Mount Vernon High School is only a year removed from back-to-back appearances in the girls’ state basketball finals.
“You’d think after the success we’ve had, some kids would jump on board,” said Coach Bob Kintzel.
Instead, only 15 girls are involved in the high school program this year. Four grades, 15 girls.
And remember that run by Springville in 2008 and 2009? Those glory years were fueled by a large class of girls that stuck with it all the way through high school.
Today, only 12 players participate at the high school level at Springville.
Girls’ basketball isn’t dying in Iowa. But it’s certainly fading. The situations at Mount Vernon and Springville are neither isolated nor rare.
Tri-County has 11 girls out. Postville has 12. Lone Tree and English Valleys have 14 apiece, and English Valleys’ count is actually up five from last year.
Cedar Valley Christian, in its first year as a sanctioned program by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, has five on its roster, though a sixth is available if needed — sort of like Ollie in Hoosiers.
Declining participation is not an issue solely for the small schools.
“There are some 4A schools that have had to cancel their ninth-grade schedule,” said IGHSAU executive director Mike Dick.
Cedar Rapids Jefferson is a 4A school with about 200 senior girls. None of them play basketball.
In 1980, basketball was the undisputed sport of choice for high school girls; 19,720 played that year, according to records kept by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
That number has dwindled steadily since. The number was 8,244 in 2010, a drop of 58 percent. Basketball now ranks No. 4 in girls’ participation, below volleyball (12,240), softball (9,766) and track and field (9,426).
“I don’t know what the problem is,” said Waukon Coach Gene Klinge, the state’s all-time leader in victories. “I don’t know what’s causing it, but there’s a problem.”
Some of it is simple mathematics. In 1980, there are were 493 schools — all of which played six-player basketball. In 2010, there were 375 schools playing five-player ball.
That equates to roughly 1,100 fewer varsity starters thoughout the state on a given Tuesday or Friday night.
“There are fewer schools and less kids,” Dick said. “And you look at specialization … you lose one girl at each school who wants to do soccer or volleyball year-round, and it adds up.”
A generation ago, most players’ athletics careers began in junior high. Now, that’s bumped earlier.
University of Iowa assistant women’s coach Jan Jensen was a four-sport athlete at Elk Horn-Kimballton High School in western Iowa before becoming an All-American at Drake University.
She’s familiar with the young travel teams.
“Now, if you don’t choose a sport at a young age, you’re getting left behind,” she said. “You’ve got people with kids, 7, 8, 9 years old, thinking the only way to get their kid a scholarship is to specialize, and that hurts the well-rounded kids.”
Dick said, “By the time they’re in high school, some kids are probably burned out. And by the time they’re in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, some might have given up.”
Basketball isn’t the only girls’ sport to take a hit in participation. Soccer and tennis are booming, cross country and swimming are steady. But everything else is sliding.
Even volleyball has declined in the past 10 years. But it remains the No. 1 sport in Iowa.
At Springville, 34 girls participated in volleyball last fall, according to athletics director Kyle Koeppen.
“Girls just like volleyball more right now,” he said. “The winter season is the longest season, and I think that’s a factor.”
The volleyball-basketball dynamic can be awkward, and at times, contentious.
According to Kintzel — who, ironically, has two daughters on the UNI volleyball team — club volleyball usually has tryouts in late November and is in full swing throughout the winter.
“We work around it,” he said. “The only thing I ask is that after the last regular-season (basketball) game, they not participate in club volleyball in any way. I want all their energy on basketball in the postseason.”
Kintzel grew up at a time when girls’ basketball was flourishing.
“Back when I was in school, a lot of kids played because they wanted to be a part of something,” he said.
“Now, if they’re not playing, they’re not going to stick with it. Physically, it’s demanding, running up and down the floor, 84 feet at a time. It’s a physical sport with a lot of contact.”
Identifying the issue is easy. Reversing it, not so much.
“I wish I has an earth-shattering answer, but I don’t,” Jensen said.
Cedar Rapids Jefferson Coach Larry Niemeyer said, “You can’t make kids go out.”
Dick is hopeful that the IGHSAU’s move to five classes next year provides more incentive. But he said that the responsibility in participation lies mostly with the schools.
“So much falls back on the school districts,” he said. “When I was coaching (at Osceola Clarke and Pocahontas from 1972 through 1984), we tried to make it fun. We practiced an hour and a half or two hours, then we were done.”
The news isn’t bad everywhere. Cedar Rapids Kennedy Coach Dennis Roloff has a reputation for giving a lot of girls playing time, and Kennedy has 55 girls out this season. Cedar Rapids Washington, Iowa City High and Iowa City West are in the 40s. Benton Community and Decorah are in the upper 30s.
Lisbon, a 1A school, has 24 girls out — plenty for healthy varsity and JV teams.
And despite the low numbers at Mount Vernon and Springville, help is on the way at both schools.
Kintzel said there are more than 25 eighth-graders out at Mount Vernon. Springville has big sixth- and seventh-grade classes.
“When we had our good group in (the Class of 2009), the parents were involved with that group at a young age,” Koeppen said. “Now we have some parents at those younger levels that are emulating that.”
Girls’ sports participation in Iowa:
|3. Track & field||9,426||10,012||11,658||14,402|
|6. Cross country||4,361||4,536||2,680||2,376|