If they can help it, locals generally don’t leave Healdsburg, a village of nearly 12,000 in the middle of California’s wine country.
Between the rolling hills of vineyards and vegetables, soy beans and hops, there are little towns that haven’t changed much for generations, locals say, where the average temperature is 60 degrees in 280-some annual days of sunshine and the Healdsburg High Greyhounds take the field at Recreation Park on autumn Friday nights.
“There’s a rich history here of successful football programs,” Principal Bill Halliday said in a phone interview. “We have lots of dads and uncles and granddads that all played for the Greyhounds. Even in the years where the school didn’t have championship-caliber teams, we’d always have big crowds.”
Just not this year.
When the season began and only 18 players came out for the varsity team, Halliday knew this team probably wouldn’t compete for a league championship. As the school’s enrollment has dropped — a decade ago it had close to 1,000 students; now it has just more than 500 — Healdsburg has stopped scheduling larger schools it used to compete with regularly.
Still, the Greyhounds dropped their season opener, 41-0, to a team with 24 players, then lost the second week, 61-0, to a team with 35 players.
It was demoralizing, Halliday said, but not the end of the world. Another week of practice would get the Greyhound offense revving and light a fire under the defense, even though most players lined up on both sides of the ball.
But over the weekend after the game, five players left the team. On Monday at school, another player quit.
Coach Dave Stine, also the school’s athletic director, held a team meeting instead of practice after school.
“They had a long talk about commitment and what that means and about quitting. Once you quit, it becomes easier to do it,” Halliday said. “It was all the things coaches are supposed to say.”
And then Stine called for a vote: continue the varsity season or stop now.
The result was inconclusive. Stine called for another vote, this time anonymously.
The result was clear: 7-4, stop the football season.
It’s another blow to the sport that has taken significant participation losses for years. In the past decade, high school football enrollment is down 6.6 percent, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
More than 20,000 fewer high schoolers played football in 2017 than in 2016. Fewer than 1.04 million students played football for the first time since 2003. Twenty schools nationwide in 2017 dropped football completely, including junior varsity and freshman programs.
Some of the forces plaguing football nationwide appear in Healdsburg, too, Halliday said. Even as Greyhoud coaches encourage athletes to play multiple sports, single-sport specialization — especially in basketball, soccer and volleyball — reduces participation in other activities.
Demographic changes in the community — the high school’s student body is more than 60 percent Latino, Halliday said, and the rest is mainly white — mean some students grew up in households where football wasn’t popular.
The local Pop Warner football program is struggling to fill out rosters for its youth teams, too.
Halliday said the vote was disappointing but not surprising. He knew numbers were tight at the start of the season but hoped things would work out.
“For one reason or another, we had low numbers to start, and when you only have 18 and a couple of the boys start to do other things, you start to get concerned,” he said.
“I didn’t see the writing on the wall. I’m an educator. I’ve been doing this a long time. We have a tendency to be optimistic.”
The JV team remains in good shape with 30 members, including 18 freshmen. Healdsburg will undoubtedly revive varsity football next season, Halliday said, and the team should be competitive.
And even now, he said, there’s so much going on at Healdsburg High, there’s not enough time to dwell on a lost football season.
The school is planning to build an on-site vineyard next year so students can study viticulture. Students enrolled in the “construction and sustainability academy” are rebuilding homes destroyed in nearby wildfires. Almost a fifth of the school takes music classes, including a rock band course. The culinary arts program is critically acclaimed.
“It’s sad we don’t have a football team,” he said, “and we’re going to have a varsity team next year and for years to come, but there’s still plenty of opportunities for them to find their passion here.”
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