JV football team struggles to retain members; trend is part of larger decline in sports participation

November 20, 2019 — by Andy Chen

2019 was the first year the JV football team had less than 20 players.

The varsity football team enjoyed a largely successful season, going 8-2, making it to the first round of Division IV CCS and almost always playing well, even when they lost to opponents such as Los Gatos. 

While focusing on varsity’s success, many students and parents may not have noticed the major problems affecting the JV team. While coach Bryan Mazzone’s team ended the season 1-7, his team faced an even bigger issue: It had only 19 players.

Looking at yearbook team photos in the past decade illustrates the drop in participation for the JV squad. In 2012, the team numbered 55, but numbers fell to 37 players in 2013 and 2014, 41 players in 2015, 39 players in 2016, 33 players in 2017 and 2018, and 27 players in 2019.

The fall of 2019 marked the first team where the numbers dropped below 20 — an especially low number considering 11 players are on both offense and defense, meaning most of the team has to play the whole game.

“We’ve done a really good job over the years of retaining our guys,” Lugo said. “This is the first year where we didn’t get a lot of people back from last season.”

Due to low numbers, the JV team was forced to forfeit during the second half of a game against Silver Creek on Sept. 6, their third game of the season. The team ended up playing 8-minute quarters instead of 10-minute quarters for the remainder of the season as players were getting too tired, said sophomore Parsa Hashemi, who started the season as a receiver and safety on JV but later moved to varsity.

“Everyone was just throwing their bodies out there,” Hashemi said. “It was tiring for everyone, so our coaches decided to just cut it down, but it was harder to get things done [in just seven minutes].”

According to Lugo, the JV team normally aims to have 30 to 40 players, since around five freshmen usually quit after playing for a year due to new opportunities and conflicts with academics. However, the team was unsuccessful in meeting its recruiting goal this season. Lugo said that a significant number of potential players have been “unwilling to take the time commitment, not enjoying the sport, or just not enjoying the physicality of it.” 

Additionally, he suspects that some potential players may have been disheartened by the JV team’s struggles during the past few seasons, prompting them to either play other sports or transfer to schools with traditionally better performing teams. 

For example, some freshmen and sophomores who have attended Redwood Middle School or SHS in the past have transferred to Los Gatos to play on their JV football team, according to varsity wide receiver George Bian.
This numbers problem is exacerbated by the school’s small overall size compared to most other local schools. SHS suffers from the “double whammy” of being the smallest school in its league in addition to having a lower participation rate this year, Lugo said. 

With only 1,350 students, 10 percent of the school’s boys have traditionally been needed to be on the football team in order to compete with other larger schools, but this year, participation has dipped to 6 percent of boys. While this percentage is normal for other schools, 6 percent of boys from Saratoga is many fewer players than 6 percent of boys from, for example, Homestead, whose student population numbers over 2,800, Lugo said.

Nor is this problem is not unique to Saratoga High — other schools in the area have also been struggling with lower levels of participation as well. Monta Vista, with a school population of about 2,350, was even forced to drop its frosh-soph team this year, when only 12 players tried out.

“It’s a demographic issue of the schools in our area,” Lugo said. “Up in the northern peninsula, South San Francisco, El Camino Area; they’re all struggling with kids, so it’s not just us.”

This issue of declining sports participation generally is becoming common wealthier suburbs of the Bay Area, where many parents here often put a larger emphasis on academics compared to parents in many other parts of the country. Additionally, many local parents are reluctant to let their children play football due to fears regarding safety and life-altering injuries, including concussions. 

Typical of athletes who aren’t playing football these days is sophomore Weilin Sun.

He played intramural football in middle school and loves watching the sport on TV, but he opted not to play in consultation with his family.

“My dad was all, trust me, it’s not worth it because of safety,” Sun said, “and I realized he was kind of right — if football was any safer, I probably would have played.” 

To combat the problem of low numbers, the school has talked about turning the JV team into a freshman-only team next year and pushing sophomores to varsity, although no one is currently prepared to act on this idea. 

If they were to put this plan in motion, Lugo hopes that the JV team would end up more accessible for newcomers who aren’t yet confident in their abilities, and he hopes that parents worried about safety would let their child play at this less intense level. In the meantime, Lugo has decided to send a half dozen varsity players to share their experiences at Redwood Middle School in hopes of attracting more players in the lower grades.

The school is even considering lowering the number of summer practices. However, Lugo feels this is unviable because compared to other school’s teams that practice six times a week during the summer, Saratoga’s JV and varsity teams only practice 14 times total in the summer, and so cutting this number even more would greatly underprepared upcoming players.  

“We try to let kids be kids and families be families,” he said, “but some people still think that’s too much of a time commitment.”

In a worst-case scenario, if trends continue, the school could potentially dissolve the JV team altogether and move newcomers straight to varsity. In turn, Bian thinks a varsity-only program  would remain at a constant 25-30 members in the following seasons. 

For Lugo, what is happening with football also reflects a decrease in participation for sports and physical activities as a whole among teens. Over the past few years, the school has seen a significant drop in participation for sports across the board, with the girls’ tennis, girls’ golf, and boys' and girls’ cross country teams being most recently affected. According to registrar Robert Wise, schoolwide participation in sports peaked in 2013, during which 381 students participated in fall sports, but this number has trickled down to just 265 students this year.  

On a national level, high school participation in traditional 11-man football has fallen more than 10 percent since 2009, according to a recent story in The New York Times. 

Ultimately, there may not be a lot that Lugo or the school can do to reverse the trend of declining participation in football and sports generally. 

“We’re dealing with a community that is very technology orientated, and most [students] didn’t grow up playing sports at all,” Lugo said, “so we’re seeing a reduction in kids playing not just football, but sports in general.”

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