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High school athletics fighting for attention

Douglas Fritz • Jun 13, 2018 at 10:43 PM

This is the first of a two-part series, focusing on the state and direction of high school athletics in Northeast Tennessee. Part I looks at where athletics stand today. Part II looks at social media, coaching shortages and solutions.

High school athletics seem to be losing a little bit of ground when it comes to grabbing attention these days.

There’s plenty of competition, and the good athletes are still big, strong and fast. But there doesn’t seem to be as much athletic depth overall as in years past.

Elizabethton softball coach Ken Hardin is among those who see it as being caused by society and technology.

“I think the big difference now is there are so many more things to do other than sports-related things,” said Hardin. “There are so many options. A lot of times it comes down to: Do I want to go with my buddies or go work out extra?”

Fewer participants

Hardin said sometimes the kids excel when they are young but then drift away.

“Our numbers for the last few years, in all programs, are down,” said Hardin. “You always need more kids. At practice we would like to have two teams available. We were down to 18 kids last year.”

Part of the reason for dwindling numbers is fewer multi-sport athletes, said Daniel Boone football and girls softball coach Jeremy Jenkins.

“When kids get to that certain age, either freshman or sophomore, they try to specialize,” said Jenkins. “You’re seeing fewer play two sports, and very rarely do they play three. But our coaching staff tries to recommend you play as many things as you can. All sports need our kids, especially at the county schools.”

Football is more prone to number issues than other sports. Jenkins said the concussion issue impacts that sport. But he added that his program, and others, can be OK as long as they don’t have two small classes back to back.

“We’ve had 18 freshmen, and we’ve had as many as 26 to 30,” said Jenkins. “If we see two classes with low numbers, we try to get to the middle school level early and pick those numbers up.”

A different view

Numbers aren’t quite as much of an issue at larger schools like Dobyns-Bennett. Head baseball coach Ryan Wagner said his school has stayed level or increased in that area.

“I’ve been fortunate, and our numbers are still up,” said Wagner of his baseball program. “As a whole in the school, I think the numbers are still high. Football is way up, and basketball is good right now. And even other sports are doing well.”

Making choices

Sport specialization is part of the equation. Some kids play one sport almost year round.

That can force kids to make a choice: stick with one sport or risk falling behind.

“I hate that,” said Hardin. “I think you need a break from a sport. A lot of coaches may disagree with me. But I will take a dual-sport kid. I think it makes the kids a little better when they get back to you. And I think when you specialize you cheat yourself out of things.”

Hardin said one of the worst things that has happened is the wide-open summers. He said the TSSAA allowed more contact for the high school coaches because of the proliferation of travel teams.

“Years ago you could only have so much contact with the kids,” said Hardin. “Now you can go all summer.”

Wagner said travel teams can be challenging for high schools to handle.

“Whether you call it travel or AAU or whatever, sometimes I think it gets the best of high school sports,” said Wagner. “Sometimes kids feel like that’s their way to get to the next level.”

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