Fauber: Generals breathe sigh of relief

All who are involved with Stonewall Jackson High School’s football program are breathing a little easier today.

After having to endure a week filled with uncertainty about the future of the varsity football team while lack of participation threatened its existence, the Generals got the outcome they desperately needed on Friday morning.

Players, coaches and school officials met after Friday morning’s practice session to vote on whether to continue to field a varsity team in 2014. That vote passed with a unanimous “yes,” according to school athletic director Todd Fannin.

Talk about feeling a sense of relief. Imagine being a kid like Derrick Smith or Phillip Mallow, a four-year varsity player who faced the very real possibility that his senior season of high school football would evaporate into thin air. Or imagine being Dick Krol, the head coach of Stonewall Jackson’s varsity football program for the last 28 years who, at the tail end of his coaching career, had no idea what a potential shutdown would do for the future of the school’s football program.

Thankfully, the players and coaches won’t have to face outcome this fall. And they aren’t the only ones who are feeling a little lighter because of it.

Parents will get to see their children compete on the football field this fall.

High school students will again have the opportunity to be where they belong on a fall Friday night.

The Mount Jackson-Quicksburg-New Market community will have a team to cheer for.

Fellow Shenandoah County schools Central and Strasburg will retain one of their rivals.

Athletic directors of opposing schools can relax after scrambling to find possible replacements if Stonewall Jackson were to drop off their schedules.

This was a situation where the outcome determined if everyone won, or no one did. Luckily, everyone is smiling today.

But for how long?

Stonewall Jackson has seen low levels participation in its football program for years now, and the current roster of 23 players — a dangerously low number for any high school football program — actually isn’t far off from the school’s usual numbers.

In 2011, the last time the Generals made the playoffs, the varsity football roster consisted of 30 players. That number actually climbed a few in 2012 to 32 players, but last year 29 players were listed at the start of the season and just 25 were on the roster by season’s end.

Fannin said only 14 names appeared on the varsity football team’s preliminary sign-up sheet this summer before more players were added this week.

“I have no idea,” said Krol when asked if he knew of a specific reason for the football program’s dwindling participation. “… We can sit there and say that kids don’t like the contact anymore. They’ve got other things going on. They’ve become too soft. But we’re not the only sport.”

Fannin reinforced that fact in our conversation on Friday by saying that Stonewall Jackson has seen declining participation in athletics “all across the board,” from the varsity level to down to JV.

“There’s a number of factors, some of which are in our hands and some of which are out,” Fannin said when asked if the school has investigated ways to increase athletic participation. “We’ve obviously looked at the number of sports we offer. That has to be a factor. … I think we do everything we can to make it as informative as possible so kids and parents know what is going on and when. There are other factors, however, that are out of our control.”

Like enrollment. While schools in the middle and northern part of Shenandoah County are enjoying healthy numbers in their respective student bodies, Stonewall Jackson is actually seeing a decline in school enrollment, said both Fannin and Krol.

Fannin said Stonewall Jackson’s student population has dropped from about 575 to around 450 in just four or five years. In comparison, Central, which is located about 15 miles north of Stonewall’s campus, has more than 760 students. There just aren’t as many students for Stonewall Jackson to pull from as far as athletics are concerned.

Stonewall Jackson is currently scheduled to drop from 2A to 1A in the proposed new VHSL realignment next fall, which should put the Generals on a more level playing field, at least in the playoffs. Stonewall will be one of the larger 1A schools in the state if the proposed alignment passes without change in mid-September.

But will that be enough to encourage more students to try out for sports at Stonewall Jackson, or will more changes be needed?

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com