Pender High School’s head football coach and recently named activities director for 2017-18, Andy Welsh, took a room full of concerned district patrons through the facts on Monday night.
And when it comes to the Pendragons’ football program, the projections for the next several years are looking kind of bleak.
Not only are the number of boys in the school dipping for a time (even as female numbers jump), so too has the percentage of students who are choosing to participate in a fall sport like football or cross country. That’s two problems no school wants to have at the same time.
In 2017, a total of 18 boys are expected to participate in football. That includes eight seniors and just three juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen. In 2018, the numbers will likely dip again as fewer freshmen will come out for football than are graduating.
When one factors in injuries, transfers or changes of heart, that could lead to fewer numbers that make it difficult to field a competitive team and maybe even impossible to have a junior varsity season. That, in turn, hurts development of players. It’s a bad cycle to be in.
Welsh shared projected numbers all of the way up through the 2023 season, and there is a time coming when boy numbers will rise and even push Pender back toward 11-man football. But in the meantime, what do we do?
Fortunately, some recent rule changes adopted by the Nebraska School Activities Association will level the playing field a bit for Pender. In the next cycle of classifications, the number of boys in a school will be separated out from the total population to determine football classes. That is going to put Pender on the bubble for eligibility in D2.
The problem is still participation rates, though. For example, the upcoming 11th grade class has 13 boys in it, but only 38 percent of them are planning to participate in a fall sport. Whether it be football or cross country, that’s just too many boys who aren’t doing anything. That’s a concern.
Welsh spent a lot of time taking parents through the many changes in the sport relative to how they practice, technique changes and how live drills are performed now that concussions are high on the radar across all levels of football. Some of these items are mandated, and some are done because Welsh and the other coaches believe in them. The fact is that, in 2016, in every level of football in Pender, ranging from third grade to 12th grade, there were zero concussions.
“That’s not by accident or coincidence,” Welsh said.
As a coach, he was hoping to alleviate some concerns families may have about the sport’s safety. He was clear there are never any guarantees, but much is being done to promote head safety. Everything from more rigorous fitting of helmets to how they tackle has been considered.
The consensus at the meeting from those who spoke appeared to be that our best option is to keep playing through the “lean years” as Pender High School. There are no real viable co-op options available as Emerson-Hubbard to the north has healthy boy numbers in the next few years and other schools would likely see a rise in their state classification by taking on another school.
The idea of six-man football was floated, but not seriously.
Welsh will be sending out an internet questionnaire for those who attended the meeting to fill out, and it will also be published in an upcoming edition of The Pender Times for more community members to provide input.
We don’t have much control over the number of boys born in the school district. However, the participation rates for football and boys cross country haven’t been written yet for the future. In my mind, there is still time to affect a cultural shift in our community and to encourage these students to be more active in fall athletics.
The NSAA has taken a positive and logical step in leveling the playing field with how it determines classes in football. But if more of our male students don’t participate, even that won’t help. And that is on us.
We need to actively identify what it is about our youth programs and our expectations for our students to wrap our brains around why there’s a seemingly sudden disinterest in a sport that does build character and pride for the community. Maybe more important than finding a co-op partner is finding a mirror.