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Fewer girls play high school basketball, coaches concerned

February 2, 2019

HICKORY, N.C. (AP) — When the St. Stephens varsity girls basketball team took the court earlier this month to face Watauga, Indians coach Roger Shield assembled a starting lineup that included two freshmen and a sophomore. He did it out of necessity.

This season, the Indians have a lone senior and only three juniors. The rest of the roster is filled with ninth- and tenth-graders who would otherwise be playing on the junior varsity team - if the school had enough girls to fill a JV squad.

St. Stephens is one of a handful of schools in the area that didn’t field a girls JV team this year in what has become a trend for the sport.

“I don’t think it’s a problem that is unique to Saint,” said Shield, who has coached at the high school and collegiate levels for 40 years. “I think it’s everywhere.”

He’s right. Fred T. Foard is not fielding a JV girls team this season. Patton didn’t field one for the first time in the school’s history. And in the Indians’ conference, West Caldwell and South Caldwell don’t have one either.

And it’s not just here. Schools across the state have had to drop their JV girls programs for lack of interest. Lejeune, a 1A school near Jacksonville, didn’t even have enough players to field a varsity team this season.

The decline comes in spite of record participation in high school athletics. More girls are playing high school sports than at any time in history, yet one of the most popular sports in the country continues to decline. Since the 2000-01 season, the number of girls playing basketball across the nation has dropped nearly 10 percent. And in hoop-crazed North Carolina, there haven’t been this few female players since the 2001-02 season.

It’s particularly striking to see in an area with such a rich history of girls basketball success. Hickory, Foard, Newton-Conover, Bandys, West Caldwell and Freedom have all won state titles. That includes a particularly dominant run from 1985-99 when those six schools combined for 13 championships and had at least one representative in the final in all but three seasons.

What has happened to girls basketball?

A handful of coaches offered their thoughts on that topic over the past few weeks, highlighting numerous issues plaguing the game today and what - if anything - can be done to reverse the trend.

PLENTY OF OPTIONS

One of the biggest problems that every coach mentioned is a generational shift where kids aren’t willing to put in the time and effort that previous generations did. Simply put, they lack the drive and dedication needed to master their craft.

“I think it’s been over the last decade,” Shield said of the sport’s decay. “You don’t see today very many kids that are what we used to call ‘gym rats.’”

“Kids these days in this generation, they don’t really have to work for a lot of things,” echoed second-year Foard girls varsity coach Brandy Dawkins. “You’ve got to work at basketball. It’s a lot of entitlement, I would say, as far as they want instant gratification. Basketball, you’ve got to play four quarters, which could be hours before you get to celebrate a win or a loss.”

Hickory girls JV coach Alicia Abernathy, who played on the Red Tornadoes’ title-winning teams in 1998 and ’99, pointed to a fear of failure as one of the reasons why fewer girls are playing basketball.

“Everything is on social media. Everybody is putting you out there to be seen,” she said. “It’s a narcissistic view of themselves that they see, ‘If I mess up or I fail, everybody is going to know about it,’ instead of coming out and doing it.”

This latest generation of girls also has more opportunities available to them than their predecessors.

For example, 30 years ago girls were steered away from science, technology, engineering and math classes or the robotics club. Today, women are encouraged to go into those fields, where they may earn more than a professional basketball player.

“I try to tell female athletes especially, there’s no money for us after college,” Dawkins said. “If you get a scholarship offer to go to school and get an education, by all means take it. But don’t think there is WNBA for us. I would love to be in the WNBA, but I make more money going to an 8-to-5 than killing myself at basketball practice and traveling and all of that.”

For many high school girls, it’s a simple decision to focus on their studies rather than sports. And with limited athletic opportunities available to them beyond college, it’s hard to fault that choice.

“Girls are like, ‘I can’t dedicate after-school time because I’m in this club for engineering,‘” Dawkins said. “Or ‘I’ve got honors classes and I just can’t dedicate two hours for basketball when I’ve got four hours’ worth of homework.′ And as a coach, I can’t really knock that because I’m also supposed to be teaching these girls life skills and how to be a great member of society.

“When a girl comes to me and tells me that, what can I really say other than, ‘You know what, that’s awesome. I wish I had been that smart.’”

For others, the issue isn’t academic at all.

Specialization - defined as focusing on and practicing just one sport for most, if not all, of the year - has taken off as the rise of club and travel teams has turned U.S. youth sports into a $17 billion industry. According to research from the Aspen Institute, an estimated 40 percent of young athletes now specialize in an individual sport, often with the hopes of getting recognized and receiving a college scholarship.

The area coaches who were interviewed for this story all spoke out against this latest trend and were very much in favor of multi-sport athletes.

They lamented some of the ones who got away, though.

“I had a girl who played for me last year,” Dawkins said. “She’s not playing for me this year because she wants to focus on cross-country. She got a new trainer who’s like, ‘You can get hurt in basketball.’ Well you can get hurt doing anything. You can get hurt stepping out of the car.”

Sylvia White, who returned to the sideline this season for a second stint as the Newton-Conover varsity girls coach after leading the Red Devils to a state title in 1992, sees both sides of the specialization coin. She’s lost athletes to other sports, but she’s also lost basketball players who focused on nothing else and burned out.

“We’ve got two kids walking this hall that are senior basketball players that did not play this year,” White said. “I’d love to have them both, and I went out and invited them. They said, ‘Coach, we’re tired.’ And I said, ‘If you’re tired, we don’t need you and good luck to you in whatever you’re going to do.’”

White added that her numbers are down this year as well with just 10 kids on varsity and 8-9 more on JV, though she is grateful to be able to field two teams. Others, like Dawkins and Shield, aren’t so lucky.

Shield pointed specifically to volleyball for where so many of the basketball players have gone.

“My previous stops, it was the same way,” he said. “We would get 40-50 kids for open gym for volleyball, and I didn’t have enough to do any type of skeletal work with basketball.

“Getting five kids there was a successful open gym.”

Both nationally and in the state, volleyball has surpassed basketball for the second-most popular high school sport for girls (outdoor track and field is first). It’s not necessarily high school volleyball that is the main culprit though.

Jason Stephens has a unique perspective on the debate as both the Hickory volleyball head coach and an assistant for the Red Tornadoes’ girls varsity basketball team. He spoke at length about the growth of club sports, including soccer and volleyball, and how they affect sports at the high school level. He said that club volleyball in particular grabs the limelight partly due to the increased attention it draws from college coaches.

“Volleyball coaches aren’t really recruiting through high school anymore,” Stephens said. “They’re recruiting through travel (volleyball). So now it’s not just being on a club team, it’s finding the best club to get notoriety with.”

And for some clubs, that can mean playing in tournaments and events year-round. So not only does that take away those athletes from basketball and other high school sports, but it also causes burnout and repetitive use injuries.

That’s not to say, however, that travel volleyball or other club sports are solely responsible for the demise of girls high school basketball. In fact, a closer look at the numbers in North Carolina begs a question: Is the sport really in trouble or is this just part of a cycle that is due to rebound in the coming years?

WAVE IN, WAVE OUT

The National Federation of State High School Associations measures athletic participation among states and across the country each year. Depending on which year you compare the most recent North Carolina data to determines just how much trouble girls basketball in the state may be in.

The 2001-02 season is the worst NFHS has measured since 2000. That season, 7,619 girls played high school hoops.

The very next season had 9,451 participants. The state hasn’t had a better year since.

By 2005-06, the number had dipped back below 8,000. As recently as five years ago, it swelled to nearly 8,700. Last year, just 7,913 girls played high school basketball in the Tarheel State.

So is this just the low point of the latest cycle? Or are their bigger issues that need to be addressed in order to save the game?

“Girls are going to play basketball,” Stephens said. “How you coach them is probably going to be the big deal. You’ve got to have continuity on the bench. You’ve got to have the same person for a while. And you’ve got to involve yourself with the kid too. They’ve got to know you care about them.”

For some schools, like Hickory, their history of success in the sport should continue to draw girls to tryouts.

“Here at Hickory High, I feel like we will field a JV girls team because so many know they want to be on that varsity level and we have a winning tradition,” Abernathy said. “So they want to be the next up.”

For others, they are left wondering what it will take to reverse this downward spiral.

“Honestly I don’t know if I have an answer for that,” Shield said. “I’d like to think it’s cyclical because that means at some point it’s going to improve. I’m just not sure.”

If it’s not, there may be more freshmen and sophomores finding their way into his starting lineup.

Judging by this season, St. Stephens will not be alone.

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Information from: The Hickory Daily Record, http://www.hickoryrecord.com

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