Prep Football

As numbers fall, Cedar Rapids Washington considers combining freshman-sophomore football teams

Iowa City West already plays 9-10 schedule, which could be the norm for most Class 4A schools

Head coach Maurice Blue talks to the team during the first day of prep football practice at Cedar Rapids Washington on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Head coach Maurice Blue talks to the team during the first day of prep football practice at Cedar Rapids Washington on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — He wanted to emphasize his school is not the only one. Others are in the same boat.

You wonder if this is just the way it’s going to be from now on.

Cedar Rapids Washington joined others around the state Monday in celebrating the first official day of football practice. A few schools scheduled to play Week Zero games got a head start on practice last week.

Washington will have somewhere in the mid-40s numbers wise on its varsity roster, Blue said. That’s not too bad for a school that continues to get smaller each year in enrollment.

The expectations are for 25 or so in the freshman program, which is, again, not too bad. But the sophomore number is 16, and a handful or so of those guys are checkmarked to be on the varsity team.

So do the math there.

“Yeah, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do,” Blue said. “I talked to some people last week, and (Activities Director) Grant (Schultz) and I have been talking about some things. We’re going to see how it is the first couple of days. We have a plan in place. We just want to make sure. Make sure we are making the right decision.”

Washington’s choices are to completely bag its sophomore schedule and play only a varsity and freshman slate. It can have its freshmen play up with the few sophomores for a combined 9th and 10th-grade team that plays a sophomore schedule on Friday nights prior to varsity games.

What makes this so striking is that this is not just some ordinary football program. Washington has been in the IHSAA playoffs 25 times since 1976.

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A string of five consecutive postseason appearances ended with a 4-5 record last season. The Warriors have been playoff qualifiers 13 times in the 2000s alone, including a pair of state runner-up finishes in Class 4A.

Grads are all over the FBS and FCS college levels: Landen Akers, Julian Good-Jones, O’Rien Vance (Iowa State), Nolan Potter (Northern Illinois), Andrew Todd (Miami of Ohio), Isaiah Nimmers (Northern Iowa). The tradition is proud and strong on the southeast side.

“It’s not just a problem for us,” said Blue, a longtime assistant coach and former player at the school. “Everyone is dealing with it. That’s with the exception of a handful of schools. We’ll make this announcement, but it probably won’t be until mid-week. We are just making sure.”

Blue said he talked to Iowa City West Coach Garrett Hartwig last week about combined 9-10 programs, which they both believe will be the norm for most schools at the big-class level going forward. With the exception of a few programs, the number of football participants in the state continues to dwindle.

West, another traditional 4A power, will be in its third season of having a combined 9-10 program. The Trojans have been a playoff qualifier eight straight years, including runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2017.

“For us, it was purely a safety issue,” Hartwig said. “That sounds ironic, when you are talking about bringing freshmen up to the sophomore level. However, we have had tremendous success with it. We very easily could have fielded three teams over the last couple of years.”

Hartwig said he’d much rather have the bigger numbers a 9-10 team provides than small numbers at each of the two sub-varsity levels. Fewer kids play every single down, which reduces the chance of injury.

He said his coaches make sure freshmen get game opportunities.

“We have found freshmen acclimate to sophomore football very well,” he said.

The National Federation of High School Associations said Iowa had about 5,300 fewer prep players last year than 10 years ago. Sports specialization is a factor, as is the concern over brain injuries.

Iowa continues losing overall population as well.

 

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