EASTHAM — Nauset Regional High School’s football team won its Homecoming game against Martha’s Vineyard on Oct. 15, giving players and fans something to celebrate in a season rocked by a program-threatening drop in participation. Coaches say it’s tough to know whether the low roster numbers are a natural fluctuation after pandemic-related disruption or if they indicate a permanent trend.
The Warriors barely had enough players to field a varsity team at the beginning of the season. Injuries made things worse and led to the cancelation of a game scheduled against Mashpee on Oct. 1. The team did manage to play its last two games, but the program’s junior varsity team has played only three games so far this season.
After the Mashpee forfeit, Nauset football coach Bruce Strunk said, “It’s not just a Nauset thing.”
Interviews with coaches at other schools show Strunk was right. High school football teams across the Cape are down in numbers. “We’re all searching for answers and reasons,” said Barnstable Athletic Director Scott Thomas.
At Barnstable High, Thomas said, the football program usually has well over 100 student athletes involved. That’s enough to field varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams. But this year, the program dipped to around 75 students.
Like Strunk, Thomas speculated that the shorter “Fall II” season that moved football from the fall of 2020 to the winter and spring of 2021 was at least partly to blame. That move by the Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association was a response to the pandemic. At the time, the thought was that, after a fall delay, it would be great to get players on the football field.
“We did okay last season, but we’re wondering if it did some harm as well,” Thomas said of the Fall II season.
“At first, morale was pretty high,” said Nauset senior Chad Caramanna, explaining why Fall II didn’t go so well. The Truro resident began playing football at Nauset in his sophomore year in 2019.
“People were excited to play some football,” Caramanna said, “but we got hit with reality at the first practice. There were only 30-something players on the field. After our first loss last year, our confidence was very low.”
Nauset had to quarantine at one point during that season, and the team never got in a comfortable rhythm.
The timing was tough, Caramanna said. In 2019, Nauset football won its first home playoff game in program history, and the 2020 team featured 11 seniors who were set to lead a strong team but ended up dealing with a weak outcome.
This year, with those seniors gone, some former team members’ decisions not to play cut deep.
“There were multiple critical players who decided not to come back this season, either for personal reasons or whatever it was,” Caramanna said. “Our starting quarterback did not come back. That one player missing required our safety to become a quarterback. But then we have to fill his spot. You shift one player and the entire team has to shift as well.”
Dennis-Yarmouth, a football program that won the Division 5 State Championship in 2017, has significantly lower-than-usual roster numbers this year.
“We have about 50 kids right now, which is not great,” Dennis-Yarmouth Athletic Director Mary O’Connor said.
Karen Guillemette, the athletic director at Monomoy High School in Harwich, and Alan Harrison, athletic director at Cape Cod Tech, both said their football rosters are lower this year.
“We only had 20 kids to start the season, and we asked the league if we could opt out of our varsity league schedule,” Guillemette said. The program now has about 40 students, which is an improvement, but they are able to play only a half varsity and half junior-varsity schedule.
Football’s reputation as a sport rife with injuries could be one factor. “Concussion safety has definitely been in the forefront of the sports world for a few years now,” Thomas said.
But O’Connor said it’s not just football that’s attracting fewer players this year at D-Y. Other sports, like girls field hockey and girls soccer, have also lost participants, she said.
“Across the board, our numbers are down,” O’Connor said. She is not sure whether the change relates to the pandemic, but what they’re seeing at Dennis-Yarmouth is that family economic stress is taking a toll.
“Kids either have to work to help support their family or have to go home and watch their siblings,” she said. “For me, that’s kind of heartbreaking.”
Nauset’s Strunk agreed. “Sports are not necessarily a priority,” he said. “A lot of these kids work or are into other things. It’s a perfect storm.”
Thomas noted that the fall-off in sports participation seems to be starting before students get to high school. “We still have a healthy program, but we’re noticing some things we’ve never noticed before,” he said. “Some of our youth programs aren’t getting the participation they need to in order to send students on to play at the high school level.”
Guillemette pointed out that the Lower Cape Bluefins Association, a youth tackle and flag football organization that introduces kids to football at the elementary and middle school level, did not play for the full year last year. She said Monomoy does offer its own flag football program at the middle school to get kids involved and learn about safety.
The Warriors have two football games left, an away game against Falmouth on Oct. 29, and a Thanksgiving Day matchup against Dennis-Yarmouth at home — an annual game that was missed last season.