Small schools deal with small numbers for football

The small-school scourge devoured Rockwood High School’s football program this season.

After entering a preseason scrimmage against Tussey Mountain with just 12 players on its roster, and losing one more during that game with a shoulder injury, Rockwood made the decision to cancel its 2013 season before it even began.

Whether Rockwood, a District 5 program that competed in the WestPAC conference, will revive its football program in the future remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain – Rockwood is not alone in its struggle to field adequate football numbers.

Ferndale, a District 6-A school, had just 20 players out for football this year, and its program is hanging by a thread. Johnsonburg, a District 9 school, eliminated its football program for the 2013 season and decided on a co-op arrangement with Ridgway.

For high schools with small overall numbers in their sophomore through senior classes and smaller numbers yet in their senior graduating classes, the number of players available for a football program are at a premium.

Williamsburg has faced that situation for many years. Fifth-year Blue Pirates coach Bob Hearn has 21 players on his roster this year.

“I’m down from previous years,” Hearn said. “But so is the enrollment in our high school. I think there are only 12 or 13 boys in the entire sophomore class, and just over 50 boys in the top three grades.”

The odds are against Williamsburg in football, and have been for some time. But in some ways, Hearn considers his program blessed.

“You’ll have those special years where you’ll end up with a large number of athletes, but the law of averages isn’t in your favor as the school’s enrollment continues to drop,” Hearn said. “For Williamsburg, this isn’t untraveled ground. But we still have nearly half of the boys in our total student enrollment out for football here. We’ve always had a good percentage of our kids out for football.”

While gifted athletes at the state’s bigger high schools play for Division I scholarships and may even eye professional football careers, at smaller schools like Williamsburg, it’s simply the passion for the game that keeps players turning out.

“There are more options for kids today than what there used to be,” Hearn said. “I think some athletes are becoming one-sport athletes who just want to focus on that sport, and the fact that there has been a lot of attention given to [concussion-related] injuries in sports in recent years, I think, concerns a lot of kids and their parents.”

At small schools like Williamsburg, the emphasis is not only on getting enough players out for football, but also about keeping them healthy enough to participate in the games and practices all season long.

“We don’t have a lot of kids out, and it is always a concern that you have enough numbers to put players safely on the field,” Hearn said.

Williamsburg isn’t the only small-school high school football program that has been more cognizant of keeping players injury-free.

Glendale, another District 6-A school, canceled its junior varsity program again this season for that reason.

“We didn’t have a junior varsity season last year, either,” said second-year Glendale head coach Matt Irvine, who has 29 varsity players under his direction. “We usually like to have [a junior varsity season], but with smaller schools, you don’t want to have kids play twice a week – [junior varsity games on Mondays and varsity games on Fridays] – for six to eight weeks, because that really jumps up the possibility of kids getting hurt.”

Juniata Valley coach Mike Smith believes it might be a good idea to allow some freshmen to play at the varsity level. Smith himself was a multi-sport standout at Juniata Valley in the late 1980s, and played varsity football as a freshman.

“At Inter-County Conference meetings after the season, we’ve kicked around the idea of bringing ninth graders up [to the varsity] to ensure that the small schools can survive,” Smith said. “Some schools in the WestPAC do that, and those schools tend to have decent numbers every year with which to field teams. I think that’s something we need to look at.”

Tweaking practice workouts to alter contact drills is another way Smith tries to level the playing field for Juniata Valley, which has 26 players on the field this season.

“When I first started as a head coach here 10 years ago, we had 39 or 40 players on the roster, and it was very easy to practice,” Smith said. “Now, as a coach, I’ve had to become a little more creative. We’re trying to make practices as competitive as possible, but we’re trying to keep our kids healthy as well.”

Keeping players from attacking each other’s legs in tackling drills, and instituting “thud” sessions in lieu of all-out tackling workouts, are two options that Smith has used to safeguard his players’ health.

“For individual sessions, we try to stay off the legs as much as possible,” Smith said. “We’ve cut down on our injuries quite a bit, because in football, you tend to get most of your injuries from the waist down.”

First-year Claysburg-Kimmel coach Gabe Walter knows all about the perils of injuries for a small football school. The Bulldogs -who, like Williamsburg, Glendale and Juniata Valley, compete at the Class A level – have 36 players on this year’s roster.

“That’s as large a number as we’ve had in several years,” Walter said.

But nine players sustained injuries before the season opener, so there’s never a dull moment for schools like Claysburg.

“Small-school coaching is tough,” Walter said. “You don’t always have a lot of depth per position, and that’s where it gets difficult. If a kid gets hurt, if a kid is ineligible, if a kid who you were counting on doesn’t come out for the team, you have to be a creative coach and get players to cross-train their skill set.

“One week, a player at a smaller school may be a guard, and the next week, he may be a fullback, because that’s where he’s needed.”