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Prep football rosters shrinking

10/02/2014, 8:26pm PDT
By Kirk Kenney

Reasons are many, but fewer students playing in San Diego Unified School District

Quarterback Ju’Shawnte Spann runs the ball for Morse, whose limited roster necessitates athletes playing offense and defense.

RELATED: Some athletes have left football for safety issue

As the 16 football coaches representing teams in the San Diego Unified School District submitted preseason information over the summer, a common theme developed.

It was not about a new wrinkle on offense. It was not about equipment improvements. It was not about changes to the playoff format. It was not about the new targeting rule, which outlaws hits above the shoulders.

It was about manpower.

Coach after coach repeated the same phrase: “Our numbers are down.”

Are they ever.

In a team-by-team comparison of varsity rosters on MaxPreps.com, numbers across the school district are down about 27 percent (from 48 to 35 players) from their average over the previous four seasons.

For many of the schools, reinforcements are not on the way. Five schools — Crawford, Hoover, Kearny, Mission Bay and San Diego — did not field freshman football teams this season. Two others — Clairemont and Serra — are an injury or two away from having to cancel games. In fact, the Conquistadors freshmen had to do just that a few weeks ago.

There are almost as many explanations for fewer football players as there are schools in the district:

• Lower enrollment

Aging neighborhoods and the population push to the edges of the county have decreased the number of student bodies at San Diego Unified schools.

Crawford, Hoover, Clairemont and Kearny are significantly smaller than they once were. But it appears this is most critical at Mission Bay, where coach Willie Matson said enrollment at the school a decade ago was 1,700. There are 1,100 students now.

Fewer students. Fewer athletes. Fewer football players.

“It’s a deciding factor,” said Matson.

• Changing demographics

While several schools have seen a shift in demographics, two schools stand out, Crawford and Hoover, where more than three dozen languages are spoken. Many of these students are from other countries where the only football they’re familiar with is what we call soccer.

“Some of the students we have in our schools today, versus 10 years ago, may not be as inclined to want to participate in football as they once did,” said University City Principal Jeff Olivero, who served stints as a head football coach at Crawford and Serra.

• Fewer on-campus coaches

Sinking enrollment means fewer teachers. That means fewer jobs available, especially for younger coaches lacking in seniority.

Mira Mesa’s Gary Blevins has been Marauders head coach for 18 years. He and several of his assistants teach at the school.

“We could never run this place the way we do (if the coaches weren’t working on campus),” said Blevins. “I’m here all day in P.E.”

Olivero pointed out that coaches not working on campus are challenged to recruit and build enthusiasm.

“It used to be one hallmark of a traditional school was because the coaches taught in the classroom and interacted daily with kids,” he said.

• Club sports impact

Coaches Mike Martinez of Patrick Henry and Joe Meyer of Scripps Ranch said they’ve lost players to lacrosse, a sport that allows physical contact but doesn’t come with the same safety concerns as football.

There’s additional appeal for lacrosse (and other club sports) — the time commitment might not be as great and the players may not have to worry about grades to remain eligible.

“Football is a commitment,” said Meyer. “It’s hard work.”

San Diego High had the most storied program in the county before the San Diego Section was created in 1960. City schools dominated the playoffs thereafter, appearing in the finals 20 of the section’s first 25 years and winning 14 championships. Crawford, Kearny, San Diego, Lincoln, Clairemont, Point Loma and Morse all won titles during this period.

Those days are long gone.

In the past decade, the playoffs have expanded to six divisions, but the only titles have been won by Madison (twice), Mission Bay and Lincoln. Point Loma has finished runner-up four times and Mission Bay twice.

It all comes down to having the players.

“So how do you get kids out for teams and how do you keep them?” asked Olivero. “You’ve got to have the leadership of the coaches to draw and keep kids out and keep kids committed.

“It’s a Catch-22. You can’t get the kids out if you don’t have those folks, but you can’t get the folks to teach the kids when there’s declining enrollment.”

It’s quite a predicament.

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