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Declining roster numbers are causing concern for area basketball coaches and athletic directors

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    The Panther Valley bench during a recent girls basketball game shows just four players. The team has only nine players on their varsity squad and is one of three area schools without a JV team due to low numbers. RON GOWER/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published January 15. 2019 12:10PM

It’s 5:30 p.m., time for the junior varsity basketball game to begin, but where are the teams?

A sign posted on the gym door reads, “NO JV GAME TODAY.”

Panther Valley, Northern Lehigh and Marian have all had to cancel their junior varsity girls’ basketball schedules this season because there weren’t enough players to roster these teams.

The dilemma has coaches and athletic directors scratching their heads in search for answers in what they hope will not become a trend that might seriously impact the future of their programs.

Monster and mayhem

With no junior varsity teams, several area coaches bring all of their nine or ten players each night to their varsity benches.

“I’m hoping having no JVs is just a one-year issue for us,“ said Panther Valley head coach Bill Lynn.

“We started with 14 players total,” said Northern Lehigh coach Ken Shankweiler, “but we had a rash of injuries and we had to dismiss a few from the team because they thought they could come and go as they please. We now have six freshmen that we keep on our current varsity team.”

The coaches agree that one cause of the numbers problem begins with the giant monster we call organized sports. Every kid’s game played with a ball today has become a program managed by adults. Decades ago, school aged kids played pick up games at the park without supervision. Now young athletes are shuffled to games where from start to finish, they’re told what to do and what not to do by coaches.

According to Shankweiler, by the time they hit their teenage years, a number of these athletes, who may never have been very self-motivated in the first place, just don’t want to play anymore.

“Back in my day, we played basketball and other sports for fun and we changed sports with the seasons. We had most of the summer off,” said Shankweiler. “Now we organize sports for the kids as if we’re running a business rather than a recreational activity.”

“Kids need some space in their lives,” said Lynn. “Many start organized sports at five or six years old and they get worn out. They get burned out.”

Shankweiler adds that year round sports training has become an unspoken requirement rather than an option if athletes want to compete for playing time.

“Summer leagues and AAU travel basketball have families running their kids to games and tournaments everywhere,” he explained. “It’s not like they ask parents if they want to participate, it’s one of those things where if everyone else is doing it, you have to do it too.”

Young athletes can feel pulled into directions they don’t want to go.

“Kids often play a sport because their friends are playing,” said Lynn. “We had a few seniors graduate last year and their younger teammates who were their friends, decided against playing this year.”

“In the summer, kids want to go the pool or hang out with their friends,” said Panther Valley athletic director, Kristin Black. “I think we sometimes forget that they need time to have fun, too. Kids need to be kids.”

A way to college ball?

There is a belief that the focus of high school athletics has switched from fun and participation to competition, winning, and earning athletic scholarships to college. Statistics, however, do not tell a favorable story for the eight million high school athletes in America who dream of taking their game to the next level. The latest NCAA report states that less than four percent of high school girls and boys basketball players will earn scholarships to play college ball, which is the lowest number compared to all other major sports.

And yet, as college scouts come to watch summer AAU basketball games, parents think of free tuition and even watching their kids play on TV someday.

In addition to the summer showcase for scouting, sports specialization has greatly limited the overall high school athletic experience for some.

“Once parents see their child might be a very good player in a particular sport, the egg has been hatched,” said Shankweiler. “I see very good athletes in other sports who could be really good basketball players, too, but they’re not playing for fear of getting hurt which might affect an opportunity to get a scholarship in their best sport. That adds to our numbers problem.”

“Then you also have certain coaches who urge their players to play and train for only the one sport that they coach,” said Shankweiler.

It’s becoming less and less common to see high school kids playing two sports and very rare to see any who play three.

Lynn and Shankweiler can recall when a season ended, athletes moved on to play the next sport. It’s not that way anymore. Getting the recommended well-rounded education in the classroom does not appear to be the same objective in the sports arena.

When less is more

The decline in roster numbers is not affecting all the area schools. Weatherly athletic director, Scott Zoscin happily reports that his teams are fully stocked in each of his sports.

“With just about 200 students in our high school, we see that as an asset to maintaining our roster numbers,” he said. “Our kids find that there are more opportunities to make teams and get playing time. We also stress to all our coaches to cooperate with each other during offseason workouts. Kids aren’t penalized or fall out of a coach’s favor if they miss a summer basketball camp because they were at a soccer workout.”

Zoscin, whose daughter is a three-sport star at Weatherly, raises another red flag about sports specialization that can impair the physical development of young athletes.

“Kids can’t develop all their muscle groups if they play only one sport,” he said. “Different sports require using different muscles which is a huge benefit to the athletes.”

Urging athletes to concentrate on one sport not only contributes to the decline in roster numbers for other sports, but sets limitations upon balancing of the strength in their bodies.

Before it’s too late

With flourishing middle school numbers in girls basketball, the lack of JV squads at both Panther Valley and Northern Lehigh could be for only one season. But what if the decline in participation numbers becomes a trend that spreads to other sports and to other schools?

Without sub varsity teams, many freshmen and sophomores will have to develop their skills while playing against older and more experienced varsity athletes, which could upset the competitive balance of the games and cause frustration in the younger players who then might decide they don’t want to stay on the team. No coach will argue against the necessity of having sub varsity rosters.

Perhaps that somewhere in the desire to win, to hoist the tournament trophy, and to sign on the scholarship’s dotted line, something intrinsic to why kids love sports has been lost and what’s been put in place now does not serve in their best interests. One only has to watch any elementary school teacher throw a ball into the middle of his excited gym class to see what might be missing.

It’s a game. Let’s play. Have fun!

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TWENTY-TWENTY ... On Saturday, Marian senior Brandon Sabulsky accomplished a rare individual feat in his team’s 73-61 victory over Schuylkill Haven. He poured in a team-high 24 points to help his team notch the win, but also snared 21 rebounds in the contest.

A double-double is one thing. A 20-20 is another level.

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JOIN THE CLUB ... Marian junior Tyler Fritz and Palmerton senior Nate Dougherty recently became the latest Times News area ballers to eclipse the 1,000-point plateau.

Fritz accomplished the feat one week ago (Jan. 8) in a loss at Pottsville Nativity. The Colts’ sharpshooter scored 28 points in the game, becoming the 35th Marian basketball player and the 15th boy to reach the milestone.

Dougherty topped the mark on Monday night in an 81-72 victory over Northwestern.

Heading into last night’s game, the Moravian College-bound guard needed 25 points to enter the elite group. During the third period, he tallied the millennial point from the free throw line, becoming the school’s 19th player and ninth boy to do so.

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SAEGER FUN ... Northern Lehigh senior guard Jada Saeger has had a string of impressive performances for the Dawgs this past week. On Jan. 10, the TN area scoring leader poured in a career-high 38 points against Saucon Valley, breaking the school’s single-game scoring record. She also added a 26-point performance against Lincoln Leadership Academy and a 28-point effort against Palmerton during the week.

Saeger leads area girls in scoring with 343 points. She also leads the area in threes (28), and is third in free throw shooting percentage.

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PANTHER PRIDE ... Panther Valley senior, Aaron Miller, who is playing this season for the first time since playing his freshman year, recently made a huge contribution to his team’s success.

In a tight contest against Pine Grove last Thursday, the unsung hero drew two offensive fouls in the matter of 90 seconds to help swing the momentum of the contest in the Panthers’ favor.

Also for the Panthers, senior point guard Rene Figueroa is enjoying a fine season. He currently leads the TN area in scoring (25.23 ppg), is second in the area in threes (39), and in 10th in free throw percentage.

Among schools listed on Maxpreps, Figueroa is in fourth in the PIAA in scoring average.

Teammate Brandon Stilitino leads the area in three-pointers made (50), which puts him in third in the state, according to Maxpreps.

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RACE TO DISTRICTS ... With the basketball regular season a little more than halfway finished, several teams throughout the area have either accomplished, or are very close to accomplishing their goal of qualifying for the District 11 playoffs.

The Northwestern girls secured their berth last week. Since then, the Jim Thorpe and Tamaqua girls have also qualified.

All three of these area squads will be competing in Class 4A, which also includes top seed Bethlehem Catholic. Thorpe currently stands in second, Northwestern is in third, followed by Allentown Central Catholic. Tamaqua stands in fifth with a mark of 11-2.

Three other girls teams are on the verge of qualifying. The Marian and Weatherly girls are both just one victory away from punching their tickets to the postseason, while Pleasant Valley needs just two more wins.

On the boys’ side, Panther Valley recently qualified with their 11th win of the season.

Tamaqua and Northern Lehigh are both a pair of wins away from qualification.

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CLAWING AND SCRAPING BY ... Northwestern had a tough test last week as it had a string of four games in five days. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that they were all away.

On Thursday, the Tigers notched a one-point win over Palisades (68-67), to start the string of tight games. On the following day, a Sam Yadush buzzer-beater trey produced another one-point win over Catasauqua (54-53).

Then on Saturday, Kutztown nabbed a tough 59-58 win over the Tigers. The run of games ended last night with an 81-72 loss to Palmerton.

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