They’ve canceled junior varsity football and boys’ tennis this fall at Cass City High School, where low turnout for boys’ soccer also ended that program and persuaded school officials to let Cass City players compete for nearby Unionville-Sebewaing Area High School.
Cass City administrators and coaches – including coaches of youth football teams where players start tackling in third and fourth grades – met in a brainstorming session Monday to try to find ways to increase student involvement in sports, particularly football.
“We’re being proactive in this whole recruitment of kids to athletics, not just football but athletics,” said Don Markel, Cass City school district athletic director. “It’s not a situation that we’re just kind of sitting on and doing nothing about. We’re examining some factors that we have under our control.”
Cass City High School dropped JV football, apparently for the first time ever, when only four sophomore boys tried out for the team – where 11 players take the field on both offense and defense.
Markel said the goal is to explore “things we can do as coaches and administrators to try to reinvigorate and bring some excitement to our athletic program.”
Cass City Superintendent Jeff Hartel – a former quarterback for Cass City High School – wondered if youths are tackling each other in youth football programs when they’re too young.
“I’m not a firm believer in having kids in third and fourth grade out tackling,” Hartel said. “By the time they get out here (in high school), some of them could be tired of football. If you get hit when you’re in third grade, you get scared and you’ve lost a kid before they’ve had any true coaching.”
The school district dropped boys’ soccer in the fall of 2011 “because of lack of numbers,” and again in 2014 for the same reason, Markel said.
Cass City’s enrollment has fallen steadily in recent years, though that’s not unusual among public schools in Michigan’s Thumb area, where declines in student numbers have been the norm.
Hartel said in February the Cass City district was “losing about 3.7 percent of our kids from fall to fall.” This year’s student count will be known after school starts Sept. 6.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Markel said of the enrollment decline’s effect on students trying out for sports, including football.
“I also think there has been a lot of media attention about football injuries and, specifically, concussions,” Markel said. “I think that had an impact, not only on Cass City, but all around.”
Hartel called the concern about concussions “a real issue,” noting he suffered a concussion himself as a Cass City senior in a game in 1977, but played the second half of the game despite the injury.
“I didn’t even tell anybody,” Hartel said. “I didn’t realize it until I went in at halftime and I thought ‘Something’s wrong here.’ But I didn’t say a word. You were a (coward) back then, if you did that.”
Hartel told the Cass City Board of Education at its Aug. 22 meeting that he would investigate the reasons for the loss of the JV football program.
“We’re going to talk to kids,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out why – besides just losing students – this happened. We still should be able to field a football team.”
Cass City head varsity football coach Scott Cuthrell said coaches know more about means of preventing injuries these days.
“I think the knowledge that we have as coaches – that the state has put on us – and what we’ve done with equipment improvements, it’s highly advanced, and we are more knowledgeable than 10 or 15 years ago,” Cuthrell said.
Cuthrell said Cass City coaches are trying to implement “rugby-style tackling” – using the shoulders and “more of a roll” into an opponent carrying the ball – as a safer means of tackling opponents.
Cass City’s junior varsity teams, coached by Josh Stern and Cody Halasz, went undefeated last season as well as the year before. Luke Stern, 15, Josh Stern’s son and a sophomore cornerback on the Cass City varsity football team this year, said student attitudes could be to blame for the lack of JV football.
“I think a lot of kids are just lazy and scared to get hit, like someone said earlier,” Stern said. “They’re just used to not doing anything and they like it that way, I guess. They don’t want to work.”
In recent years, high-school football schedules have begun earlier, so two games occur in August. That means football programs may start their “two-a-day” workouts in early August heat for the first two weeks of practice. Cass City practices began Aug. 8, almost one month before the first day of school Sept. 6.
“When I played (high-school) football, we started practice two weeks before school,” Cuthrell said.
Two-a-day workouts are “a long five-hour practice” split into two sessions, Cuthrell said.
“That’s part of our success, because when kids come out here, they know that it’s going to be some work, and I think some kids shy away from that,” Cuthrell said.
Numbers of students wanting to try out for football varies at Cass City. This year, for example, only four seventh-grade boys came out for the football team, though 14 boys showed up as eighth-graders.
Sandyn Cuthrell, 15, is Scott Cuthrell’s son and a 5-11, 150-pound freshman defensive back on the Cass City varsity football team.
“The numbers at our school aren’t the greatest – they’re down – and you don’t just find athletes like you used to around here,” Sandyn Cuthrell said.
“The juniors and seniors, they’re huge, and when you’re coming in as a freshman and you hear there’s no JV team, that’s going to frighten you a little bit. I already heard of a couple kids not wanting to come out because there’s not a JV team and you’re not going against kids of the same age.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com