By Rick O’Brien, Philadelphia Inquirer
September 07, 2008
At Garnet Valley, where the football team reportedly had a preseason turnout of about 100 players, producing a deep varsity squad is not a problem.
Injuries to key performers are not as critical. Practices run more smoothly because of ample numbers. And Mike Ricci, the Jaguars’ head coach, does not have to scour school hallways looking for potential players.
That is a luxury not all schools have these days. Many coaches, in all sports, have trouble filling rosters. When it comes to having enough players to efficiently run practices and compete against schools with larger enrollments, there are no guarantees.
Many factors have played a part in low turnouts. For some teenagers, particularly in the inner city, it is important to have a part-time job for extra spending money or to help with family expenses. And, more and more, many are deciding to compete in just one sport, with the hope of excelling and landing a college scholarship.
In the Catholic League, declining enrollments have affected some teams. So, too, has the cost of participating in a sport. In cross-country, for example, it costs more than $200 at certain Catholic League schools for a runner to compete.
And then there is the lure of hanging out with friends after school, playing video games, or vegging out and watching the latest on MTV.
In football, a nearly year-round commitment to playing the sport has turned some away.
There’s weightlifting in the off-season, cutting summer short by about three weeks, and 21/2-hour practices during the fall, followed by film sessions and/or more weightlifting.
“To me, football is the hardest sport to play,” said Ray Gionta, Marple Newtown’s sixth-year coach. “The kids really have to have the desire to play and the willingness to put in a lot of hours and hard work.
“Not every kid is going to be a starter or all-area type, either. Unfortunately, in our society, we want instant gratification. You don’t always reap immediate rewards in football.”
In recent years at Marple Newtown, the varsity football team has drawn 40 to 45 players. This year, the number is right at 40.
“I’d like to have another, say, 10 kids,” Gionta said. “Fifty would be nice.”
This is Gionta’s fifth head coaching stint. When he was at South Philadelphia’s St. John Neumann from 1986 to 1988, he said he had 75 to 80 players.
“Yeah, we had about 20 players per class,” he said. “It certainly made things easier.”
Keeping an eye out
Looking for prospective runners, Ed Ulmer, the longtime coach of the boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams at Archbishop Ryan, has walked the school’s halls and spoken to students during home-room period.
Last year, the boys’ squad had 14 student-athletes and the girls’ team had 12. The numbers are a bit better this season: 22 boys and 14 girls.
“Our enrollment is down. That’s one problem,” said Ulmer, who is in his 43d year as Ryan’s coach. “In the 1970s, the school had 2,500 boys.”
Now, according to PIAA figures released last October, the male enrollment is 703 and the female enrollment is 852.
Ulmer said that running cross-country at Archbishop Ryan was free for the early part of his tenure. Today’s cost: $170.
“Kids have to pay to play,” he said. “Not everyone can afford it. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was free.”
Because Chichester, in Boothwyn, has no ninth-grade football program, second-year coach Dan Singley said the school’s overall number is slightly down, from 54 to 48.
Since the freshmen have to practice against bigger, stronger and more experienced junior varsity and varsity teammates, many choose not to come out for the team, according to Singley.
“From those that played middle-school ball, I could have had 31 players from the freshman class,” Singley said. “I have only six. The young kids don’t want to go up against the older kids. And I can understand that.”
Singley said he is trying to get school administrators to field a ninth-grade team in 2009. For those freshmen who are with the Eagles, the coach is cautious of the size difference and potential for injury.
“I don’t match the freshmen against the bigger kids,” he said. “I don’t put a 120-pound kid up against a 300-pound kid.”