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Red River drops JV football team due to low numbers

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Red River football players stand on the sidelines of Cushman Field during a scrimmage Saturday morning. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

At the end of the 2017 football season, Grand Forks Red River High School coach Vyrn Muir told opposing conference coaches there was a chance his program might not field a junior varsity team this season.

When only nine sophomores turned out for opening preseason practices, the possibility became a reality. Red River canceled its junior varsity schedule for the season.

"We knew it might be coming. But it still stinks,'' Muir said.

"For the program, it isn't good. You'd think with a school this size that we'd be able to have three teams. But we don't have the numbers in that one class.''

The Roughriders have 72 players on their roster. That includes 19 seniors, 17 juniors, the small sophomore class and 27 freshmen.

Muir said approximately 16 freshmen played at one time or another last season. He's asked students in that class why they quit football. Specialization was the most common denominator.

"A lot of the answers were that those kids are specializing,'' Muir said. "I had kids tell me they're going to play hockey in the fall, or baseball or basketball. One kid said that he just didn't want to play, that it wasn't fun.''

Muir said nobody he talked to mentioned a fear of injury or a concussion as a reason.

Red River didn't have a freshman team last season. Instead, the ninth-graders played up on the C-squad and junior varsity teams. Muir opted to play a C-squad rather than a junior varsity schedule this season.

"We decided that for a lot of freshmen playing football on the JV level was not a good idea,'' Muir said. "Some freshmen physically aren't ready for that—14-year-olds going against more well-developed sophomores and juniors wasn't a good thing for our kids. If we only have the numbers for one sub-varsity team, I wanted it to be a C team.

"It hurts our program. We're going to have to find some (varsity) playing time for juniors who normally would be playing at the sub-varsity level.''

Muir doesn't see the low sophomore numbers as being a trend.

Last season, the Red River roster included 25 seniors. In addition to this season's big freshman class, Muir said middle school coaches indicate that eighth-grade numbers will be consistent with what the norm has been.

"We're hoping to have 20 to 25 (freshmen in 2019),'' Muir said. "That would be awesome.''

Not a GF first

Red River isn't the first Grand Forks team to cancel a junior varsity season.

In 2013, Central played one JV game, then canceled the remainder of the schedule. A combination of low participation numbers in its sophomore class and some injuries on the varsity that forced Central to promote players from the sub-varsity level led to dropping the JV team that season.

"At the JV level, you want some juniors to get some reps, but the majority of a JV team usually is sophomores,'' Knights coach Bill Lorenz said. Dropping a JV program "hurts because those kids miss out on a whole season of reps. There isn't enough time in practices or games to make up for those.''

Lorenz said the Knights have had sufficient numbers since that season to field a junior varsity team.

"You never want to do it again, and it hasn't been close to that,'' Lorenz said. "Your fear is that it becomes a trend, that the low numbers would become the norm. But they bounced right back.''

Participation holding its own

Participation numbers in football in North Dakota are holding their own.

According to data compiled by the North Dakota High School Activities Association:

• Last season, in grades 9-12, there were 4,110 students playing high school football across the state;

• Five seasons ago, in 2013, the number was 4,098;

• Ten seasons ago, in 2008, there were 4,309.

"It's been very consistent across the board,'' said Matt Fetsch, executive director of the NDHSAA. "That's about a 4.6 percent decrease from 10 years ago. Student enrollment is at a 1.5 decrease compared to 10 years ago.

"Without having any specific research, I think the number of students in the smaller rural areas has decreased and, in my opinion, that would be the No. 1 factor in fewer students playing.''

Fetsch said that there has been an overall 6.1 percent increase in student participation in sports compared to 10 years ago in North Dakota. Fetsch attributes much of that to the growth of fastpitch softball.