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Tom Mix, Published October 08 2012

Numbers game: High school sports participation on the rise for girls as boys see a dip

Fargo - Scott Kost can remember a time when the only kind of softball available to girls in Casselton, N.D., was slowpitch.

That is not the case anymore, with Central Cass developing a fastpitch program the last several years. This past spring, Kost coached the Squirrels in their first season of the newly created Class B division.

Central Cass finished second at the state tournament in June when one trend was apparent: Participation among North Dakota girls in fastpitch softball is on the rise.

“I think you are only going to see the numbers grow,” Kost said. “I would be surprised if softball isn’t a sport that continues to increase in numbers the next several years.”

In a recent participation survey submitted to the National Federation of State High School Associations, North Dakota reported an increase of 135 participants in softball for the 2011-12 school year. It was the largest increase for any girls sport in the state.

According to the national survey released earlier this fall, sports participation among high schools in the United States reached an

all-time high of nearly 7.7 million in 2011-12 – up 24,565 from 2010-11.

That streak suggests a healthy trend at the national level, but locally, data shows that Minnesota and North Dakota both had positives and negatives.

Minnesota retained its spot in the Top 10 nationally for total boys and girls participation in 2011-12 at 224,354 – up 809 participants from 2010-11.

North Dakota checked in 47th nationally with 25,499 participants, down 31 from a year ago.

The data is something Minnesota High School League Executive Director David Stead said is difficult to analyze and speculate on.

“It is not information I look at in great detail other than to simply say the more kids that we have participate, the better off we all are,” Stead said. “I also know our schools are doing everything they can to get kids to participate.”

In North Dakota, eight of the 14 sports offered to girls saw an increase. The top three girls sports that saw decreases were basketball (down 60), soccer (down 50) and golf (down 26).

In Minnesota, 13 of 21 sports offered to girls saw increases. The sports with the largest gains were cross country (up 469), Nordic skiing (up 162) and track and field (up 125).

The spike in cross country numbers is something Moorhead boys and girls cross country coach Jeremy Blake has noticed at the local and state level.

“I think that is a result of running becoming more popular in Fargo-Moorhead and in the state of Minnesota in general,” Blake said. “There always seems to be a 5K or a road race every week in the area and that is awesome. We are definitely benefiting from that.”

North Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Secretary Sherm Sylling said he anticipated an overall increase in girls sports. He said decreases in certain sports could be due to athletes choosing to specialize in one sport and unwillingness to compete in co-ops.

Sylling acknowledged that without co-ops, decreases in North Dakota participation could be even greater, but also said athletes who rely on co-ops have the hardship of travelling.

“Co-ops provide an opportunity for students to participate where they ordinarily couldn’t, but I think as we get more co-ops, I think participation levels will do down,” Sylling said.

The NDHSAA doesn’t have data tracking the number of three-sport athletes across the state, but Sylling said his office has been getting information that suggests those numbers have been trending downward for many years. That means athletes who may excel in one particular sport are choosing to play that sport year-round.

Boys participation numbers dipped nationally as well as in Minnesota and North Dakota, but on an individual sports basis there are some winners seeing positive growth.

Boys numbers decreased in Minnesota by 353 participants (119,992 to 119,639) and by 60 in North Dakota (14,913 to 14,853).

In North Dakota, five of the 11 boys sports saw increases from a year ago, with the top increase belonging to baseball, which went up 205.

West Fargo head baseball coach Brett Peterson said he first started seeing the numbers increase several years ago when more Class A baseball teams started fielding sub-varsity teams.

Due to strong numbers, the Packers have a freshman team, and two junior varsity teams in addition to the varsity for its 67 athletes to participate on.

“In West Fargo we have had four teams for six years now,” Peterson said. “We have seen good numbers in West Fargo. When I first started coaching, you would see some teams that wouldn’t be able to field a ninth grade team and had a lot of freshmen on their JV team out of necessity from a numbers standpoint. I don’t think you see much of that anymore at the Class A level.”

Other boys sports of note that saw increases in North Dakota were football, up 54, and soccer, up 40.

Sylling called those numbers encouraging.

“Baseball is making a little surge in our state and it is good to see those numbers increase,” Sylling said.

Sylling also was pleased with the increase in football, which decreased overall nationally. The overall increase of 54 takes into account 9-man and 11-man football numbers.

Nine-man football saw a decrease of 121, but 11-man increased by 175, which Sylling said is contributed to numbers being less secure at the 9-man level with schools opting to dissolve teams due to lack of numbers.

The top three sports that saw declines in North Dakota were basketball (158), wrestling (111) and track and field (71).

In Minnesota, eight of the 14 boys sports saw a decrease. The top declines were in football (290), baseball (234) and both tennis and golf each saw decreases of 158 participants.

The top three sports with increases in Minnesota were cross country (427), Lacrosse (92) and Nordic skiing (91).

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562