Participation numbers a steady challenge
As a senior in 1996, running back Derek Combs earned Ohio's Mr. Football award and lifted his Grove City High School team to its first Division I playoff berth in five seasons.
His class, as it turned out, also sparked one of the greatest eras in program history.
According to Brian Cross, who coached the Dawgs to seven postseason appearances from 1987-2002, the late 1990s were a period in which his program reaped the benefits of several large and talented freshman and sophomore classes.
When it comes to participation, Cross believes the biggest factor in ensuring that varsity numbers stay steady has to do with what players experience in grades seven through 10.
"When you're playing football in ninth grade, you're going against other ninth-graders," said Cross, who is in his fifth season as Olentangy Orange's coach. "Once you step into that sophomore year, that's when a kid really has to like football. You're going to probably be playing (junior varsity) and be on the scout team that year. Most of the kids that skip their sophomore year don't really come back and play again.
"We had a nice run (at Grove City) for a long while in the 90s where we always had 60 to 75 players that loved to play the game. I personally look to get approximately 75 or above in the top three grades. I like to have about 30 sophomores, 25 juniors and 20 seniors."
Among the biggest challenges coaches said they deal with each year is adjusting to the fluctuation in participation caused by school enrollment, fear of concussions, sports specialization and non-sports activities.
While there's no substitute for having as many standout players as possible, it's necessary in practice to simulate game situations -- and that takes numbers.
"Our numbers have not been very good when you consider that last year we had around 57 kids in the top three grades and this year we're around 60 in the top three grades," Cross said. "Of course you could have 80 kids and not be a good football team and have 50 and have a great team. It's always good, though, to have enough kids to have a good scout team."
A numbers game
According to a study released Aug. 29 by the National Federation of State High School Associations, 2011-12 marked the 13th consecutive year in which the number of boys playing high school football in the U.S. was greater than the combined number of boys competing in outdoor track and basketball.
That doesn't mean, however, that area football programs thrive every year in terms of participation.
The City League has nine teams in Division II, Region 7, six in Division III, Region 10 and Africentric in Division VI, Region 23.
During the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Brookhaven, Walnut Ridge and Whetstone competed in Division I, Region 3, while 11 schools were in Region 7, Eastmoor was in Division IV, Region 14 and Africentric was in Division V, Region 19.
The drop in overall district enrollment, according to Beechcroft coach Bruce Ward and Mifflin coach Gregg Miller, is affecting football participation.
"We're at our lowest numbers in team history," said Ward, whose program often had 70 or more participating in grades nine through 12 in the early 2000s. "We're probably up to the mid-40s (now)."
Miller, who coached Brookhaven from 1987-2002, remembers seasons when there were 80 to 100 athletes in his program.
"We're probably just at about 50 right now," he said. "My first year (at Mifflin in 2010) we had 80, which was a huge number, and last year we were at about 45 to 50.
"With all of the charter schools, it's taken a lot of kids out of Columbus and I think the kids are so ingrained to video games and computers that they don't play sports like they used to. I think the kids that are football players are out there."
Westerville South outscored its first three opponents 145-55 and hopes to reach the postseason for the ninth time. Heading into the season, however, the Wildcats' participation numbers in grades 10 through 12 were in the 50s.
"What hurts us is it's a three high school town," South coach Rocky Pentello said of Westerville, which has had three high school teams since Westerville Central began competing in 2003. "(In a recent practice) we had a coach standing in as a scout team player."
While Pentello and Ward haven't encountered many situations in which athletes have elected not to play because of concerns about concussions, an increased focus on the subject nationally is something Cross and Miller believe could be having a small impact on numbers.
"I think the concern for concussions may have kept some kids from coming out," Cross said. "I don't think that's a large number, but if you lose one to two sophomores and one to two juniors, that can make a difference."
"Everything in our society seems to cycle," Miller said. "Years ago (a football injury concern) was a condition called spinal stenosis, which was a narrowing of the spinal canal that would pinch the nerve. I had a great running back who they wouldn't let play because of that (in the early 1990s at Brookhaven) and now you don't hear anything about that."
Working through the obstacles
While increasing participation might seem as simple as roaming the halls to look for athletes, dealing with annual fluctuations has been among the biggest keys to success for Brad Burchfield at Centerburg and Hartley.
"We have about 85 kids, but the percentage of kids that can play doesn't always have to do with numbers," said Burchfield, who took over at Hartley in 2008 and led the program to the Division IV state title in 2010. "When I was at Centerburg (from 2003-07), one year we had about 35 kids. You always were concerned about your depth, but that's helped us learn that you've got to keep kids fresh. When you've got 85, you have to develop all of your players and make sure that your sophomores and juniors don't get lost in the shuffle."
At Worthington Kilbourne, where enrollment is among the lowest in the OCC, coach Vince Trombetti has 77 athletes in grades 10-12 and 29 freshmen.
Although those numbers are higher than places such as Westerville South or Orange, the program had more than 90 athletes in grades 10-12 in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Trombetti.
"The big thing when you have lower numbers is that you lose depth because you have to play more guys on both sides of the ball," he said. "My impression in talking to a lot of people is overall that numbers are down. I don't know if it's kids wanting to play PlayStation or not wanting to work and that coupled with sometimes you might just have a bad class come through. A lot of them don't want to work very hard, and I'm proud of those kids who are willing to come out."
The specialization of athletes in sports other than football is another factor Trombetti believes has caused participation to fall.
His solution -- allowing teams to practice in the spring -- was rejected by the OHSAA in April 2011.
"The kids that are specializing are not as good as they think they are," Trombetti said. "We try to bend over backwards to accommodate kids who want to do other sports, and I think it would help tremendously to have spring football. If they allowed us 10 days in May, that wouldn't be excessive. People are afraid that kids wouldn't come out for spring sports, but at the end of May is when the ones who only are making state tournaments are still competing."
A winning culture might be the best tool for having a program in which numbers are high each year.
"Really it's not a lot more complicated than trying to keep a watch on kids when they're in seventh and eighth grade, and without a doubt, when kids start having success as eighth-graders and ninth-graders, the numbers are better," Cross said.