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Co-ops may keep sports alive

As of this writing, the Loyal and Greenwood school districts are considering a cooperative girls softball program already for this spring. Granton may not offer baseball or track and field, depending on how many kids are interested in playing (softball was already eliminated there years ago). During the boys and girls basketball seasons that are concluding now, multiple area schools were unable to field freshman teams and even junior varsity squads, and no Granton boys varsity team took to the court for the first time in decades. In the just-concluded wrestling season, it was a rarity when an individual small school was able to field its own team, and for many programs (as with Neillsville-Greenwood-Loyal), it took multiple partners to field even a partial team.

And no, this is not a COVID-19 related issue, as numbers of athletes have been dwindling for years. Part of it is simply lower student enrollments as families have fewer and fewer children. Part of it, though, too, is a lesser number of kids who are interested in competitive sports. Ask most area coaches and they’ll express frustration with the number of potential players who would rather get a job after school or just stay home with a video game controller than come out to be part of a school team.

This is not likely to be a trend that reverses itself. More students are likely in the future to enroll in virtual academies through which they can take online courses at their own paces, thus removing them from the traditional school setting. Families are not suddenly going to start growing in average size, though some suggest COVID-19 family sequestering might lead to a modest baby boom. OK, maybe in the late 2030s, things will improve for a bit. We’ll have to wait and see on that.

With no likely trend reversal coming, school districts and parents (especially) will need to become more open to the idea of cooperative programs.They are not ideal, no, but given the choice between giving their kids an opportunity to play a given sport with a neighboring school or not at all, that should be an easy choice. And, no, it doesn’t really matter what the team nickname will be or which school is listed first on the program or the fact that Greenwood and Loyal were bitter football rivals in the 1960s. Those are all petty points, and not ones the student-athletes care about.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) needs also to be forward-thinking with co-op sports and newer options, as it has been with 8-man football programs. Schools that are struggling to field teams should be encouarged to find partners, and will have to continue to be flexiblie in organizing state tournament fields and such to accomodate co-op programs. If the red tape for a district to join with a neighbor is too prohibitive, the easy way out will be to drop opportunities rather than find ways to retain them. Flexibility will be key, as schools (especially small ones) may find themselves with enough players one year, but not the next. Once a program is suspended, it’s not likely to return.

Few would question the value of high school athletics as a crucial component of a well-rounded educational experience, but the future of their viability locally is in question. Families need to accept that things aren’t the way they used to be, and that opportunity may only remain if players and parents are open to the possibility of wearing a uniform that not be of their home school’s colors. A Greenwood kid playing for Loyal, or vice versa? Why not? Only outdated convictions and resistance to change would preclude it.

Members of the TRG editorial Board include Publisher Kris O’Leary, Editor Dean Lesar, and Carol O’Leary.