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Girls participation slides on the hardwood

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As we resume winter sports in the 2013 portion of the current season, only three schools are ranked in the top four of both boys basketball and wrestling — Davenport Assumption, Bettendorf and Creston.

That says a lot about the stable of male athletes walking the halls of CHS right now. And, the participation level.

In fact, a common denominator in the three best boys teams at Creston since the 1997 state champs is an unusual amount of seniors who stayed out to contribute, even if not in a starting role. You don’t see a lot of that anymore.

I think back to the height and athleticism of Creston’s 2001 substate basketball team that featured J.D. Schroder, Gabe Carroll, Addam Wall, Neil Lang and Jared Jensen. That team had a number of seniors come off the bench, or not play much at all. The Panthers beat Harlan during the regular season — the final time before this year’s team did it — and then lost in a substate shootout to the Cyclones at Atlantic.

There was a good run of two straight years to state, led mostly by the class of 2006 that included G.G. Harris, Dane Wardenburg and Trevor Conner. But, you had a big class of nine behind them, and all nine from the 2007 class stayed out and made it to the substate the following year in a loss to Harlan at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs.

This year is similar, with nine seniors still a part of the 8-0 balanced team in which nobody averages more than 13 points a game. In the last game before break, it was all seniors on the floor for the Panthers until the second-quarter appearance of junior Cole Thompson and sophomore Jay Wolfe.

That’s a nice luxury for a coach, to be able to rely mostly on seniors. Especially at tournament time.

Wrestling is a little different situation, because you often find freshmen manning key roles, particularly in the lower weights. But when you have seniors like Jake Marlin and Keaton Hulett, that’s not a bad anchor duo!

This year’s wrestling squad doesn’t have record numbers, but coach Darrell Frain is still able to put quality varsity performers on the mat in every weight class, which not every coach can claim. They represented the state of Iowa well with a mid-pack finish (17th among 36 teams) in the multi-state, prestigious Kansas City Stampede last month.

Short roster

That brings me to girls basketball. It’s a young team struggling to gain victories, but there is a chance to get over the hump tonight at home against Clarinda.

I’m supposed to be objective on the job, but it’s hard not to stand there and pull for those girls, because I had many of them on middle school teams as a coach. Great kids, who will do anything for you.

But, not enough of them have stayed out over the years.

When these sophomores and freshmen were in seventh and eighth grades, Clay Arnold and I stood in the gym during the first team meeting in awe. There were 48 girls in there, interested in playing basketball.

We told them to work hard and listen in practice, and stay dedicated, because they could form the foundation of a girls basketball resurgence in Creston. We talked about the excitement of trying to reach a regional final someday, with a chance at the state tournament. But, it would take a lot of dedication, and not just November through February.

Two years later, there are 15 of those girls left. In fact, the high school roster is extremely youthful, as there are two seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and 11 freshmen.

I partly feel at fault, because there are kids in school not out for basketball who could make this team better, either through their athleticism on defense, or simply for some much-needed depth. Practice is better every day when you have a deep squad.

Somehow, I didn’t convey my passion for the sport of basketball in the minds of some of these kids who could be contributors.

I know other things come up. Sometimes kids want to step back and work on their skills in other sports. Or, they see themselves as being better in those sports, and they’re not sure about accepting a reserve role on a team that trudges through a long four-month winter schedule.

But, coach Frain strongly believes the winter season is the most important for any athlete in the school. Lifting and individual workouts are fine, but intense daily work in a sport keeps that competitive edge.

“I’ve always told kids, I’d rather have you competing, especially in the winter,” said Frain, who also sells the idea that wrestling can help football players with things like leverage and footwork. Collin Bevins and Hulett are the poster boys for those benefits to linemen, he said.

Football coach Brian Morrison harbors the same philosophy.

“Why compete for four seasons?” he asks rhetorically. “Because we respect our teammates and community.”

Mutual support

The coaches need to support one another year-round in this delicate balancing act between off-season work, and allowing for strong in-season teams, Morrison said.

Coaches I talked to about this said across the board they are impressed by the dedication of so many of their athletes, but they agree that a systematic plan of respect for each other’s sport is needed in their ranks.

“All the coaches must buy in and be supportive,” said softball coach Mike McCabe, also involved in the volleyball and middle school basketball programs.

Statewide issue

As for girls basketball, low participation isn’t unique to Creston. Last year an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted the difficulties of Springville getting 12 girls out for the sport in four grades, just two years removed from a state runner-up finish. It’s not unusual for Class 3A teams to have 10 or fewer kids from the top three grades on their roster.

“Basketball is a tough sport,” Creston coach Larry McNutt said. “It’s not a specialized sport. In basketball, you have to be good in several different areas, and there’s a lot of hard work and running involved. It’s not easy.”

Last year, Cedar Rapids Jefferson, as a Class 4A school with 200 girls, had zero seniors playing basketball.

Basketball, once the king of girls sports participation in Iowa, has fallen to No. 4, behind volleyball, softball and track and field.

“I don’t know what the problem is,” said Waukon coach Gene Klinge, the state’s all-time leader in victories and about to become the nation’s sixth 1,000 game winner at 995-235. “I don’t know what’s causing it, but there’s a problem.”

All I know is, it’s disheartening as a middle school coach to work hard with kids over the course of two years, see their potential develop, and then watch all that work fade away as they discard the sport in high school.

I admire kids like Creston senior Brianna Maitlen, among the state’s best in track and softball for years, but also a key contributor in volleyball and basketball. She’s improving on the hardcourt.

Somehow, we need to turn around the declining trend and ignite some excitement about a great sport again. We need more of the state’s best volleyball and softball players to say, you know what, I’m going to give back to my school in basketball, too.

•••

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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