Sunday May 26, 2013

Tom Voisin saw the warning signs.

Voisin said he just wasn't getting enough athletes he could mold into decent players in his last few years as the boys tennis coach at Taconic High School. Instead, those athletes were gravitating to the new game in town -- lacrosse.

"[The sport] is growing by leaps and bounds," he said. "It's been marketed really well. You get to carry a stick and hit somebody. What could be better? It's a great sport."

When his tennis team folded in March, Voisin wasn't the only coach struggling with numbers. Both the boys and girls tennis teams at Drury disappeared. So did the softball team in Lenox.

Four Berkshire County high school teams were gone in one month. And with the county's population dropping by nearly 10,000 since 1990 and the offerings of non-traditional sports on the rise, more coaches are worried their sport could be next.

Basesall, softball and hockey appear to be at the top of the endangered list at various schools.

In baseball, Taconic coach Kevin Stannard saw his varsity and junior-varsity program reach an all-time low of 31 players at tryouts this spring. The Braves used to draw twice that number when Stannard started coaching two decades ago.

"The baseball coaches around here are nervous," he said. "We're afraid our sport is going to die."

Stannard said he understands why some players favor lacrosse over baseball.

"I think kids [like] lacrosse," he said.


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"It's exciting. You're always moving. Baseball, kids today find, I don't want to say boring, but they just don't know the game enough."

Across the diamond, the Monument Mountain softball team also is struggling, and Athletic Director Paul Gibbons said it could be the next program to fold.

The reason? Low numbers, despite the fact that Monument took on players from Lenox when that program died two months ago.

"I don't know how much longer at Monument we're going to have girls softball," Gibbons said. "We're able to keep it going this spring, but what's going to happen next spring? I don't know. If girls lacrosse comes to Monument, some sport's got to go."

Revolving door

Even though four teams died in March, a landscape change is nothing new in the county.

Gymnastics was eliminated a decade ago in Dalton and Pittsfield. Field hockey disappeared almost overnight in the 1980s, replaced by girls soccer. Alpine skiing faded at several schools in the past decade before Wahconah Regional in Dalton and St. Joseph's in Pittsfield revived their teams this past winter.

Hockey is seen as perhaps the most-endangered sport, with the once-proud Hennessy League reduced to four teams from nine at its peak.

Wahconah player Lane Grogan has watched his Warriors face the same three teams nearly all winter long and says he's worried that another school will drop the sport next year.

"There's always the threat of one more team dropping out and causing us to not have a league," he said.

Wahconah now operates a hockey co-op with Hoosac Valley and Drury.

"Over the past couple of years, we started off as just ourselves," Grogan said. "Then co-opping with the other two schools. It's tough. A lot of kids love playing sports. It's hard to have your favorite sport just dropping off like that."

Perhaps no school has seen more turnover than Wahconah. The Warriors dropped gymnastics in 2004 in favor of volleyball, dropped tennis in 2010, and dropped Alpine skiing in 2004, only to bring it back last year.

"As sports have come and gone, we've been able to substitute with other sports because I think our [participation] level is excellent," said Wahconah athletic director Gary Campbell Jr., who estimates that more than half of Wahconah's 545 students play a scholastic sport. "A tip of the cap goes to changing with the times. "

Youth programs

Jeff Stripp and Clare "Bunnie" Lahey are trying to build their sports through successful youth programs. Stripp is trying to take lacrosse from hot to hotter, and Lahey is trying to bring tennis back to life. 

"It's definitely waned," said Lahey, who leads Lee's Community Tennis Association. "Something that I'm working on with USTA Western Mass. is to bring back the feeder system. Last year, there were two junior tennis teams [in Berkshire County]."

Stripp, the Mount Greylock boys lacrosse coach and a longtime advocate for the Berkshire County Lacrosse Association -- an organization that promotes the sport in the county -- is taking the same approach with lacrosse. While gaining varsity status in seven schools over the past year has been a major step, Stripp recognizes the importance of a unified youth program.

The Williams College graduate has worked with youth programs in four states, and he's also been involved in youth basketball and football in Berkshire County. He sees struggling sports such as hockey, and he preaches learning from the past.

"I do think it's cyclical," he said. "And I do think you need to look at -- and we've already touched on this -- how strong is the youth program? You look at hockey, what's happened there [in Berkshire County].

"And hockey's a little different beast, but the youth program was not solidified. It was divided in the county [into separate youth leagues]. I think that really hurt hockey as a whole. We want to try to avoid that. We're trying to learn from others that have gone before us."

‘Sad ... and reality'

Stripp might turn to someone like Sally Maish, who saw plenty of turnover in her 34 years as a Lee High coach and administrator before retiring in 2006.

Maish coached field hockey at the school until girls soccer took over -- almost overnight -- in 1980. Today, soccer is one of the most well-established girls sports in the county, offered at all 12 high schools.

Gibbons, who has been at Monument Mountain since it opened in the late ‘60s, said he thinks girls soccer was just more exciting than field hockey. As more schools added soccer, there just wasn't enough support to keep field hockey.

"It was sad and it was reality," Maish said. "The majority of schools had soccer. Field hockey is a wonderful sport, but it was time. The other schools would never add it, and for five or six games a year it didn't make sense."

Gibbons said sports that are successful get a "hook" into players through youth programs, and a longtime player agrees.

Makayla White, a Lenox sophomore who is playing for the Monument softball team this spring, said part of the reason the sport is failing in South County is the lack of a youth league to spark a love for the game at an early age.

White had to go to Pittsfield as a youngster to play softball.

"I think softball is one of those sports where you play when you're young and you grow with it, versus joining [later]," she said.

‘Room for everybody'

Schools and communities know their challenge is to balance newer sports with older ones.

While Maish saw field hockey die at Lee, she added volleyball. She called that one of her greatest accomplishments as athletic director, allowing students who didn't play a fall sport to play on a team.

"For a sport to gain interest, somebody has to take the bull by its horns and make it important for the young kids," Campbell said. "If they're infectious, I think people will follow.

"Although half [of our students] are playing a sport, we'd love more. I believe in athletics. There's room for everybody."

To reach Christopher James:
cjames@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6252.
On Twitter: @BECJ2K

Changing landscape

Varsity sports in Berkshire County (not all sports are offered at every high school):

n 2013 (16)

Fall: Soccer, Football, Cross Country, Volleyball, Golf.

Winter: Basketball, Wrestling, Hockey, Swimming, Nordic Skiing, Alpine Skiing.

Spring: Softball, Baseball, Lacrosse, Track and Field, Tennis

n 2008 (15)

Fall: Soccer, Football, Cross Country, Volleyball, Golf.

Winter: Basketball, Wrestling, Hockey, Swimming, Nordic Skiing, Alpine Skiing.

Spring: Softball, Baseball, Track and Field, Tennis.

n 2003 (16)

Fall: Soccer, Football, Cross Country, Gymnastics, Girls Volleyball.

Winter: Basketball, Wrestling, Hockey, Swimming, Nordic Skiing, Alpine Skiing.

Spring: Softball, Baseball, Track and Field, Tennis, Golf.

n 1993 (15)

Fall: Soccer, Football, Cross Country, Gymnastics.

Winter: Basketball, Wrestling, Hockey, Swimming, Nordic Skiing, Alpine Skiing.

Spring: Softball, Baseball, Track and Field, Tennis, Golf.

Source: Eagle archives