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A numbers battle: Former 11-man power Larimore struggles with low numbers

Larimore's Friday Thomas (left) takes a handoff from quarterback Jacob Schempp during the first half of the Polar Bears' season-opening game against Mayville-Portland-CG at Cushman Field in Grand Forks. Photo/Korrie Wenzel, Grand Forks Herald

LARIMORE, N.D.—With two wins this season, Larimore has as many victories as it had reserves on the bench Friday night.

Participation numbers have become a struggle for the 9-man high school football program. The Polar Bears started the season with 14 players. One quit and two were sidelined after suffering concussion-like symptoms in the team's previous game.

"We had more coaches (five) than subs on the sideline,'' Larimore head coach Kal Triplett said. "Hopefully those two kids will be back for our game this week.

"The 13 kids who play have an us-against-the-world attitude.''

That showed Friday in a 26-22 win against Nelson County.

The Polar Bears fell behind 14-0 to start the game. They rallied to take a lead, then fell behind 22-20 in the fourth quarter. But, with approximately two minutes left, quarterback Jacob Schempp hit Carsen Thorsell for a game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass.

The win improved Larimore to 2-2. The Polar Bears are halfway through their regular-season schedule. They're still in the hunt for a playoff berth. Yet a few more injuries could jeopardize their ability to field a full lineup.

"If something happens, it's out of our control,'' Triplett said.

"It isn't a scary situation because the kids are used to it. They know they're not coming off the field during a game. If there is an injury, if a kid has to come out, they know they could be playing anywhere, at any position.''

Triplett said practices are difficult. There is a lot of conditioning because players get few, if any, breaks in games. There is no hitting. There is work on fundamentals and teaching players to play multiple positions.

Still, Triplett isn't surprised the team has been winning games. The numbers are bad; the athletes are good. "I'm not surprised, not at all, by how we've done,'' Triplett said. "We have excellent athletes.''

Just two seasons ago, Larimore had approximately 26 players on its roster, Triplett said. The Polar Bears were the No. 1-ranked team in the Class A 11-man state poll for much of the season.

Last year it was down to a roster of 22 in the program's first 9-man season.

"We've had good numbers until the last few seasons,'' Larimore athletic director Patti Aanenson said. "We've seen our enrollment drop. We have smaller classes and a smaller number of boys.

"And we've also seen a drop in participation numbers. It's a drop in extracurriculars as a whole, not just in athletics. We can't figure out why.''

Seven of the 13 players on the roster are seniors. Despite that, Larimore is scheduled to return to Class A 11-man next season as the every-other-year state reclassification process is done based on school enrollment numbers.

Triplett said the school is considering playing as an independent 9-man team next season, making it ineligible for the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Polar Bears will keep plugging away with their numbers while Triplett works to recruit athletes.

"We're doing what we can,'' Triplett said. "It is frustrating. I wish kids would realize what they're missing.''