Criticism of Shamokin recruiting off mark
In case you missed it, The News-Item published on Thursday, in conjunction with national signing day, a long story by Philadelphia Inquirer writer Frank Fitzpatrick (page 16) which looked at the decline of Pennsylvania high school football, in terms of big-time recruits, by focusing on how things have gone downhill in our region, and in particular at Shamokin Area High School.
Fitzpatrick, for years one of the Inquirer's lesser heralded but most consistently good writers, made many salient points, but a reading of the story also raises questions.
First and foremost, is why he decided to focus on Shamokin Area. This is a school that has, since the Shamokin-Coal Township jointure in 1965, been competitive, but rarely great, in football. In all those years, there have been three Division I-A recruits from Shamokin. Frankly, the Indians' program has been in decline for a long time and most of the blame has to go to the population decline in the area, combined with incessant tampering in the program by the school board. The recent resignation of Dan Foor and hiring of Yaacov Yisrael as head coach represents the district's 11th coaching change in 48 years. By comparison, Berwick has had five, and Mount Carmel four. Southern Columbia has had two coaching changes in 35 years.
Fitzpatrick noted that many "experts" (my quotation marks, not his) have noted that "the depth and quality of scholastic football in the state, especially in small towns and rural areas, have slipped noticeably." He cited that Pennsylvania was once consistently among the top two or three states for football recruits.
Pennsylvania used to have a much higher population, so it's only natural that the decline has happened. My Shamokin Area graduating class in 1973 had 308 kids. Most of Shamokin's graduating classes now are in the 150-200 range. That's a 50 percent drop in just a generation or two. Where did many of the people go? Where there are jobs, i.e., down south and out west. It's not a wonder that the demographics of recruiting have changed.
I also suspect that if you look at overall college football participation at all levels, Pennsylvania probably still stacks up nicely. The commonwealth has a number of 1-AA schools, one of the best D-II conferences in the nation, and many Division III schools, most of which recruit the state heavily.
Fitzpatrick also quoted Shamokin Area athletic director Rick Kashner as citing the area's economic problems as part of the problem, because many of the district's students don't have the most focused home life. There's no doubt that's true, and that some kids just don't want to put the work in that's needed for athletic success.
There seems to be a general malaise among students regarding athletics these days, and it's showing up in a number of sports, not just football. Almost every wrestling team in District 4 seems to have at least one or two, if not more, vacant weight classes. Strong wrestling programs such as Line Mountain's and Southern Columbia's have had to forfeit up to a half-dozen matches in some instances this season. One coach said recently that the highest level kids now are better than 20 or 30 years ago, because they put so much time into the sport, but that the rank-and-file wrestlers of today can't stack up to their predecessors.
The level of play in scholastic basketball in recent years has dropped greatly, particularly among boys teams. Almost every coach, present and past, will tell you if pressed on the matter, and it's fairly obvious to longtime fans. Why? For one thing, today's kids are too busy doing other things than playing basketball in their spare time. Go by any playground in warm weather, and you'll rarely see the courts being used. Basketball is a game that you must play to improve; all the coaching in the world won't do it.
It doesn't stop with sports, either. Participation in bands has dwindled as well.
To be sure, there are still kids out there who are driven to succeed, and succeed they will. But there seem to be fewer and fewer, at least around these parts, and that's as worrisome as any dire economic news.