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Report: Johnson County athletic participation trending higher

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During the past two school years, Whiteland Community High School has gone from 376 participants in athletics to 412.

Much of the increase is due to Coach Darrin Fisher’s football program. The number of boys out for the sport went from 78 the fall of 2009 to an all-time high of 97 last fall.

“(Football) is a big chunk of it. I think it has to do with 10 years ago, when coach Fisher started. He did so much with the bantam league, and we’re starting to see the fruits of that now,” Whiteland athletics director Ken Sears said. “And both of our soccer programs are way up."

Whiteland has five new varsity coaches this year in volleyball, girls cross-country, softball and girls and boys soccer. Each of them has the goal of attracting more student-athletes.

That steady upward trend is mirrored at other local schools and across the country.

During the previous school year, Johnson County high schools counted 2,035 sports participants, which was a slight increase from the 1,978 players the previous year. Students who take part in more than one sport are counted more than once.

Nationally, the numbers rose for a 25th consecutive year, with approximately 7.8 million participants, eclipsing the 7.7 million students playing sports in 2012-13, according to a survey conducted by the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations.

“Indiana’s numbers are going up slightly, and I think it’s due to the fact that our schools are growing. Our population is growing, and there are more opportunities for kids to participate,” Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Bobby Cox said. “As long as we can continue to fund these activities and have coaches to coach those teams and the schools can continue to afford to put teams out there, you’re going to find more and more. We’re pretty consistent with the national trend.”

Individually, the number of athletes ebbs and flows through the years.

At Center Grove, participation numbers have been relatively consistent, even though the softball and girls soccer programs haven’t fielded a freshman team three of the past four school years.

“All in all our numbers are still very good. You have to remember, half if not two-thirds of our sports are cut sports. The only non-cut sports where the numbers could go up are football, wrestling, and boys and girls cross-country, swimming and track and field,” Center Grove athletics director Jon Zwitt said.

Twenty-six Trojan wrestlers were on the roster in 2009-10 but the number increased to 57 three years later before dropping to 42 last winter.

The number of football players has ranged from 111 to 154 in recent years.

Center Grove fields teams in 19 IHSAA-sanctioned sports. Athletes had played all 20 sports until the school discontinued girls gymnastics after the 2009-10 season.

Baseball with 21 players last spring bucked the Trojans’ recent trend of having either 28 or 29 players taking part. Conversely, boys soccer with 29 players has made a significant jump from two years ago when it had 19.

While not necessarily a concern locally, girls basketball from a statewide perspective is a sport that has Cox’s attention.

“Girls basketball I’m concerned about. I don’t see as many JV teams, and virtually there are no freshmen teams left,” Cox said. “If the girl is good enough to play as a freshman, she’s playing varsity. The kids that are playing on a freshman team, they pretty much know they’re not going to play at a high level, and so they’re not going out.”

At Franklin, participation in girls tennis, baseball and softball have dipped slightly, while the most apparent upward trend belongs to boys tennis.

At Greenwood, the total has steadily risen over the past four years from 339 participants in 2010-11 to 372 last school year. Football over that period jumped from 60 to 75 athletes with girls cross-country, wrestling, boys swimming and girls basketball also posting improved numbers.

At Indian Creek, more athletes are participating in football, wrestling and boys swimming.

As the county’s smallest high school, Edinburgh’s numbers remain fairly consistent, although the 152 participants the Lancers achieved last school year was highest in recent memory. Of the 14 sanctioned sports the Lancers play, girls and boys tennis along with volleyball, baseball and softball are experiencing positive trends in terms of participants.

“It’s been consistent over the years even back to the 1970s and 1980s. We added girls golf this year, and we have seven girls out,” Edinburgh athletic director David Walden said. “A lot of it depends on what sports a kid thinks he or she is good at. Last year we had Dakota Sneed playing three sports, and this year we have quite a few three-sports athletes.”

Cox said high schools successful in attempts to gradually increase their number of participants do so through a combination of winning culture, coaching influence and administrative support.

“It’s very obvious when you see a school that’s engaged. With high levels of participation, high school spirit, community involvement ... that is a credit to the administration and the coaching staff,” Cox said. “You can see that they are infusing those areas with that enthusiasm and opportunities for kids to play, and they are seeking more. When they’ve got the kids that are there, they’re trying to find more chances.

“That’s indicative of a school that’s engaged. The challenge is getting them all there.”

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