but it affects them mentally as well.”
In 2018, the Inter-County Conference required all freshman to move up to varsity sports in a desperation effort to raise numbers. The action would have been unheard of a decade ago and it raises the question if kids are losing interest in sports not only on the local level, but nationally as well. Many reasons can be blamed for the decline, such as students getting jobs and not being as active as in the past. In the end it begs the question: considering B-A already shares three sports with Tyrone in a co-op, could the time come when the two rival sports programs combine?
CHANGE FROM THE PAST and CURRENT STRUGGLES
Based on just the eye test, the numbers of students participating in sports seem to have been higher in all sports at B-A years ago. Team pictures found in the Tuckahoe yearbook from the 80s and 90s feature more players than teams of today, and taking into consideration that freshman are more involved now, it gives the impression that numbers are dropping for high school sports at Bellwood-Antis.
In 1986, the Blue Devil wrestling program had 36 participants in varsity and junior high combined. Today, there are 15 wrestlers overall in the entire program, and most matches are lost because the Devils cannot fill weight classes and are forced to forfeit. In 1990, the football team fielded 50 players, which outnumbers the current team, which had 47 players in 2021.
When talking about female sports, Bellwood-Antis used to field 50-player field hockey teams in the 80s and 90s, which outnumbers all four fall sports that Bellwood offers for girls now. What makes these numbers more significant is that today’s teams use all four grades while the past teams only had players from grades 10-12.
“There wasn’t much to do in those times. Nobody had phones and not a lot of kids worked,” said Nick Lovrich, B-A’s football and track coach who was a Blue Devil athlete during the 1990s. “Also, there were a lot less options, with cross country, soccer, and swimming being added recently.”
One sport that has remained strong throughout times is varsity basketball, which actually has more players today than previous years. Overall however, all signs point to there being a slight decline in sports participation at B-A.
Bellwood-Antis Baseball coach Steve Conlon doesn’t experience any participation issues, but notices the problem elsewhere.
“We’ve always had solid baseball numbers here at Bellwood, but other schools in our area certainly struggle to bring together teams. When we head to Glendale or Williamsburg, they struggle to get 10 or 11 kids to come out for baseball,” Conlon stated.
Burch also noticed that students’ interests are reaching outside of what the school has to offer.
“Some students have other interests that do not involve sports, while some students like to specialize in one sport, and that has impacted us at times at Bellwood-Antis.” Burch stated.
With the technology boom of cell phones, video games, and television, kids need to find money through jobs to pay for these desired items. In decades past, the big expense may have been only a car.
Kids deal with a lot more financial stress and bills compared to past years.”
— Coach Lovrich
Coach Lovrich believes that jobs certainly have an effect on the turnout of kids to play sports.
“Kids deal with a lot more financial stress and bills compared to past years,” he said. “Nobody had a cell phone bill to worry about and very few kids had a car (in past years).”
The biggest factor that plays into this is certainly the income of the child’s family. According to an article by Education Week, if a child’s family’s income is below the poverty line, the chance he will play sports is 28 percent. However, if a child’s income is above the poverty line, the chances the child plays sports in high school increases dramatically to 50 percent.
The problem with low participation numbers is being addressed pretty smoothly by local schools. However, it takes more than one school to solve the issue. Co-op sports teams are becoming very common to build sufficient numbers to field a team.
At Bellwood some sports have combined with Tyrone to create teams for soccer, swimming, and tennis and with Bishop Guilfoyle to play hockey.
Blairsville and Saltsburg recently combined to create River Valley while Juniata Valley and Williamsburg combined for football. This shows that local schools are not afraid to make a move if they see it is necessary which begs the question: what does the future look like for Bellwood? Could we see a co-op with Tyrone in more sports, including football?
Only time will tell what the future holds for local and national high school athletics.
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