Brownsburg High School freshman Jacob Jones keeps his eyes on the ball as he hauls in a touchdown catch in the “Fifth Quarter,” an extra scrimmage allotted for players who didn’t get to play much in the regular freshman game between the Bulldogs and the Avon Orioles at Brownsburg on Monday, September 15, 2014. The unofficial extra quarter, sometimes played if both teams agree to it, provides more experience for the young players.
Numbers for the Carmel High School football team have never been a concern … at least until now, when the team’s freshman football roster is the smallest in years.
Several factors have contributed to the decline, including publicity about concussions. But Greyhounds coach Kevin Wright said for-profit travel programs in other sports drawing players away from football is the major reason for lower participation.
“A lot of concussions in other sports haven’t been studied or reported yet,” Wright said. “I think the pendulum will swing back at some point.”
Wright said the issue is not just at Carmel, but for other Hamilton County schools as well as neighboring Zionsville. He said many programs have seen drops in their youth football program numbers like the Carmel Dads Club has experienced.
Carmel has 58 freshman players, which Wright said he believed to be the lowest in a couple of decades. In 2013, the number of freshmen was 82. It was 90-plus in ’12 and 88 in ’11.
“We’re just in an area right now where there are a lot of options out there,” Wright said.
Wright said for-profit groups in other sports are targeting football because of the concussion publicity. Wright said many of the facilities are located in Hamilton County, including the new Grand Park in Westfield.
“(Young players) are getting sold a bill of goods that you need to specialize in this sport because this is your future,” Wright said. “I don’t buy it. If you read anything about professional athletes, most were multi-sport athletes growing up.”
While soccer’s growth is one issue, Wright said it hurts to lose players to sports not in season, such as fall leagues for baseball, hockey, basketball, wrestling and lacrosse.
“We lost two of our better eighth-graders to fall hockey,” Wright said. “If you think concussions are an issue in football, what about hockey?”
Wright said there are so many clubs for all these sports.
“(The clubs) are getting them early on and they are getting their money,” Wright said. “They are getting them sold and getting them hooked.”
Wright said the school is looking to increase numbers.
“I give our administration credit for dealing with it in looking what we can do to unify things and make the experience that much better for kids,” he said. “That’s the key is to getting them out and having a good experience.”
Westfield football coach Jake Gilbert said specialization is the biggest obstacle football coaches face.
“There is a misconception that if their kid doesn’t play travel in their sport they will never have a chance,” he said. “There are so many kids in way younger grades than freshmen specializing. I don’t think it’s the coaches. It’s the parents and people making money off kids for travel.”
Like Wright, Gilbert said he knows the concussion issue is used by groups to convince players not to play football.
“Parents are falling for it,” Gilbert said. “They’re really hurting their kids. Kids have 70 percent chance more of getting injured if they play one sport only. They think they are protecting their kids and they’re hurting their kids.”
Several schools have actually seen increases or remained steady:
• Noblesville has 73 freshmen, about 20 more than it had in 2013.
• Fishers’ numbers have been between 65 and 70 the last few years.
• Westfield has 49 freshmen, up from the low 30s four years ago.
• Warren Central has 70 freshmen, 10 more than last season.
• Ben Davis he has about 80 freshmen, which is about what it has averaged over the past several years.
• Hamilton Southeastern has 70 freshmen, a slight increase over last year.
HSE coach Scott May said the school system has about 150 eighth-graders playing that will feed into either Hamilton Southeastern or Fishers.
Gilbert has concentrated on building the Westfield youth program’s numbers.
“That’s been a ton of hard work,” Gilbert said. “I’m talking family to family. I make calls and recruit fourth-graders. It’s unbelievable.”
Wright pointed out Carmel is competing against primarily Marion County schools in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. Most are not seeing any drop-off in freshman rosters.
There are 110 eighth-graders playing at Carmel’s three middle schools compared to 105 last year, according to figures supplied by the school district. Wright expects the freshman numbers will be back in the 70s next season. However, the number of seventh-graders playing at Carmel’s three middle schools is just 82.
Ben Davis coach Mike Kirschner estimated 110 eighth-graders are playing at the two middle schools feeding Ben Davis. Warren Central’s Jayson West said there are about 100 eighth-graders playing in his school’s system.
While Carmel’s freshman numbers are down, there are currently 168 players (sophomore, juniors and seniors) on the Greyhounds’ roster. That’s the most Wright has had in his five seasons.
“We’ve actually increased our numbers of upperclassmen every year during this concussion awareness era,” Wright said. “It’s not all gloom and doom.”