The PENNCREST School District continues to mull over the idea of combining some of the athletic programs that it offers at its schools (Cambridge Springs, Maplewood and Saegertown). Marching bands are on the table as well. 

No concrete decisions have been made yet, according to PENNCREST Athletic Director Dana Mason. However, the conversation entered a new phase this week as the district’s administrators brought the case to some of the schools’ stakeholders.

On Thursday afternoon, for instance, members of the administration visited with students at Cambridge Springs High School, giving the students a chance to air their questions and concerns about the topic. 

“Among the kids, I would say, it was well attended,” Mason said. “They voiced some concerns about combining programs, what that does to playing time, where we would participate. They asked many very good questions; questions about funding, questions about transportation.”

PENNCREST administrators are scheduled to visit the student bodies at the other two high schools over the next two weeks. 

Furthermore, on Thursday evening a district delegation met with Cambridge Springs’ various booster clubs, giving the parents and fans of the school’s teams a chance to have their say on the subject.

“It’s about information-gathering and transparency,” said Mason. “We’re also there to dispel some myths and rumors.” 

What are some of those myths and rumors? 

One of the most prevalent, according to Mason, is that PENNCREST is looking to combine every sport. 

“That is not the case,” he said. “And in most sports it would make no sense.

“Another myth is that we’re doing this because of budget issues. It has nothing to do with budget. We just want to make sure that teams that are struggling to put a program on the field, those kids will still have the opportunity to play that sport.”

Size matters  

PENNCREST’s three high schools already co-op in boys soccer. And Cambridge and Saegertown co-op in girls soccer (Maplewood has its own girls soccer team).

Other sports, like basketball, golf and cross county, don’t really need a large number of athletes to participate. So, small rosters don’t necessarily threaten the livelihood of those programs. 

Still other sports, like volleyball, baseball and softball, have maintained a steady rate of participation within the district, enough so that consolidation isn’t currently being considered. 

That leaves wrestling and football. Both of those sports have large numbers of roster spots to fill out. And both sports, nationwide, have suffered from a dwindling number of participants over the last decade.

According to the National Federation of High School Associations, high school football has seen a 9.6 percent decrease in participation since 2008-09, and wrestling has dropped 7.4 percent. 

One big difference between those two sports is that in wrestling, even if a team doesn’t fill out all 14 weight classes, while it hurts that program’s competitiveness, the wrestlers that are available can still participate in the sport. 

The same cannot be said about football. If there aren’t enough players to play, nobody plays.

And PENNCREST has really felt the pinch in football during the last few years. 

In the mid-2000’s, the district was averaging around 120 to 130 football players in grades 9 through 12 between its three high schools. This past fall, the number of players on the three schools’ opening-day rosters was down to 87. 

The lack of players forced Saegertown to forfeit games during both the 2017 and 2018 seasons. And the Cambridge Springs football team was so short of healthy players by the end of the 2019 season that the Blue Devils were forced to forfeit a game in the District 10 playoffs. 

It’s not impossible to foresee a time when one of these schools is unable to field a football team at all. In fact, it nearly happened at Saegertown going into the 2017 season.

And that, according to Mason, is what the PENNCREST administration is trying to avoid. And co-ops may be the answer. 

“That’s the end goal,” Mason said, “to maintain opportunities, not to eliminate any. The last thing we want to do is eliminate an opportunity. If we lose a football team and don’t have a backup plan, that’s a loss of an opportunity for these students.”

What’s next? 

The final form of any new co-op in the PENNCREST School District — if one happens at all — is yet to be determined. 

This latest phase of the conversation, this outreach to the districts’ athletes and fans, is a means of shaping that final form. 

“We want to hear their concerns,” he said. “We can we do improve athletics? What do you need from us? What would make, in your opinion, the programs better?”

However, the topic has been on the burner for months. In March of 2019, Mason said, members of the school board approached him to ask how a co-op is formed through the PIAA. 

After he presented the application process to the board, a open forum was held in May at Saegertown High School where the public was first informed that PENNCREST was considering the issue. 

Since then, the school district has held further meetings with the schools’ coaches, and even sent out questionnaires to the student body. 

Yet, the fact-finding and opinion-gathering phase is soon coming to an end. And when it does, the district’s administrators will make recommendations to the PENNCREST board, which will then vote on the next steps. 

“Nothing will be final for some time, perhaps at the February board meeting,” said Mason. “I don’t think it can happen in January. The board meets next week (on the 15th) and we have these scheduled meetings with the students through the next two weeks.”

Yet, even if the board ultimately decides to go through with a co-op program, PENNCREST would still have to get it approved by the PIAA.

That presents a whole new set of hurdles. Most of the groundwork has already been laid for the next two-year cycle for PIAA sports (the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years). The enrollment figures have been tallied and the new classification parameters have been established. And the application deadline for new co-ops passed in September. 

If PENNCREST were to combine two of its football programs, the host school would undoubtedly move up a classification. (All three teams are currently 1A, but a co-op would move the host school to 2A.)

That would throw things off for the PIAA. And that means that the PIAA could very possibly reject the idea. 

Therefore, the future of athletics at PENNCREST School District is still very much up in the air. The talks continue. The plans are being solidified. But the future is still uncertain. 

“No one has a crystal ball,” said Mason. “That’s what makes it hard.”

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