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Where have all the Spartan athletes gone?

The bench at a Superior High School softball game is pretty bare these days. The same is true for girls soccer. Activities director Ray Kosey has already been forced to cancel a few junior varsity matches because of the low numbers this year, and...

Empty Bench
Superior High School softball coaches Greg Campbell and Amy Zembo stand in the dugout near an empty bench on Tuesday in Superior. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The bench at a Superior High School softball game is pretty bare these days. The same is true for girls soccer.

Activities director Ray Kosey has already been forced to cancel a few junior varsity matches because of the low numbers this year, and people are beginning to wonder what's happening. Where have all the players gone?

"I think it's just one of those off years," said Amy Zembo, head coach of the Spartan softball team.

Just a few years ago, the Spartan softball program had plenty of athletes, enough to easily fill both a varsity and junior varsity roster. Many players from the program have gone on to play at the collegiate level. Nine former Spartans are currently leading the University of Wisconsin-Superior softball team to a successful season.

Yet despite Zembo's long tenure with the Spartans and history of success, girls aren't signing up to play.

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"I have talked to people at the YMCA and SYO, and they both have told me registration numbers have been low for soccer and softball as it relates to these students now at SHS," Kosey said.

Kosey also received a statewide e-mail from the WIAA this season about softball. The message asked activities directors to report the status of their varsity softball programs because it was reported many schools could no longer offer softball due to low numbers.

Girls soccer coach Aaron Bottge has also been scrambling to find players to fill his teams. Early in the season, he needed almost every available player just to field a team when injuries sidelined about half a dozen players at once.

Most of the soccer players have healed enough to return, but numbers are still low, as they are in softball. Both programs have been forced to make changes to their JV schedules as a result.

"We want to have the least impact on JV students," Kosey said. "Softball is still playing some games as scheduled with low sub numbers. As for soccer, we are trying to play as many JV games as possible; often they will be a mini-game after the varsity game. The concern is overuse of players."

Kosey said a few JV soccer matches have been canceled to ensure the safety of the players.

Bucking the trend

While the softball and soccer fields remain quiet, one program has seen an upturn this season. The track and field team has seen an increase in athletes, both male and female, in recent years.

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Phil Roe, co-head coach of the Spartan track team, said when he began coaching five years ago, it was a struggle to get enough athletes to compete in all of the events. Now the Spartan girls have depth in their relays, sprints, long-distance races and field events.

"My freshman year was a lot smaller," said senior track and field athlete Christa Diedrich. "It hasn't been a dramatic change over one year, but it's for sure grown since my freshman year. I think part of it is just because we've gotten more serious about track. Track is more like a sport now where I think before it was just to stay in shape for your next season."

The girls track and field team is thriving this season, but Roe said he doesn't think it comes at the expense of the other spring sports teams. He has actually seen a few of his returning athletes leave to play other sports this year.

Roe did say, however, that the track program has done well drawing new freshman each season. He credited co-head coach Kris Leopold's work in the annual Track-O-Rama event for piquing kids' interest early. The high school track team's recent success may also be a draw.

"The last couple of years we've been winning a lot of meets," Roe said. "People are seeing that our kids have gone to state the last four or five years in a row, and I think it's to the point that a lot of these kids want to be part of that."

Competing to be chosen

The SHS girls soccer program faces many challenges, from the timing of the season to competing soccer programs.

In Minnesota, girls play soccer in the fall. Wisconsin girls must play in the spring, which prevents Superior from competing in Minnesota's Lake Superior Conference as it does for most other sports. Instead, the girls soccer competes in Middle Border Conference.

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"Travel is greater, as we go to schools like Amery, Osceola and New Richmond," Kosey said. "This means kids miss school more and return home late."

Some girls are willing to travel the long distances, but others are not. Those opting not to play varsity soccer have another option locally: the Gitchi Gummi Soccer Club. Competition from club team is one of the biggest concerns for the SHS program.

Only two freshman play on the Spartan girls soccer team this season. Four or five other freshmen girls also play soccer, but Bottge said they chose to remain with their club team.

"Their club season overlaps with the high school season, and they can only play games for one of the teams," Bottge said. "I tried to get a couple of them to play games with the high school until their first game with the club team, mentioning that they could continue to practice with us but play games for their club team. I was told it would be a bit too much from parents."

Kosey said he will be looking into why girls choose to remain in their club team. His first guess is that they get to play more games while practicing less.

"WIAA is also seeing this trend, and that is why they have increased contests in most sports over the past few years," Kosey said.

Zembo too has seen competition from teams not sanctioned by the WIAA. From what she has observed, Junior Olympics volleyball has siphoned away the most softball players.

"Athletes today seem to be involved in two sports simultaneously especially in the spring," Zembo said. "Also, I think academically kids have more 'on their plate' than in the past and are struggling to juggle the demands of being a student-athlete."

Returning athletes choosing not to play this year often cited the demands of schoolwork as the reason for their decision.

Others chose to get jobs or do volunteer work, and a few said they just weren't motivated.

"In general, I have noticed kids giving up if they don't make the varsity team as a sophomore or junior when underclassman are varsity starters," Zembo said.

Kosey has also noticed more athletes dropping out of sports when they don't make the varsity squad.

Part of it may be a change in the sports culture, but he suspects many athletes are responding to pressure from their parents.

"Parents can put kids in a bad spot," Kosey said. "Students should listen to their coach, but when they have parents telling them something else, that does not help the student or program. Coaches need to build relationships with parents as well."

Looking to the future

The decline in athletes for softball and girls soccer may look like the beginning of a new trend, but both Zembo and Bottge are optimistic their programs will rebound.

"Looking ahead to next year, we have 18 incoming freshman that plan on playing ball, and we are only losing two seniors," Zembo said. "So numbers should be in the mid to high 30s to start the season next year."

Bottge has worked to make girls soccer into a fun team experience this season, and he also has a positive outlook for 2011.

"During the eighth-grade transition night, at least 20 eighth-graders expressed an interest in playing for the team next year," Bottge said. "I'm hoping the word reaches those girls that SHS soccer is something they can have fun participating in. I think that what the group of girls are doing this year will help grow the team."

Related Topics: SOFTBALLSUPERIOR
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