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Bret Harte Varsity Football Issues Reflect Section, Statewide Struggles

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Altaville, CA – Mother Lode League high school athletic directors have their fingers crossed that this year’s varsity football schedule will play out normally.

Clarke Broadcasting learned that there are questions buzzing about Sonora High’s originally scheduled home game against Bret Harte on Oct. 11, due to the Bullfrogs’ low roster numbers. The Wildcats Homecoming game with the extended half-time is now slated to take place Oct. 18 against Calaveras.

Addressing those concerns, Bret Harte Athletic Director Catherine Stelling explains, “We are currently at 16 players and hope to be at 21 or 22 players within two more weeks.”

She points out that football is the only sport in which a varsity team does not have to be fielded if there is a lack of upperclassmen to play, adding that while junior varsity players can be brought up to play at the varsity level, they must meet certain age and skill requirements.

“The numbers of people trying out for football are lower in recent years, but our hope is that this year is just an abnormality and we will be back to normal next year,” she maintains. “Our feeder program is also experiencing lower numbers and the varsity level of AMA is not being run this year due to a lack of players.”

As for concerns about this year’s regular-season schedule, Stelling emphasizes, “Bret Harte is committed to its football program and will do everything we possibly can to try and make sure that the season is completed.”

Other League Teams’ Rosters At 30+ Players

According to Clarke Broadcasting’s most recent numbers for Tuolumne County varsity football, the Sonora High roster lists 31 players; Summerville has 35.

Calaveras High Athletic Director Mike Koepp shares that there are currently 32 varsity players listed on the Reds football roster. With the Bullfrogs’ numbers in the teens, he admits to concerns about their ability to maintain a team due to attrition factors such as injuries and low grades.

Although some student-athletes play both offense and defensive sides, he says it is a lot to ask and can contribute to injury risks. “I tip my cap to the kids who are out there [playing for the Bullfrogs], because [playing whole games from multiple positions], it’s not an easy thing to do.”

CIF-Sac-Joaquin Assistant Commissioner Will DeBoard acknowledges that football participation numbers continue to be a concern in not only the section but across the state.

“We have seen a three percent drop, statewide, every single year for the past decade or more,” he states, adding that the section’s own numbers reflect that statistic.” Most of the other sports are increasing in participation. He notes what is widely held to be the primary reason. “Obviously, football has been in the news for the past decade, dealing with concussion, safety issues and that sort of thing.”

During the 2017-18 season, the Sac-Joaquin section counted 12,458 players, including boys and girls. Last year it declined to 12,059. DeBoard explains that many of the schools dropped freshman football or opted to field only one level. While some schools have increased numbers quite a bit, others are shrinking, he says. “It is not that every single school is dropping kids but certainly there are several schools out there that have seen their levels decrease.”

Challenges, Other Section Team Struggles

Continuing, he acknowledges, “Football is definitely a physical sport; kids get hurt sometimes — and I am not talking major injuries — kids get banged up and you need 11 to play. We don’t have a crystal ball. So I couldn’t tell you that this one school is going to be ending the season early or that one school will only play eight or seven games instead of the standard ten.”

He confides, “Any [team] that is in the mid to low teens, that number is definitely not ideal. Ideally, you want to have 11 different starts on offense and defense, and it becomes a bit of a vicious circle in the sense that if you struggle one year then it is tough to get kids to go out the following year.”

DeBoard details that another school in the section, Modesto Christian, may have only had 11 team members last week when it played Edison of Stockton in a game that ended 63-0 after three quarters. He describes that the school started out with low numbers due to several students transferring over the summer.

While he describes the Bret Harte players as in a rough patch right now, DeBoard says it seems that the league teams are all trying to finish out the regular season. He adds that teams with low numbers and those tend to be the more struggling football programs, have it hard. Since the sport is a tough one, it that much harder to get students to come out and play, even with the safety protocols and other safety requirements in place.

He gives kudos to those players on the teams with lower roster numbers. “Really in that sense, my hat’s off to all those kids playing on these schools’ teams — because they are truly playing ‘ironman’ football!”