Here they come: After years of rosters declining, participation in high school football on the rise

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

September 21, 2023

When Tanner Garry became Fort Cherry High School’s football coach in 2020, he had only a little more than two dozen players on the team. So when the school ordered new uniforms in 2021, Garry thought 50 would be more than enough.

“There was a time this summer when I was worried if we would have enough uniforms for everyone because we had 52 or 53 players showing up at workouts,” Garry said.

Fort Cherry eventually had 48 players on the roster for this season, a 71 percent increase from Garry’s first year. That’s a big uptick in participation. But what has happened at Fort Cherry is indicative of what is going on at many schools — both in Western Pennsylvania and around the country.

For various reasons, participation in high school football across the country declined sharply over the past 15-20 years. Shrinking rosters were everywhere, from large schools to small schools. At the very least, the decline in participation seems to have bottomed out at many schools. Yes, some small schools are still struggling with a shortage of players, but a number of schools are experiencing a noticeable increase in roster size.

In short, more high school kids are playing football the past two years. The decline in participation might be over at many places.

“This is a far cry from when we had 27 players my first year,” Garry said. “I think a lot of schools are moving in the same direction as us.”

Participation numbers

Statistics back Garry’s notion. The National Federation of State High School Associations does a participation survey every year for all high school sports around the country. It did not conduct the survey in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years because of COVID-19. But in 2022, a little more than 1 million boys played football. Although the 2022 season had 83,542 fewer boy players in the country than 2008, last year’s total was an increase of 54,969 (5.6%) from 2021. It was the first increase in football participation since 2013 and only the second increase since the all-time high of 1,112,303 in 2008-09.

In Pennsylvania, 24,975 boys played high school football in 2022. Although that is 45 fewer players than the 2021 season, that’s the smallest decrease in the state since the 2008 season.

A survey of some random WPIAL coaches and athletic directors and an examination of rosters of bigger schools in the WPIAL this year shows some teams have indeed bottomed out in the shrinking roster category, compared to 10 and 20 years ago. But some teams, at large and small schools, show a fairly significant increase in player participation.

At Mt. Lebanon, the school had to cancel a few junior varsity football games 10 years ago because of a lack of players. Back in 2013, Mt. Lebanon had only 58 players on its roster. This year, under first-year coach Mike Collodi, Mt. Lebanon has 76.

“Frankly, I think we saw an uptick of players when Bobby Palko got here as coach [in 2019] just because he was Bobby,” Mt. Lebanon athletic director John Grogan said of the man who won nine WPIAL titles before he retired after last season. “But even now with Mike here, our numbers are really strong. We have 50 eighth-graders and 40-some seventh-graders playing [on middle school teams]. That’s a lot.”

It should be pointed out that some of the roster numbers this season compared to 10 or 20 years ago are skewed somewhat because some teams didn’t include freshmen on their rosters. Many schools now include ninth-graders on a roster because they don’t have a ninth-grade team.

But here are some other examples of increased participation in the WPIAL:

• When Jim Ryan took over as Shaler’s coach in 2016, he had less than 40 players at one point that season. This from a team that was playing in the largest classification back then. Shaler has 67 players this season.

• At one point in the season five years ago, Northgate played a game with 12 players. The Flames, who play in Class 1A under second-year coach Chris Lucas, now have 35 players on the team.

• Connellsville, a Class 4A school, was struggling with a small roster for a few years, sometimes in the high 30s or 40s. This year, the Falcons have 72 players.

• Canon-McMillan had 60 players, including 14 ninth-graders, on the 2013 team. This season, the Big Macs have 74, including only nine ninth-graders.

• Upper St. Clair had only 55 players in 2013, one of its smallest rosters in years. This year, Upper St. Clair has 64.

• Peters Township had 53 players in 2013. This year, the team has 84, although 21 are ninth-graders.

• A number of coaches reported their numbers this year and last year are up at the middle school and even youth league levels.

• Also, although the number of girls playing football on boys teams is not statistically significant, girls participation did increase by 18% last season with 3,654 girls playing across the country.

Reasons for more participation

The obvious question: Why the increase in player participation the past two years? Coaches and athletic directors give a few reasons — from coaches to winning to it simply being a cyclical thing.

“[Former coach] Mike Fulmore was trying to turn this thing around a couple years ago, and I think he did a good job of that,” Northgate’s Lucas said. “We had a long losing streak a few years ago, and when we broke that streak and got a couple wins, that helped. But what we’ve tried to do is recruit kids and do more with them than just on the field. Like the last day of heat acclimation practices this year, we took the team paintballing. We’ve had team cookouts. That maybe gives kids a reason to want to be part of this.”

Shaler’s Ryan said, “We’ve won more lately, and that’s a big part of it. You can’t argue that success is going to add numbers. That’s as true as it comes. But I think it’s a cyclical thing, too. Generations kind of cycle through. Sometimes, you get athletic-minded groups of parents who want their kids to participate and their kids bring along their friends. But one thing I’ve noticed is the increase in our youth football league also. We have a 10-and-under team, and they’re completely full with 40 kids.”

Connellsville athletic director Rich Evans said, “Things are definitely trending in the right direction. This is definitely the most kids we’ve had in many years. What’s kind of unique for us is we hired three co-head coaches last year [Jace McClean, Mick Lilley and Chad Lembo], and they’ve done a great job of recruiting kids, and our kids like being around those guys. That helps. Plus, we’ve had some success.”

In the past, coaches have pointed to the growth of other sports, like lacrosse, pulling some kids away from football and also kids specializing in another sport year round. But there is one thing a number of coaches and some athletic directors believe has played a part in increased participation. Ten years ago, a Post-Gazette story said many coaches believed fear of concussions was keeping many kids away from football. Parents weren’t permitting their sons to play because of concussion fears. Now, many coaches believe those fears have subsided some — and it has brought some kids back to football, at all ages.

“I don’t think the worry is gone,” Lucas said. “I have a son who plays hockey, and there are worries about concussions there, too. But there is a lot more awareness now, and I think parents are a lot more comfortable because of that. If a concussion does happen, there is a lot more in place to take care of it. The information on the medical side is better, and there are a lot more precautions. For example, we wear guardian caps on our helmets this year in all practices.”

Guardian caps go over helmets to provide more protection to the head.

“I think there’s more understanding of concussions and trusting of coaches, and that helps,” Ryan said. “Parents are knowing there isn’t just going to be old-school smashing of heads at practice anymore.”

Mt. Lebanon’s Grogan said, “I think it’s a tribute to the great job to the training services most schools now employ, like UPMC or AHN. There has been a lot of great education of not only what a concussion is but what to look for, and parents are realizing people are looking at the concussion thing more closely.”

Charting participation

Number of high school football players in Pennsylvania in five-year increments, dating back to 2002. (Source: National Federation of State High School Associations).

2002: 24,480

2007: 26,865

2012: 26, 280

2017: 25,605

2022: 24,975

Roster sizes in 2003, 2013 and 2023 for teams that were in the WPIAL’s largest classification (Class 4A) 20 years ago and are still in the WPIAL this year. The numbers are skewed somewhat because some of the rosters do not include ninth-grade players and some do. (Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

SCHOOL: 2003 – 2013 – 2023

Baldwin: 79 – 58 – 57

Bethel Park: 61 – 53 – 68

Canon-McMillan: 44 – 60 – 74

Central Catholic: 90 – 79 – 89

Connellsville: 74 – 59 – 72

Fox Chapel: 71 – 59 – 72

Gateway: 61 – 69 – 58

Hempfield: 74 – 65 – 91

Kiski Area: 53 – 43 – 50

Latrobe: 52 – 51 – 74

McKeesport: 54 – 59 – 58

Mt. Lebanon: 75 – 58 – 76

North Allegheny: 76 – 99 – 68

North Hills: 71 – 53 – 69

Norwin: 63 – 55 – 72

Penn Hills: 86 – 76 – 69

Penn-Trafford: 61 – 61 – 69

Peters Township: 51 – 53 – 84

Pine-Richland: 70 – 60 – 71

Plum: 53 – 52 – 68

Seneca Valley: 68 – 69 – 72

Shaler: 70 – 51 – 67

Upper St. Clair: 55 – 64 – 65

Woodland Hills: 94 – 62 — 66

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