Joe Davidson

Football participation numbers in decline, except the heavies

The Bee’s Joe Davidson gives the scoop on area high school football coaches

Sacramento Bee sports writer Joe Davidson shares his thoughts on some of the area's best high school football coaches and their impact on and off the field on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.
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Sacramento Bee sports writer Joe Davidson shares his thoughts on some of the area's best high school football coaches and their impact on and off the field on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.

Football is a numbers game, and sometimes it’s a losing one.

Players participating in the sport in California dipped from 103,921 players in 2011 to 91,000 last academic year, according to data provided by the California Interscholastic Federation.

Fears of concussions have spooked parents enough to prevent their sons from competing at freshman or junior varsity levels, though the powerhouse programs still have large varsity numbers, including 72 for Sac-Joaquin Section No. 1 Folsom, 90 for Northern California top-ranked De La Salle and 119 for nationally ranked No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana.

The counter argument to concussion concerns is this: The game is safer now than it has ever been. It is taught the right way, or we continue to hope and expect, and state rules mandate limited tackling in practice, a far cry from the old days when players went at it ferociously every day, and then even with more gusto on game day.

A quick peek across the Sac-Joaquin Section, the second-largest of the 10 that make up California’s high school leagues, shows there has been a slight dip in the last two years, from 12,457 football participants to 12,058, which is partially because some programs have dropped freshman football.

Antelope doesn’t field a freshman team and has had its total football numbers for all levels drop from 181 to 114 from 2017 to 2018. Jesuit went from 162 total to 128, Elk Grove 131 to 89 and Cosumnes Oaks 140 to 101.

Grant Pacers numbers

At Grant, Mike Alberghini has 32 varsity players, his smallest roster in his Pacers’ head-coaching tenure, which started in 1991.

When the Pacers were busy hoisting section banners and basking in the glow of 14-1 seasons, the varsity numbers were in the 50s. Football mattered. It still does in Del Paso Heights as youth feeder programs there have large rosters, but the “Pacer 4 Life” mantra for decades has taken a hit.

Six returning starters elected not to play this season at Grant. Some didn’t want to work at it or they simply lost interest. This weighs on the proud old coach, who wonders if this might be his final season after 51 years in the district and 260 victories.

“I still enjoy doing this,” Alberghini said Friday before a 35-6 loss at Davis, “but it’s frustrating. We had kids who could have come back and been leaders but decided not to, and then we have sophomores we plug in who just aren’t ready. It’s the sign of the times.”

Davis High School football may be onto a special season, opening with a resounding 35-6 rout of storied Grant in a season opener, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.

Bruins not in ruins

At Bear River in the foothills of Grass Valley and Lake of the Pines, the gritty Bruins trot out 22 players, and they compete as if their reputations depend on it.

This is a small-school championship program, where the effort dwarfs the roster size.

“We’re really thin again,” longtime Bear River co-coach Terry Logue said. “We don’t have a lot, but the ones we do have love football and give it everything they have. We’ll knock you down and then pick you up. That’s always our motto.

“And low numbers are everywhere. This is the seventh year in a row we don’t have a freshman team. Kids don’t want to make the commitment, to lift weights, and it’s becoming a dying breed. It’s a shame because football offers so much. We’re teaching life lessons — commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, accountability. Those traits are not being taught in other places, but it sure does in football. I’ll tell you what: The kids who do play, they’re special — everywhere.”

Among the living

The best way to erase the bad taste of an 0-10 crash-and-burn season? Win your opener.

That happened at Whitney in Placer County with a 38-0 victory over Paraclete and it happened in Greenhaven for Pleasant Grove, a 56-6 winner over Kennedy as Nate Valencia tossed six touchdowns and ran for one.

Rocklin went 2-8 last season and rolled Antelope 35-7 behind a stout defensive effort for first-year coach Jason Adams, the program’s longtime defensive coordinator. Christian Awwad had two sacks and an interception return for a score.

Roseville went 3-7 last season and then belted Bear Creek of Stockton 35-0 in Joe Cattolico’s coaching debut with the school after a successful stint in the Elk Grove Unified School District and Pleasant Grove and Sheldon.

Heavy hearts

Union Mine opened with a 58-0 loss to longtime small-school powerhouse Escalon, and the Diamondbacks competed with their hearts elsewhere.

Beloved coach Chic Bist, a coaching institution for decades in the foothills, has been hospitalized as he battles pancreatic cancer. He told me a year ago that despite his cancer battles, “I coach because I need to, and if I don’t, I’ll die for sure.”

Bist’s son, Jacob Bist, is the interim coach, made light of an emotionally grinding situation Friday before kickoff when he texted me to say he would do his best to imitate his father’s famed and feared speech, “I will give it my best effort at that growly voice.”

Proud pops

Zach Logue won his coaching debut at Western Sierra Academy, a small school of 609 students in Rocklin in its fifth year.

Logue is the son of Bear River’s coach Logue, a one-time star for his father who caught the coaching bug. His brother, Matt, is the fifth year coach at Selma High in the Central Section, including a 13-1 season in 2016.

“Wow, am I proud of my boys,” Terry Logue said. “They’re great young coaches making a difference.”

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