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High school sports participation in Nevada at all-time high

Updated September 19, 2019 - 7:44 pm

Participation in high school sports was at an all-time high in Nevada for the 2018-19 school year.

The total participants in Nevada was 48,503, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, conducted by the National Federation on State High School Associations. That’s a jump of 5,450 from the 2017-18 school year and eclipsed the previous record set in 2015-16 of 45,265.

“Nevada is unique because of the addition of schools. The schools that are starting up, one of the first things they want to do is be part of the NIAA,” said Donnie Nelson, co-assistant director for the NIAA. “They want to afford opportunities, and they realize the value of things they will gain from athletics that will add to the students’ educational experience.”

To Nelson’s point, the NIAA has welcomed several new schools in the past few years, and others are associate members or waiting for full membership.

That’s one attributable factor for the rise in the numbers that showed there were 28,134 boys and 20,369 girls participating in the 2018-19 school year. Both of those were the most in the survey’s 48-year history.

As with any participation survey in the past few years, the main focus has been on football. In Nevada, there were 6,678 11-man football players, a 440-player increase from the previous season. The record was in 2010-11, when 7,334 participated, and this was the fourth time in the past 10 years in which the number increased from the year before.

Each school has its own outlook on the situation, and there are several factors that go into the level of participation.

“As far as Las Vegas goes, there are several schools that have struggled to field three (football) teams,” said Liberty coach Rich Muraco, president of the Southern Nevada Football Coaches Association. “It depends on the makeup of the school.”

One of the factors Muraco cites is the longevity of the coach. Schools that have stability with coaches tend to have more consistent participation than those with high turnover.

There also has been much discussion about football’s safety, particularly in dealing concussions and the long-term ramifications they have on the brain. Most schools limit the number of full-contact practices while still teaching the proper way to play.

“As an association, the majority of our coaches have gone through the heads-up blocking and tackling training with USA Football,” Muraco said. “There’s no perfectly safe way to do it, but it does limit helmet-to-helmet contact. We also have what we call fly-by periods, where we get in position to make the tackle and then run by, or we make the hit but don’t take it to the ground.”

While the football numbers naturally draw the most attention, it’s girls flag football that has contributed the most to the rise in the overall figures. There were 1,881 flag football players last season, which more than triples the 612 that competed six years before.

Nevada’s 2018-19 numbers are in contrast to those at a national level, which fell from the year before for the first time in 30 years.

“We know from recent surveys that the number of kids involved in youth sports has been declining, and a decline in the number of public school students has been predicted for a number of years, so we knew our ‘streak’ might end someday,” NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff said in a statement.

There were 7,937,491 participants nationwide, down from the record mark of 7,980,886 in 2017-18. The 1,006,013 participants in 11-man football kept it far and away the No. 1 boys sport. Outdoor track and field is No. 1 for girls with 488,267 participants.

Whether the decline nationwide becomes a trend remains to be seen, but one reason for concern is the rise of the single-sport athlete. For a survey such as this one, each athlete is counted once for each sport contested. For example, if an athlete begins high school playing three sports and drops one along the way, that can affect the numbers.

“The three-sport athlete is very rare now,” Muraco said. “That’s an unintended consequence of what happens when you’re good at a sport. Take baseball, for example, which is a big deal in Las Vegas. There might be only two levels (junior varsity and varsity) at a school, so there’s maybe 35 to 40 spots in a school of 3,000. That athlete might focus on baseball so he has a better chance of making the team.”

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2936. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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