Foot­ball’s wane hasn’t reached Le­high Val­ley

While teams na­tion­wide lose play­ers, par­tic­i­pa­tion re­mains strong in Colo­nial League, EPC pro­grams

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Stephen Miller

While na­tion­wide par­tic­i­pa­tion in high school foot­ball has trended down­ward over the past five years, the Le­high Val­ley re­mains one of the spots where the sport is healthy.

The Morn­ing Call con­tacted the 12 Colo­nial League schools that play foot­ball, plus the 12 East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Con­fer­ence pro­grams in the Le­high Val­ley. Ath­letic di­rec­tors at 16 of those 24 schools re­sponded, with 14 ADs re­port­ing that foot­ball ros­ter sizes at their schools have re­mained steady or grown over the past three to five years.

The United States, mean­while, has had 77,604 fewer high school foot­ball play­ers, or 7.2%, over the past five years,

ac­cord­ing to Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of State High School As­so­ci­a­tion sur­vey data. The NFHS, which con­sists of 50 state as­so­ci­a­tions and the Dis­trict of Columbia, has compiled yearly par­tic­i­pa­tion sur­veys since 1971. The PIAA is one of the state as­so­ci­a­tions that re­ports par­tic­i­pa­tion data to the NFHS.

Penn­syl­va­nia is one of 43 states in which par­tic­i­pa­tion in 11-player tackle foot­ball de­creased last year, though the drop was mi­nus­cule. The state went from 25,605 play­ers to 25,515, a de­crease of 90 play­ers, or 0.35%.

Over the past five years, Penn­syl­va­nia has ex­pe­ri­enced only a 1.9% drop. That num­ber is con­sis­tent with the state’s 2.0% pop­u­la­tion drop in high school-age boys (data is for ages 15-19) from 2014-17 (cen­sus data isn’t avail­able yet for last year).

When fac­tor­ing in pop­u­la­tion changes of high schoolage boys (0.65% in­crease), par­tic­i­pa­tion na­tion­ally in foot­ball has de­creased by 7.8%.

Ros­ter sizes na­tion­wide have also seen only a small dip. The av­er­age ros­ter has gone from 73 boys to 70 boys (fresh­man, ju­nior var­sity and var­sity) over the past two years. The num­ber of schools of­fer­ing 11-player tackle foot­ball ac­tu­ally in­creased by 168 last sea­son, climb­ing to 14,247 schools.

The in­creased aware­ness of con­cus­sions and their longterm health im­pact is of­ten cited as a prime rea­son for de­clin­ing num­bers in high school foot­ball na­tion­wide. While fear of con­cus­sions may ac­count for a few kids not play­ing foot­ball lo­cally, Le­high Val­ley ath­letic di­rec­tors who re­sponded to The Morn­ing Call did not men­tion con­cus­sion

“The key is, are these kids go­ing to stick to­gether?” — Catasauqua Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Tom Moll

fears as a drain on ros­ters.

Catasauqua Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Tom Moll said on-field strug­gles, not con­cus­sions, have led to smaller foot­ball ros­ters at his school. The Rough Riders have fea­tured around 30 var­sity and ju­nior var­sity play­ers the past two sea­sons. Their ros­ter size sat in the low 40s ear­lier this decade when the team en­joyed more suc­cess.

A good mid­dle school team could boost Catasauqua’s foot­ball par­tic­i­pa­tion in the next few years.

“The key is, are these kids go­ing to stick to­gether?” Moll said. “Are they go­ing to stay here in terms of go­ing to school here? All that stuff is such a big vari­able.”

Hav­ing a few small classes can also cause foot­ball ros­ters to fluc­tu­ate. North­ern Le­high had four straight years with sin­gle-digit player par­tic­i­pa­tion per grade. Its num­bers have started trend­ing up­ward again, putting it on pace to fea­ture the 40 or so var­sity and JV play­ers that were com­mon ear­lier in the decade.

Bryan Geist, North­ern Le­high ath­letic di­rec­tor and Colo­nial League pres­i­dent, said good lead­er­ship at the youth level has helped boost par­tic­i­pa­tion.

“We bot­tomed out last year at 31,” Geist said. “This year we’re up to 38, and with our sev­enth and eighth graders, we have two classes of 13 par­tic­i­pat­ing in foot­ball. So we’re pro­ject­ing to be in the low 40s next year and the mid-40s by the fol­low­ing year.”

While smaller Colo­nial League schools such as Catasauqua, North­ern Le­high and Pen Ar­gyl strug­gle with ros­ter size at times, the league’s larger schools are fine. South­ern Le­high, North­west­ern Le­high and Sau­con Val­ley re­ported con­sis­tent ros­ter num­bers in the high 40s to low 50s. Wil­son’s ros­ter re­turned to the mid-50s this sea­son af­ter it dipped to the high 30s in 2016.

Le­high Val­ley schools in the EPC, which fea­tures larger schools than the Colo­nial League, have plenty of stu­dentss play­ing foot­ball. Nowhere is that more ev­i­dent than Eas­ton, where ros­ter to­tals from mid­dle school to high school top 200 play­ers. The Red Rovers fea­ture 109 play­ers on their ju­nior var­sity and var­sity ros­ters.

Em­maus, Free­dom, Lib­erty and Northamp­ton also re­ported steady foot­ball par­tic­i­pa­tion for fresh­man, JV and var­sity foot­ball. Free­dom, for in­stance, has av­er­aged 55 var­sity and JV foot­ball play­ers in the past three to five years, Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Nate Stan­nard said in an email. Its fresh­man num­bers have in­creased over the past two years, with 35 play­ers turn­ing out this sea­son.

While Penn­syl­va­nia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion has re­mained steady (0.1% in­crease) over the past five years when fac­tor­ing change in pop­u­la­tion, four other states ex­pe­ri­enced in­creases. Hawaii (4.4%) had the largest in­crease, fol­lowed by Ver­mont (3.8%), North Dakota (3.5%) and Alabama (2.2%). Washington, D.C., had an 11.2% in­crease, but be­cause of its small pop­u­la­tion, min­i­mal changes can ap­pear as large per­cent­age swings.

The five states that have ex­pe­ri­enced the big­gest de­creases in the last five years are New York (21%), Alaska (18.3%), Illi­nois (16.8%), New Mex­ico (16.2%) and Iowa (15.6%).


Catasauqua has watched its foot­ball ros­ter shrink in the past two years, but a good mid­dle school team could re­verse that trend in the next cou­ple of years.

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