Participation in girls basketball is declining, creating challenges for some Nebraska teams

March 2, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

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Photo by Emma Krab

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On a chilly Friday evening, the Nebraska City Lady Pioneers basketball team faced off against the Auburn Bulldogs.

In the third quarter, 6-foot sophomore Tarryn Godsey wrestled for the ball and fell to the floor hard, taking an Auburn player down with her. She came up from the floor grimacing in pain, but after glancing at the bench, she kept going until the end of the quarter.

This is because Godsey was one of only eight girls on her team.

“Oh God, that hurt,” Godsey said. “If I'm injured, I'm like push through. We can't really afford to have one of us sit.”

According to data from the National Federation of High School Sports, girls basketball numbers have been falling nationwide since 2004. In Nebraska, the decline has been especially steep. The Nebraska State Activities Association reported in the last five years, the state has lost more than 11 percent of its players.

It is a trend familiar to Lady Pioneers head coach Scott Kinnison, who rotated his players twice quarter, two at a time this season. He wasn’t worried about game strategy: who played best together, who was shooting well, who was struggling. Instead, he said his priority was to keep his players from burning out.

In his 32 years of coaching, this is the smallest team Kinnison has ever had, but Nebraska City isn’t the only team struggling with low participation. A growing number of Nebraska schools are feeling the pressure in their girls basketball teams.

Jon Dolliver is in charge of girls basketball for the NSAA. With an issue this pressing, he said the big question on everyone’s minds is why. The problem is there isn’t an obvious answer.

Instead, Dolliver said there’s a long list of theories about what’s to blame, from COVID-19 to a lack of participation in youth programs. He added other sport trends might also be impacting girls basketball numbers.

“We have kids that are just specializing now,” Dolliver said. “They want to play, you know, one sport and not choosing basketball to be that one sport.”

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Photo by Emma Krab

Girls wrestling, which became an official NSAA sport in 2021, could be another factor, as well as increasing participation in club volleyball in the state. Nevertheless, as the number of theories continues to grow across the country, Dolliver said low participation is starting to have a real impact on Nebraska players.

“We're getting to the point where we're having lots of teams call us from week to week saying they can't play a game, or they can't finish the season,” he said.

Teams across Nebraska have forfeited games, including Nebraska City, who forfeited two games early in the season due to illness. Coach Kinnison has his own theory about the decline.

“There’s a lot of reasons,” he said. “I think every school probably has their own thing. You have to lean on each other. You're getting hit seven screens. For some people, that's just not what they like to do.”

Kinnison said even though the Lady Pioneers lost numbers, he focused on doing the best he could with his remaining players. He says during games, his team focused on saving energy, impacting their ability to match the game’s speed and intensity.

Even practice changed. With only eight people, two of Kinnison’s assistant coaches stepped in when the team scrimmaged. It’s a situation Tarryn Godsey said was a bit strange.

“So, it’s definitely, like, a change of pressure for defense because our coaches are definitely easier and a little more fragile,” Godsey said.

However, the players at Nebraska City said the situation also provides unique benefits. One of Godsey’s teammates, Tierra Andrew, was a senior this year. With a larger team, she said she probably wouldn’t have gotten to know the younger girls like Godsey, whom she now considers a friend.

“We all laugh and have fun,” she said. “Even if we go out and lose the game, we’re on the bus laughing. We're always picking each other up.”

The Lady Pioneers ended their season on Feb. 20 with a loss to Plattsmouth. They graduate two seniors this year, dropping the number of returning players to six.