Shade Athletic Director Paul Leonard said his school’s football co-op with Shanksville-Stonycreek may be one of the longest in the state. 

Shade is one of three schools in Somerset County that are currently in co-ops for football – one of the ways programs can increase numbers at a time when participation in the sport has been in decline.

Meyersdale and Berlin Brothersvalley also have co-op programs in Somerset County.

“This is the 32nd year of that Shade-Shanksville co-op,” Leonard said. 

“We have been in a co-op for football with Shanksville since the 1988 season.”

The Panthers, which are a Class A squad, were also part of a co-op with Johnstown Christian School the past six seasons, but that has ended.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Shanksville,” Shade football coach Don Fyfe said. “We have such a great relationship with them. We wouldn’t have survived a couple years ago without them. 

“You look at our success last year, it was a lot of Shanksville boys that helped do that.”

The National Federation of State High School Association’s (NFHS) recently released its annual sports participation survey regarding the numbers of football players participating in the sport.

There was been a drastic decrease in the number of football players across the country last year, although the number of kids playing high school football in Pennsylvania dropped just slightly.

According to the survey, in Pennsylvania, football had 25,515 players in 2018 in grades 9 through 12, the 10th consecutive year the state has lost players, but the drop last year was only 90 players from 2017.

Meanwhile, football in the U.S. had almost 31,000 less players last year than in 2017. The number of players has declined in nine of the past 10 years, but the drop last year was, by far, the largest ever.

In fact, across the country, high school teams had 106,000 fewer players than 10 years ago – and the drop in the past three years alone has been almost 75,000.

‘Really stuck by us’

Looking at the football rosters that area squads had posted on maxpreps.com at the start of this season, 11 of the 25 area schools had 35 or fewer players listed and that was before attrition due to injuries.

The Cambria Heights roster was at 34 players to start the season followed by Northern Cambria (33), Conemaugh Valley (32), Conemaugh Township (31), Ferndale (30), Shade (29), Bishop McCort (28), North Star (27), Blacklick Valley (26) and Bishop Carroll (25).

The other school was United, which listed 18 players on the preseason roster, and has already felt the repercussion of low numbers. When the Lions got down to between 12 to 14 players, they were forced to forfeit their Week 3 contest to Ligonier Valley.

Shade finished the 2018 regular season as the unbeaten WestPAC champions and won the school’s first-ever District 5-A title.

“There were some rough patches there at times over the years with low numbers and other concerns,” Fyfe said. “They have really stuck by us and we really appreciate it.”

But even with the influx of players from its co-op with Shanksville-Stonycreek, the Panthers are in that lower number band of schools.

There are five Vikings on the Shade 2019 varsity roster – senior Joe Hammer, juniors Hunter Musser and Ethan Frazier, sophomore Austin Workman and freshman Aidan Klahre.

‘Keeping kids interested’ 

Meyersdale has a co-op with both Salisbury-Elk Lick and with Turkeyfoot Valley for Grade 7-8 and varsity football. The addition of both schools moves the Red Raiders into Class AA.

Salisbury-Elk Lick, just a 12-minute drive down Route 219, has never had a football squad. But Turkeyfoot Valley, 40 minutes from Meyersdale, had the sport until dropping the program in 2007.

Junior Casey Pritts is the Turkeyfoot Valley player and freshman Daulton Sellers is the Salisbury-Elk Lick player that are on the 2019 Red Raiders roster, but there are four Elks and three Rams on the Grade 7-8 squad.

“We’ve always had a co-op with Salisbury,” Meyersdale coach Ryan Donaldson said. “About four years ago, we began our co-op with Turkeyfoot and there’s been a lot of time and effort put in to visit the kids and try to get the kids interested in playing a sport that they are not really used to playing.

“But with that being said, we only have one from Salisbury and one from Turkeyfoot on our varsity team. ... I’m taking it year by year because I’ve been putting in a lot of time going down to Turkeyfoot and Salisbury meeting with kids. It’s better than it was last year and I hope it keeps growing.”

Donaldson said that he realizes that there are never going to be 20 or 30 kids from either partner school, but wishes there were more kids that were playing for the Red Raiders.

“There are bloodlines at Turkeyfoot where their parents or grandparents played and we would like to build that,” Donaldson said. “Everyone seems to be down in numbers. Priority No. 1 is keeping kids interested in football and having kids on your roster. We are definitely going to keep putting the time in to try to get the kids to play.”

‘A family atmosphere’

Berlin Brothersvalley appears to have had the most success with playing in a co-op. The Mountaineers joined with Rockwood after the Rockets eliminated football in 2013 due to a lack of players.

The Mountaineers, playing in Class AA, have nine Rockwood players on their roster this season including senior Owen Mathias, junior Shane Spano, sophomores Nico Hager, Cole Hetz and Gavin Sager, along with freshmen Lukas King, Grant Mathias, Nicholas Miller and Landon Uldrich.

“We really work hard on that co-op,” Mountaineers coach Doug Paul said. “I visit Rockwood, we did a youth camp there and I went to their youth football banquet.

“I joke around that sometimes that I feel like a college recruiting coach with all of the time I spend at Rockwood. It’s no secret, Rockwood’s sport in the fall is soccer, but we want to grab some of those kids that may be on the fence. Some of those big linemen like Mathias and Spano and last year with (Tyler) Hoyman and (Andrew) Thorpe and (JP) Pressley.

“When these kids get to Berlin, it’s a family atmosphere. It’s one football team and we make sure that our kids emphasize that. They are part of the team and we’ve tried to make them feel that way.”

‘Work ... well together’

Paul said that the co-op with Rockwood has gotten the Mountaineers, who have 43 kids in the senior class with just 16 boys, through some very lean years, numbers-wise.

“Last year, we had that year pegged since my youngest son Isaiah was in first grade,” Paul said. “We were not going to be what Berlin football was accustomed to being if we didn’t get some help.

“When Rockwood football folded, I went after it head first and said that we needed this. We’ve been biting the bullet playing AA ball. We are under circumstances where we are one player over the number while Chestnut Ridge is one player under that number but it is what it is. On our junior high team this year, almost half the team is Rockwood kids and there are some real players down there. It’s good to see them get the experience to do this.”

Paul said that there have been mostly pros with the co-op.

“Both administrations work very well together,” the Mountaineers coach said. 

“Also, Rockwood provides bus transportation for the players on the nine-mile trip to Berlin.” 

The Berlin Brothersvalley coach said that it may be time for schools to take a look at the big picture regarding diminishing numbers.

“We are trying to put band aids on wounds that require much more than that,” the Berlin coach said. “I think some of the small schools in our area may want to step back and look at what Berlin and Rockwood have done here, because it has strengthened our program.”

Cory Isenberg is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5080.​ Follow her on Twitter @CoryIsenbergTD.

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