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Shrinking rosters hit high school football around Erie, state

Erie Times-News 10/25/2019 By Tom Reisenweber, Erie Times-News
a group of people standing next to a fence: Members of the Iroquois Junior/Senior High School football team get ready to play Seneca High School on Oct. 11 at Seneca's Bob Diffenbacher Field. The team has dressed as few as 18 players in a game this season. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS/Erie Times-News/TNS Members of the Iroquois Junior/Senior High School football team get ready to play Seneca High School on Oct. 11 at Seneca's Bob Diffenbacher Field. The team has dressed as few as 18 players in a game this season. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

The football coaching staffs at Iroquois Junior/Senior High School and Seneca High School are full of former players.

During each practice, some of those assistants line up at positions they played during their glory days.

The coaches don't wear pads. There's no contact. But they're stand-ins nonetheless, one of the repercussions of a trend of shrinking high school football rosters in Pennsylvania.

"We've had to scale back practice at least 30 minutes a day from our normal schedule," Iroquois coach Matt Morgan said. "We've had to limit contact, block against hand shields more often, do more defensive recognition and more walkthroughs. We've had coaches line up at positions on our scout team so players could see where an offensive player would be."

"We usually have between 17 and 20 players at a given practice, and we have five coaches, so the guys get a lot of individual coaching," Seneca High School coach Scott Bollheimer said. "The difficulty we have is during our team period. Some of our coaches have to line up on scout team, and even with some coaches in there, we are still playing 11-on-9."

From cancellations and forfeits on the varsity level to scrambling to find junior varsity games, small schools in District 10 are struggling to keep a full roster throughout a regular season that ends this weekend.

This season, Fairview High School and Seneca were forced to cancel games, Sharpsville Area High School asked to play a second half with shorter quarters and Cambridge Springs Junior/Senior High School forfeited its playoff game because of low roster numbers after multiple injuries.

Similar incidents occurred in 2018, when Seneca canceled one regular-season game and Lakeview High School pulled out of the playoffs after the opt-out deadline.

The trend has taken hold among small schools across the state. On Wednesday afternoon, Conemaugh Valley High School in Johnstown announced its season finale had been canceled because the team has just 12 healthy players. It was the second straight injury-related forfeit for Conemaugh Valley.

A week ago, Philipsburg-Osceola High School canceled the remainder of its season because of a roster leveled by injuries. Bishop Canevin High School and Shady Side Academy also forfeited games this season. In eastern Pennsylvania, Holy Cross High School canceled its entire season in August because of low roster numbers and Marian Catholic High School also forfeited a game.

In District 10, Youngsville High School in Warren County folded its program a few years ago because of low roster numbers. Youngsville students now play at Warren Area High School through a co-operative agreement, while schools like Saegertown Junior/Senior High School and Seneca toil to keep their programs going each season. Iroquois, Sharpsville and Union City Area High School joined the list of schools dangerously close to losing games because of injuries and roster challenges.

"I think there are several factors for low roster numbers, including students not having parents (pushing them) to 'stick it out' when things get tough. There are also less physically-taxing activities, like video games and e-sports, and academic demands as well," Morgan said. "Probably the biggest reason this year is the 6A classification and D-10 alignment that has forced us to play teams that we aren't even able to compete with. Long-time rivalries have been destroyed, the ability to play only one junior varsity game all season. We are required to travel more and, unfortunately, that has taken the fun out of the game for many kids."

a group of people in a field: The Seneca High School football team takes on Iroquois Junior/Senior High School on Oct. 11 at Seneca's Bob Diffenbacher Field. Seneca forfeited a game earlier in the season because of a lack of healthy players. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS/Erie Times-News/TNS The Seneca High School football team takes on Iroquois Junior/Senior High School on Oct. 11 at Seneca's Bob Diffenbacher Field. Seneca forfeited a game earlier in the season because of a lack of healthy players. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

Struggles on the lower levels

While several factors are affecting varsity rosters, a lack of interest on the lower levels plays a key role.

In District 10, just two freshman teams, Cathedral Preparatory School and McDowell High School, played full schedules. Erie High School was able to play just three games. Fort LeBoeuf High School canceled its schedule after two games and moved the freshmen up to the junior varsity team.

It wasn't easy on the junior varsity level, either.

Most D-10 schools have a junior varsity team, but some had to cancel their seasons because of low numbers on the varsity level. Seneca and West Middlesex High School did not have a junior varsity team, while Union City canceled the junior varsity season because of low numbers on the varsity level.

"We start each season with the hope and intention of playing junior varsity games," said Penncrest Athletic Director Dana Mason, who is in charge of the schedules for Cambridge Springs, Maplewood Junior/Senior High School and Saegertown. "I make a junior varsity schedule for all three of my teams, complete with transportation and officials. None of the three played a full schedule due to us canceling or our opponents canceling."

The trend of low roster numbers can also be seen at the junior level. Cathedral Prep coach Mike Mischler runs the Erie Youth Tackle Football League, which has produced some of the top players in Erie over the past decade.

"Unfortunately, numbers are down significantly across the board in football from youth football through high school. College and professional football will probably never suffer from the reduction in numbers as the lower levels, but you may eventually see a drop in the quality of athlete competing collegiately if trends continue," Mischler said. "Simply put, the media hysteria and concussion campaign is working. What are we doing about it at the state and local levels? What are we doing to market our sports and to get new testing data into the hands of parents? The answer is nothing, at least not in Pennsylvania. We are too busy worrying about who gets a trophy at the end of a high school season than to worry about the very essence of our survival."

Canceling games

When rosters shrink, one of the toughest conversations that athletic directors, coaches and athletic trainers have is whether a team has a sufficient number of players for Friday night. Not only does the school have to consider its own fans and student-athletes, but the opposing community as well.

Fairview, Iroquois, Saegertown, Seneca and Union City have all faced a tough decision at different points this year.

"A lot goes into canceling a game. It's a very difficult decision because coaches and players want to play the game, and we know the other school's players and coaches and fans want to see the game," Seneca Athletic Director Steve Carter said. "We don't have a specific policy on how many healthy kids there has to be to play the game. We take into account the age and position of the kids. Numbers don't mean as much if you have all freshmen or don't have any linemen to suit up for a game."

To fill in for injured athletes, players often have to move to positions for which they are not physically suited.

"We have definitely had to reshuffle players' positions, but most drastically is having to play freshmen and sophomores on offense, defense and special teams in varsity games with next to no breaks," Morgan said.

Underclassmen are often significantly smaller and not as physically developed as upperclassmen. That creates greater injury risks.

The low numbers have led to down seasons. Seneca has lost 19 games in a row, including back-to-back 0-9 seasons, while Iroquois' only win this season has come against Seneca. Saegertown is on a 38-game losing streak since 2015.

"It's hard work, but we see a better future," Saegertown lineman Reese Larson said during training camp. "That's what we are out here fighting for."

The future?

With rosters shrinking and small schools struggling to finish seasons, the future of high school football could be addressed in several ways. Schools entering PIAA-approved co-ops together could be one solution. Consolidation could be another option among schools in the same school district.

The Conneaut School District's and the Erie School District's consolidations were not driven by sports, but each program experienced solid results afterward. Conneaut was the result of a consolidation of Conneaut Lake, Conneaut Valley and Linesville high schools. The Eagles won a District 10 championship within a few years of consolidation.

Erie School District consolidated Central Tech, East and Strong Vincent high schools and won a district title in Erie High's first season.

Another idea is eight-player football. It's trending in several parts of the country and one area in eastern Pennsylvania. The newly-formed Keystone State Football League features four schools that play eight-man football: Perkiomen School, Delaware County Christian, Valley Forge Military Academy and Mercersburg Academy.

"Smaller schools in some states have shifted to six-player, eight-player and nine-player football and have had good responses," said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of High Schools. "A recent survey indicates an additional 156 schools and 1,594 participants involved in these alternate forms of the sport; and, in the past 10 years, participation by girls in 11-player football has doubled, with more than 2,400 participants this past year."

Kennedy Catholic High School disbanded its football program in the past decade and entered a co-op with Sharon. This year, Kennedy Catholic had a junior varsity team and plans to bring back its varsity team in fall 2020.

While low numbers, concussions and safety are being addressed by football governing bodies, small schools are struggling. Iroquois dressed 18 players during its most recent game, and Union City had between 16 and 18 healthy players the past three weeks.

With different solutions being presented each year to raise participation, District 10 football could have an ever-changing look over the next few decades.

Tom Reisenweber can be reached at 870-1707 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNreisenweber.

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©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)

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