Column: Difficult choices necessary to save small football teams
To me, there are few things more fun than going to a small-school high school football game.
In fact, it’s why I’m in this business.
Not many things beat a nice brisk night, pulling up in a gravel lot to a stadium that seats 2,000 people at most and taking in a game between two groups of kids that have known each other their entire lives.
They may not have room in the press box, and may not have a press box at all, but it has character. There’s a beauty in its simplicity. Same with the football itself. In the era of the spread offense dominating the game, there’s a certain charm to seeing a team rush the ball 50 times a game nowadays.
Unfortunately, it looks as if there’s going to be fewer and fewer of those Friday nights, as population loss and an overall decrease in interest in the sport may be taking its toll on some of our area programs.
Chalker, Windham and Mathews were all forced to play eight-man games in the last few seasons. With the population continuing to trend downward, other schools may soon join that list.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Schools are finding ways to keep their programs afloat — at least at the middle school level — with co-ops between neighboring districts.
For example, Chalker and Windham have entered an agreement to combine middle school programs in an effort to give its respective players the chance to develop before reaching ninth grade.
Last season, an already chaotic year, eight of Chalker’s starters had never played organized football before. Jim Wolke, who coached the Wildcats last season in his fourth stint with the program, called last season a victory due to the kids’ perseverance alone.
Justin Kren, an assistant coach on last year’s team and the new head coach for Chalker, thinks situations like this are going to have to become the norm, otherwise programs are going to start to disappear.
“In the next few years, it’s going to be very necessary, or we’re gonna see programs go away,” he said. “That’s just numbers. I know around here, everybody’s struggling. You can always shell out good numbers before the season starts, but when push comes to shove, and you’re actually getting ready to go into it, your real numbers work themselves out. There’s not a lot of numbers around here in these small schools.
“I don’t know why people hate the concept and don’t want to merge it (if necessary). If you like coming Friday nights and seeing these kids play, you should be on board with what we’re doing and giving these kids every opportunity they can get to play the game.”
An option going forward for schools could be some kind of exchange program. Kren noted that Bristol, a neighboring school district, has a soccer program, but no football program, whereas Chalker has football but no soccer. In the future, an exchange program could be established where athletes could be able to play a sport they want without leaving their home district.
“We could open up enrollments where these kids can stay in their home school,” Kren said. “Say Bristol would come here and play football or a kid from Chalker can go to Bristol and play soccer. If we want to keep seeing Friday night football, that’s I think one of the things that’s going to have to happen here in the near future.”
That’s arguably the “best of both worlds” scenario. School mergers are another option, but that’s a stretch for two districts to merge just to maintain a football program. If schools are merging, thoughts of maintaining football would be an afterthought at that point.
I know that’s a touchy subject, as people don’t want to lose their sense of identity within a community. Coming from Warren, I’ve seen that topic debated back and forth my entire life, and I know what that identity means to people.
However, it may reach the point where that solution looks more and more viable.
That leaves the worst option however. If you don’t see something happening soon, we might see the worst scenario unfold, and small schools will begin dropping football altogether. I don’t think anyone wants to see that.
So to save the Friday nights northeast Ohio holds so dear, there may have to be an adjustment. Schools are going to have to get creative. I hope we can find a solution soon, because I’m not ready to give up those Friday nights just yet.