By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
It is not unusual for school districts to navigate through fluctuating enrollment figures.
Those numbers often have a lot less to do with a team’s on-field results and everything to do with what division they are categorized in by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
The translation: Just because a school has a large enrollment does not simply equate to a winning program.
You could argue that the schools with larger enrollments have more potential athletes “to choose from,” but ultimately it comes down to coaching and commitment.
In Portage County, for the longest time, enrollment figures remained relatively unwavering.
Over the last 20 years, however, those same once-steady enrollment numbers have started to move.
And 20 years is not a long period of time for the sake of school data.
In rare instances in Portage County, like in Aurora and Garfield, enrollment numbers are on the rise.
In most cases, though, figures are shrinking — and some have fallen quite drastically from the size they once were.
Like anything of significance, there is not one specific reason for the enrollment increase or decline.
Rather, varying factors come into play and they are not always the same for each district or even for each family inside those districts.
School levies, employment opportunities, smaller-sized families, and many other factors come into play.
Here is a look across the county and the male-enrollment figures (for grades 9 through 12) for districts and how that has had an impact, if any, on the size of the school’s football roster.
Football head coach Bob Mihalik: “When I arrived in 2001, we were a small Division IV school in football. We peaked as a Division II school from 2011 through 2016, and then came back down to Division III, which is where we are now.
“As far as roster building is concerned, we had 38 kids (grades 9 through 12) in my first year in 2001. We currently have 102 this year. I believe there are a number of factors that have kept our numbers high:
1. Obviously, we have grown as a community/school, which helped with numbers;
2. We revamped our youth program in the early 2000’s and tried to build a football family. We have coaching clinics for our youth coaches. They run the same basic offense and defense that we run at the high-school level — at a scaled-down level, but the same terminology. We also revamped again around 2015, when the concussion concerns started. … Our community has done a tremendous job led by our President Mike Acomb.
3. Our middle-school numbers are large, which carries over from their youth experience. … Development is emphasized more than winning or losing. Every player who comes to practice everyday and is performing well in school is guaranteed a quarter of playing time on each side of the ball.
4. At the high-school level, everybody plays at the freshman or JV level. This includes juniors who did not play on Friday night. Again, the emphasis is on development.
Football head coach Jack D’Amato: “The number of boys in the school has decreased dramatically, but our roster size is pretty similar to the days of old (56 players in 2000 and 47 players in 2023, with a low point of 23 players in 2020). I think having a K-12 football program that works together with a vision from the top down, of how each level should look, is what is keeping our numbers where they are.
“We do a lot of small things to make sure we are one program, and I think that is where we will start to see our success (birthday cards, captains at youth practices, youth coaching clinics, incorporating the youth on Friday nights, etc.)
“We are playing freshman football for the first time since 2011 and only currently have four seniors and 20-plus eighth-graders that will join our high-school team next year. In 2024, if all numbers project out with who we have now, we will have a full fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.”
Football head coach Matt Furino: “I really don’t think that our enrollment has had any impact on our football numbers. I think winning and losing plays a much larger role. We have had our ups and downs at Field. When I came back to coaching four years ago, we only had 32 players on the roster. My second year back, we had 38, then we were at 48 last year and up to 54 this year. Next year, we expect to be closer to 65. For a long time, we have always felt that the Field football program is doing good if we can average 15 kids per class.”
Football head coach Mike Moser: “We have been up and down in terms of roster size since 2001. We have been in the low 30s up to the mid-50s. The roster has steadily grown over the past eight to 10 years. Our average roster size has probably been around 40 during this period.
“The biggest impact on roster size is simply the lack of students participating in sports. We hope to continue our recent push by talking to our student-athletes and growing the youth programs.”
Football head coach Matt Adorni: Comment to be updated.
Football head coach Joe Callihan is in his second season as the leader of the program and is a Mogadore High School graduate. Understandably, he did not have much perspective to add about enrollment figures and their potential impact on football roster size.
Rootstown athletic director Keith Waesch: “Although our enrollment numbers have dropped by about 10 boys per grade, I don’t think you can draw a direct comparison to our football roster. It is just the ebbs and flows of high-school sports. For example, we only had 25 football players in 2011, but in 2021, we had 40 players even though the enrollment numbers were almost the exact same. I can give examples from other years, which would help validate my point as well.”
Football head coach Patrick Youel: “Our numbers have certainly changed over the past 20 years. We used to field two middle-school teams, a freshman team, a JV team and a varsity team. … In 2014, when I got here, we were Division IV. In 2011, we were Division III. We moved down to Division V in 2019, and we moved down to Division VI in 2022.
“Our declining enrollment has certainly affected our numbers over the year, as we now field a combined middle-school team and don’t play a freshman schedule.
“However, we are pretty consistent with our numbers being in the mid-40s. We have 27 middle-school players and our youth program has almost 90 kids in it. I believe that our program has done a great job of promoting our OTOV (One Team, One Vision) philosophy and culture and that kids want to be involved in it. Our best recruiters are our current players. Being a Division-VI school, with 47 players is good in my opinion.”
Football head coach Pete Thompson: “Since I have been at Streetsboro coaching, we have fluctuated between being Division IV (2017, 2018, 2022 and 2023) and being Division III (2019, 2020 and 2021). Our roster has been between 50 to 61 players during those years. Currently, we are at 61, which is the most in my tenure.”
Football head coach Mike Devies: “I think athletics as a whole has suffered for numbers, not just here at Waterloo. I think athletic directors across Portage, Mahoning and Trumbull counties, and beyond, have all probably seen a decline in participation numbers across multiple sports. For a school like us, having a football roster size of 30-some is normal.
“When I got here, the graduating classes were in the 80s and 90s and down in some of our middle school and elementary classes, we have closer to 50 a class now.
“We have tried to remain very proactive within our program, with Ron Lewis now leading the Little Vikings youth program, and he is doing a phenomenal job, and our middle-school numbers are up. When I retire, my goal and purpose is to leave this program better than when I got it, and we are trending in that direction.”
Football head coach Jake Eye: “Our district is tiny and our numbers dwindle every year, so it impacts our football program tremendously. Eight-man football has been brought up more and more because of our numbers. The thought of Windham football is crazy to think about, but down the road, it could be a reality that we face.”
Just going by memory here for comparison to today’s figures. I graduated in the last class from Randolph HS in 1967, our enrollment was 281 students 147 males about 35 to 45 came out for football. I am stunned at the enrollment number across the county. I hope this will give a perspective on where we were and where we are now.