Outnumbered: Why South Shore athletic numbers have shrunk to levels of major concern
In 1991, the South Shore was a football hotbed.
Both Whittell and South Tahoe high schools advanced to their respective Nevada state championship games, and there were many reinforcements waiting in the wings ready to sustain that success.
Sixteen years later, the Vikings and Warriors are being impacted by years of declining enrollment and coaching turnover.
South Tahoe, which plays in the state’s largest classification (4A), has played most of its varsity season with 18 players. When the Vikings hosted Douglas last Saturday at Viking Bowl, the Tigers had 50 players on their sideline.
“There was a time that I thought, oh my god, we could be in a situation where we have to forfeit a game for lack of players,” said STHS first-year coach Chris Morgan. “If I had 14 or 15 kids to play against Douglas, I’d say it’s not worth it, because you’d put some kids in position where you’re jeopardizing their health.”
Morgan saw the same thing happen when he took over the Incline program in 2002, so he’s not overly concerned about STHS’s present lack of numbers.
“My first year there I had 20 kids and my second year I had 35,” said Morgan, who was an off-campus coach with the Highlanders but on campus at STHS. “That stability showed in one year, and I’m hoping the same thing will happen here. Our major concern is the lower levels.”
Whittell has had even smaller numbers to work with than South Tahoe.
The Warriors started the season with 20 players. But over the course of the season, whether it’s been because of injuries or ineligible players, Whittell has seen a steady decline in the number of available players.
In recent games, the Warriors had only 13 players suited up. At practice on Wednesday, they had 15 players in pads.
“I think in many ways, you have no choice but to try and see the positives,” said WHS assistant coach David Atherton, who was a star running back for the Warriors in the mid-1990s when the team had a varsity and a JV team, with about 20 players on each. “I’d love to have 60 kids on the team right now, but the fact is we don’t. I am trying to establish that even if we are stuck in low numbers ” and that’s just how it’s going to be ” attitude remains important for me.”
Despite the limited numbers, South Tahoe beat Northern 4A playoff-bound North Valleys on homecoming and lost close games to Wooster, Carson and Damonte Ranch. The Vikings, though, still finished 1-9 ” their third consecutive season with only one victory.
Whittell, meanwhile, snapped a 26-game losing streak with a 40-6 drubbing of Hawthorne its season opener on Sept 1. It was the team’s first win since 2002 ” the last season that Whittell made the 2A state playoffs.
The Warriors had to cancel the 2003 season due to low numbers and didn’t win a single game from 2004-06. But they finished 2-7 this season and had the ability to score points against any team in the Northern 2A.
Still, limited numbers hurt the team.
“You get to that fourth quarter and everybody is tired because they have been working hard the entire game,” said sophomore Cody Nelson. “That’s when the numbers start to hurt you. I think we can survive on this amount of numbers, but it would sure help to have more players. It would help to build the program to what it once was.”
After taking over the STHS program last year, Morgan didn’t waste any time trying to replenish the program with new players. He had hoped that by changing the team’s helmet, logo and uniforms, more students would be attracted to the program.
“I beat the bush around here trying to get kids excited about football. There are lots of kids on this campus that don’t want to play football for some reason,” he said. “We’ll play off the homecoming victory and hopefully we’ll win another game and say, ‘We’re headed in the right direction.'”
There are a variety of reasons why both schools have had low participation in football; the first being coaching stability.
Whittell head coach John Summers, who also coached the game in 1998 and 1999 when it played in the Northern 3A, was hired in February of 2006. At the time, he was the school’s eighth coach in nine seasons. Not surprisingly, the Warriors had only two winning seasons during the span.
The Vikings have had four different head coaches in the past four years. A lack of coaching continuity has likely contributed to students choosing other extra-curricular activities or new players simply can’t adjust to a new coach’s demands.
“Honestly, we get a bunch of players to come out, but they just screw up,” said junior receiver/defensive back Chris Klug. “Now that we have these coaches here and they’re building a stronger program, I think we’re going to start getting more players out. When we change coaches every single year, it’s tough.”
Morgan started the season with 30 varsity players, but disciplinary measures and injuries have reduced his roster to 18.
“A lot of people have been kicked off for stupid reasons. We need to stop that and all come together,” said junior tight end Mike Burns.
In addition to the lack of coaching consistency, another common argument is that soccer, a popular fall sport on South Shore, is taking kids away from the two football programs.
At a 2A school like Whittell, which has just over 200 students, there are only a finite amount of male student-athletes to go around. Still, Atherton isn’t buying that theory.
“There are plenty of kids on that soccer team who could be contributing on this football team,” Atherton said. “Heck, I would’ve loved to have Kelly Karmann (6-foot-2 volleyball player now at Cornell University) contributing to the football team last year. The problem isn’t soccer. There were soccer teams when Whittell football was in the playoffs.
“I think one of the main things is winning ball games. Those years where we weren’t winning, why would a kid want to come play for a team that is getting beat 60-0? With us winning games now, other kids see there are people excited about football again.”
At South Tahoe, which has an enrollment of 1,400 students ” about average for a Northern 4A school ” the soccer argument doesn’t apply either. The Vikings were competing for state championships in boys’ soccer in the late 1990s at the same time the football team was competing for regional championships in football.
A revolving door of coaches and a culture of losing seems to be the biggest culprits.
“We have to pick the numbers up,” said STHS offensive coordinator Todd McIntyre, who has been associated with the football program for two decades. “Having one guy on campus is going to help. If you keep turning over coaches for four years, and the kids we lost because they don’t want to be part of a losing program …. it’s just gonna take time.”
With both schools hiring coaches who are entrenched in the area and who have ties to their respective football programs, the campaign to attract players has already begun. Current STHS team members are trying implore their friends to come out.
“A bunch of my friends say that they want to play next year just because it’s their senior year,” Klug said. “We have the strong 18 showing up every day, we’re working our (butts) off and we’re doing what the coaches tell us to do.”
“I think more kids will come out,” added junior lineman Chris Ewing. “I think they’re not coming out because we don’t win very often, but obviously they don’t know how much fun it is.”
Both Lake Tahoe Unified School District and the lake schools in Nevada’s Douglas County School District are experiencing declining enrollment, so recruiting might not be enough.
LTUSD reached its peak enrollment during the 1996-97 school year when it had almost 6,000 students. At the start of the 2007-08 school year, total enrollment had dropped to 4,210.
In Douglas County, total lake enrollment reached its peak in 1997-98 when it had 942 students. This year, current enrollment estimates are around 600. As a result, the district is shutting down Kingsbury Middle School after this year, integrating seventh- and eighth-graders into Whittell High School.
With declining enrollment a reality neither football program can fix, exposing kids to football at a young age is another tactic the schools’ coaches are hoping will attract new players.
The youth football season for South Lake Tahoe Pop Warner teams, who play under the umbrella of Northern Nevada’s Sagebrush Empire League, runs from August through October, with several playoff-bound teams playing into November. The local league was able to field teams in each age division this season.
“I have always encourage parents to introduce their boys to football through the Pop Warner program because the likelihood of injury is minor since the children are all like aged and like weight,” said Scott Morgan, a Pop Warner coach and parent of a Whittell football player. “The possibility of serious injury is minimal and far less than skiing, basketball and even soccer. Once a child learns their skills and how to hit properly through Pop Warner, they are able to better protect themselves when it comes to high school where the speed and impact of the game increases.”
Atherton, though, would like to see youth football be more visible year-round.
“This summer, I’d like to start a flag football league at Kahle for youth, for the little ones, the 5 to 14-year-old kids so they can be exposed to the sport,” Atherton said. “All these kids are exposed to soccer, and that’s not to knock on soccer. I think it’s great for any community when kids are doing something, but many kids don’t know much about football. We have kids who come out and don’t know what a guard or a tackle is. They don’t know basic things.
“And, with the middle school closing down, I’d love to have interested seventh- and eighth-graders out here just watching practice and being around football. We’re going to fight to keep this program going.”
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