Numbers game: Many area football programs seeing drop in roster size

  • The Bishop Brady football team stands on the sideline during the season-opening game against Farmington-Nute. RAY LABBE / For the Monitor

  • Bishop Brady is one of many high school football programs in New Hampshire experiencing low roster numbers in recent years. RAY LABBE photos / For the Montior



Monitor staff
Friday, September 29, 2017

Matt Shaw saw the same thing during preseason at Bishop Brady that many football coaches across the state saw on their own practice fields: The numbers just aren’t what they used to be.

“Numbers have always been an issue for us, but it seems to be a trend throughout New Hampshire,” said Shaw, who fields a roster of 22 with the Green Giants this fall. “Not just in Division III, but also Division II ... it seems to be hitting a lot of schools all at the same time.”

The latest victim to the numbers game was Trinity. After exhausting all options, the Pioneers made the decision in mid-August to only play a junior varsity schedule after a low turnout during the preseason.

The choice was not only a big blow to the Manchester community, but also to D-II where an immediate reshuffling was needed to accommodate every one of Trinity’s 2017 opponents.

“We spent about five hours trying to figure out a schedule without upsetting the whole apple cart that would be fair and equitable,” said Merrimack Valley Athletic Director Kevin O’Brien, who also serves as the president of NHIAA’s Division II. “What we decided to do is come up with a schedule that would have the least impact ... we had to move a couple teams around a little bit, but everybody gets four home games, four away games and everybody would keep their homecoming games and any big rivalry.”

Trinity isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last program forced to punt on a varsity season. Teams across the Granite State are being hit hard and the question remains: Is it just a down year or is this the new normal?

Shrinking schools

While Bishop Brady and Trinity are both private schools more accustomed to dealing with thinning rosters, public high schools in the state are dealing with similar issues.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education pegged New Hampshire as having the nation’s fastest declining high school student enrollment over the next 10 years. Combined enrollment in the state’s public high schools has dropped from 66,413 during the 2007-08 calendar school year to 56,554 in 2016-17, per the state’s Department of Education.

“In terms of the overall picture I think one of the things people talk about is less numbers,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been at Merrimack Valley for 31 years and when I first came here, Laconia High School had 1,000 kids in it. Now, they’re down to like 510, so schools have shrunk and when that happens, the percentage of kids playing sports typically goes down, too.”

O’Brien’s assessment is an accurate one. Laconia was as high as 818 for enrollment in 2007-08, but had dwindled down to 549 last year. Schools like Newfound Regional and Hopkinton, where enrollment has always been on the lower side, had dropped down to 387 and 271 last year, respectively.

“We’re half of what we were,” Laconia Athletic Director and football Coach Craig Kozens said. “We were 850-900 pushing 60-70 players out a year ... the last few years we’ve been around 36 so it’s tough. You can’t hold full two full practices at the same time. We have to change everything that we do and you can see it. We don’t prepare well enough because you don’t get the look that you need.”

While this trend is troubling for all programs of all sizes, football teams at smaller schools with already less-than-ideal roster numbers are facing a new challenge.

“Some of the other schools we used to play on a regular basis – Laconia, Kearsarge – most schools have dropped in numbers,” O’Brien said. “There’s less kids, and say you have five or six choices in the fall, there’s a good chance you’re spreading it too thin and you have 10 kids on this team and 10 on that team, even if a lot of kids are participating.”

Joining forces

It’s difficult to pin the issues facing high school sports – football especially – on any one factor, which is why O’Brien used the term “salad bowl” to describe it.

“Suppose a kid used to play soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Well, now they seem to find their favorite sport and just play that year-round,” O’Brien said. “You put all that stuff in a salad bowl: schools shrinking in size, kids specializing, school choice. You put all that in a salad bowl, mix it up and that’s why we have what we have right now.”

Perhaps the best way for slumping programs to punch back is the utilization of cooperative teams. If two football teams can’t maintain on their own, combining the schools for a specific sport has proved fruitful for the few that have gone through with it.

In Division II, Gilford-Belmont and Hillsboro-Hopkinton are the newest co-op football teams, while Division III features Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, Farmington-Nute and Epping-Newmarket.

O’Brien believes more could be on the way.

“I think you’ll see team ‘X,’ school ‘X’ and school ‘Y’ that you would have never thought of saying, ‘Hey, we want to keep football, or field hockey,’ or whatever they’re struggling with and go cooperative so they can keep it going,” O’Brien said. “Put two schools together as you see in the NHIAA and try to make it as much as they can.”

Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough may be the most successful co-op team yet. The two schools from the small towns of Meredith and Moultonborough became the first cooperative football team in the Lakes Region starting in 2010. The Lakers won the Division VI title in 2011 and have gone on to finish runner-up in Division III in each of the last two years.

“It’s been really nice but it was definitely interesting at first,” Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough Coach Jon Francis told the Monitor in November. “The kids weren’t really sure what to make of it, but I’ll tell you what, it didn’t take long ... they are all here united under a common flag I guess you could say and everyone just wanted to play football and win some games.”

But even for the Lakers, quality roster size isn’t a guarantee. The team used to get around 10 players from Moultonborough per year. That number is down to five or six now.

“We’re definitely probably on the lower end,” Francis said. “We’ve got about 28-29 guys on the squad, which is probably the smallest it’s ever been. Last year I noticed a lot of teams telling me they were down in numbers and now we’re feeling it a little this year.”

Even teams in Division III and II that have been accustomed to rosters with more than enough players are seeing drops in numbers.

“We’ve kind of maintained and we’re at 34 right now,” Winnisquam Coach Pat Riberdy said. “We should have been closer to 40 ... but 34 is not a terrible number. We’ll be able to run a JV program and a varsity program.”

O’Brien added: “There’s some real low numbers for the state in other programs. You take a school like Milford with like 80 kids, I think that might be an exception. Most schools that used to hover around 60 are hovering somewhere in the low 40s now.”

Future outlook

It’s possible that the war on football has finally reached the high school ranks. It’s possible that the trickle-down effect from concussions in the NFL has scared off parents previously open to letting their kids play the sport. It’s possible that low enrollment is eating away at rosters and it’s possible that this season is a bit of a fluke, part of a cyclical process and the numbers will spike next fall.

It’s also entirely possible that all these things are happening at the same time.

“Football is struggling in the United States, let alone New Hampshire,” Kozens said. “The enrollment numbers are tough. It’s tough to play a school that has 20 more kids on the sideline, it’s a different monster.”

For now, though, coaches in every sport will take what they can get.

“I think it might be cyclical, but I think kids have more choices,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think it’s a disinterest in any particular sport. ... As an athletic director, I don’t care what kids play. I just want them to play. Whether they decide to play football, soccer, cross country, I don’t really care. I just want them to be involved.”