The day after Manassas Park High School announced its decision to cancel the 2018 varsity high school football season, the players returned to the practice field with only one thought on their mind: The next day’s scrimmage against Osbourn Park.
No one abandoned the team or grumbled about having to now play a junior varsity schedule. That seemed counterproductive to the task at hand.
The players all understood the reasons behind the decision. Injuries left the Cougars with only 15 players each day for practice. With the regular season less than two weeks away, Manassas Park couldn’t delay any longer. They needed to act fast if they wanted to keep the season alive, while being fair to their players as well as to their varsity opponents who needed time to find another school to fill out the schedule.
It wasn’t an ideal fallback plan, but the faithful band of 19 players with little to no varsity experience still had something to play for.
With three public high schools canceling their 2018 varsity football seasons, the Virginia High School League will take a closer look at how b…
The level of competition. The stigma of no varsity football, especially for seniors in their last season. All irrelevant. This was a temporary measure, not a death knell for Manassas Park football. Osbourn Park awaited.
“Honestly, I didn’t think the school would do it,” said senior Dan Moreno, Manassas Park’s varsity veteran of three years. “But when they did it, I wasn’t mad. Football is football, junior varsity or varsity. That’s all that matters.”
To outsiders, Manassas Park’s decision to suspend its varsity season was a shock. No Friday night football, a staple of Americana? It seemed unfathomable.
How did the Cougars reach this point? The program always dealt with low numbers as a small school since opening in 1976. Although some years were leaner than others, they averaged 62 players combined for the junior varsity and varsity levels over the last 12 years. But they still had enough to produce a varsity team and do well enough to advance to three state finals. The 1986 team was down to 19 players due to injuries when it played in the Group A, Division 2 state final. The 2004 Group A Division 2 state champion that went 14-0 listed 33 players on its roster.
It’s well-documented that football across the United States has struggled with declining player participation. The National Federation of State High School Associations said football is still “the No. 1 participatory sport for boys in high school by a large margin. According to NFHS data, there were 1,036,842 male participants in 11-player football and 14,079 schools who fielded teams in 2017. Despite those numbers, player participation dropped just under 2.0 percent and 20 schools dropped their entire programs between 2016 and 2017.
Virginia is not immune to the downward trend. Manassas Park is one of three public high schools who dropped their varsity teams this season.
Prince William County and Manassas city schools have also felt the impact. Of the county’s 12 high schools, five will not field freshman teams this season: Brentsville, Gar-Field, Freedom, Forest Park and Osbourn Park. Osbourn will not field a junior varsity team for the third straight year.
Still until this season, no public high school in Prince William County, Manassas City or Manassas Park had ever cancelled a full varsity football season since the first local prep football program began at Osbourn in 1939.
Manassas Park began the preseason July 30 with every intention of fielding a varsity team after 30 kids came out for practice. But injuries started piling up and cut the number of healthy participants in half.
Head coach Mike Kelly kept the Manassas Park administration informed with daily updates, but the low turnout remained the same.
The school consulted with the Virginia High School League, which advised no team with fewer than 25 physically fit students should play varsity football. With safety the top priority, Manassas Park moved to Plan B.
“Based on these recommendations, it was decided by school and school division officials that playing at the varsity level would expose student athletes to a higher risk of injury and that participation posed a serious safety threat,” Manassas Park principal Pam Kalso wrote in a letter explaining why the school was cancelling the varsity season.
MANY CONTRIBUTING FACTORS
Beyond safety concerns, Manassas Park faced a number of additional built-in challenges that left them in a precarious position.
Changing demographics played a part.
Although Manassas Park’s enrollment has grown to 1,099 students according to the state’s March 31 Average Daily Membership figures, its student body has become more diverse with a higher Hispanic population that reflects the community as a whole.
Traditionally, Hispanics don’t play American football, but they make up the majority of the Manassas Park school district student base. From Sept. 2013 to Sept. 2017, the percentage of Hispanic students in the school district has increased from 49.3 percent to 61.9 percent.
Manassas Park also lacks a feeder program.
With the exception of one year, the Cougars have never had a middle school program. Former Manassas Park head football coach Joe McElfish said the school district tried a middle school program in the early 1980s. McElfish, who coached the middle school team, said around 50 kids showed up and the school borrowed equipment from a rec team. But the middle school program was discontinued for budgetary reasons as well concerns about playing against schools with more students.
There also has been no youth football league in Manassas Park since 2014. Five straight losing seasons in which the Cougars have gone 6-44 doesn’t help either in raising interest. Nor does players transferring out.
Cost and single sport specialization have impacted Manassas Park’s program as well.
In the past, Manassas Park dealt with typically low numbers by fielding only varsity and junior varsity teams.
Since there was no middle-school program, VHSL rules allowed eighth graders to play junior varsity. During Manassas Park’s heyday when they went 49-4 from 2002-05 and reached three straight state semifinals under Jeff Lloyd, the Cougars kept around 30 players comprised of eighth and ninth graders on junior varsity and close to 40 players comprised of sophomores, juniors and seniors on the varsity.
But the lack of interest increased significantly in the last four years. For the 2015-16 school year, Manassas Park had 80 male participants combined for varsity and junior varsity, according to the VHSL’s annual participation survey. That number declined to 64 in 2016-17. Last year Manassas Park had to consolidate even more after only 40 players came out. Instead of having two teams, the Cougars only played a varsity schedule. Then came this season.
Manassas Park graduated a number of seniors from last year’s 1-9 team, including four first or second-team all-district players, two of whom were all-district at two or more positions. Still, the Cougars remained hopeful to at least have a varsity squad for 2018.
When that failed to materialize, returning players attributed the drop-off primarily to injury concerns.
“I felt like people were scared of concussions,” said Brandon Pitts, one of six seniors on the team, but only one of three with varsity experience. “It’s a contact sport and they don’t like contact.”
Moreno tied that explanation to another factor for the low turnout.
“They have other sports that are more important to them,” Moreno said. “They don’t want to do varsity football and get hurt.”
Neither Pitts or Moreno considered quitting if there was no varsity team. In fact, they were grateful they could still play, even if it was at a lower level.
In Prince William County, for example, seniors are not allowed to play junior varsity. But Manassas Park had no rule prohibiting seniors competing at a sub-varsity level nor did the VHSL.
“It was heartbreaking, but I’ve been playing since I was six,” Pitts said. “As long as I can, I’m going to still play. This is still family to me.”
Instead they focused on being leaders and getting people out. The numbers have improved. Kelly said. Manassas Park has 30 players now.
There are other positive signs.
Through Manassas Park activities director Dan Forgas’ tireless efforts and the willingness of other schools to help the program out at the last second, the Cougars will play eight junior varsity games this season. It’s tight at the start with three games in 10 days. The Cougars started off with a 55-0 win Sept. 4 over visiting John Paul the Great before playing back-to-back games Sept. 11 at Riverside and Sept. 14 at Thomas Jefferson.
“You take your games where you can get them,” Forgas said.
The highlight, though, is the season finale against visiting Kettle Run that will allow Manassas Park to have a homecoming game Oct. 25. It’s one day earlier than the originally scheduled homecoming game, but as Forgas has emphasized, all the same activities associated with this event will still happen with some slight readjustments.
“We will still have a band and cheerleaders just on different days,” Forgas said.
While it will play an independent schedule for 2019 and 2020, Manassas Park plans to compete as a varsity team starting next season. The Cougars have already lined up games against Thomas Jefferson, Park View (twice), John Paul the Great, George Mason, Rappahannock, Paul Public Charter (D.C.) and the NOVA Kings.
Perhaps the most encouraging long-term sign is the formation of a middle school program that Kelly pushed for when he took over as head coach in 2016. On the first day of tryouts Aug. 28, 52 players showed up. The first middle school game is September 20th at Reagan Middle School.
Abdul Kelly and former Manassas Park standout Bobby Jackson will oversee the program.
“At our informational meeting, I told [the interested players] they were the future,” Forgas said. “I think this will be a good segue for our program.”
The day after the Osbourn Park scrimmage Aug. 16, a visitor stopped by the Manassas Park practice field behind the school. Standing at a distance, the person asked the team’s identity. He understood it was Manassas Park, but wasn’t sure if it was the junior varsity or varsity. When told it was the only team, he was taken aback. His son had played here three years earlier, but the family had since moved and lost track of how the program was doing. He also asked if Jakai Moore was still here, but was told Moore had transferred to Patriot after his sophomore season and was now an all-state lineman with 20-plus Division I offers.
Saddened by the news of Manassas Park’s decline, the man wished the team good luck and left.
The players, meanwhile, went about their business as they tried to finish up by 6 p.m. before advancing storm clouds ended practice early. Wearing shirts, shorts and helmets, they did a variety of drills as players used to one position moved to another to take advantage of their size. They finished with a light-hearted five-on-five passing game and then headed in.
Overseeing everything was Kelly, a former University of Virginia football player who was an assistant on the 2004 Manassas Park state title team. Entering his 20th year at the only school where he’s ever taught, Kelly viewed the situation as another chance to fulfill his calling.
“I’m a teacher and I see every opportunity to teach and work with these kids,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s the freshman, junior varsity or varsity level, you still have to coach these kids.”
Moreno adopts the same positive attitude.
When he posted photos of the team to Instagram and Snapchat, Moreno received the same response: You have a team?
Moreno proudly cleared up the confusion.
“I tell them don’t believe everything you hear,” Moreno said. “We have a team that matters.”