Where have all of the high school football players gone?

Better times for the Miners?

You can forgive the fans if they don’t notice the Nevada Union and Bear River football teams running onto the field Friday night to start the 2017 season.

Between the cheerleaders, pom-pom girls, band members, and general hangers-on you can usually find on a field before the game starts, it may be difficult to spot the incredibly shrinking teams that represent the schools.

The Bruins start the season with a squad of 31 players–barely enough to hold practice–while the Miners will field a team of 42, the second smallest team in the hyper-competitive Sierra Foothill League–and that’s before injuries take their inevitable toll.

There are a lot of reasons why more and more jerseys are going unused every year: Declining enrollment in the high school district, year-round competition in sports that discourages kids from playing multiple sports, and the increased competition for kids’ time after school.

A big reason athletic directors and coaches don’t like to talk about is the increased understanding of the damage–particularly brain damage–that football can do to players. I wrote about the subject recently in my Union column, and received a long email from an assistant coach at NU suggesting I was being unduly alarmist. Let’s just say we agreed to disagree.

Shortly after the column appeared, a study was released that concluded California is the second worst state in the nation when it comes to implementing key safety guidelines to protect student athletes from life-threatening conditions.

The response of the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in California? Schools are resource challenged! That ought to reassure parents.

But as the saying goes, you have to play the hand you are dealt. Coaches of both teams are expressing optimist at this point–after all, everybody’s undefeated now–and have indicated they plan to show up for all 10 games on the schedule.

Nevada Union has a particularly daunting task; five of the other six teams in the SFL are among the best in the area, according to the pre-season rankings of The Sacramento Bee. They are Folsom (ranked No. 1), Granite Bay (3), Oak Ridge (4), Del Oro (5) and Rocklin (9). The other school in the league, Woodcreek, is considered a bubble team that could become ranked as the season progresses.

NU’s non-league schedule isn’t much easier: The Miners open the season against Antelope (14) and Placer (19) before facing the two easiest schools on the schedule: Lincoln and Napa. If NU can finish that schedule at 5-5, it should be declared the Team of the Year.

But head coach Dennis Houlihan, who has compiled a 4-36 record in 4 years at NU, is counting on his seniors to turn things around. “If you look at our games (from last season) and look at the progress we made in them, we were in every one of them up until about the third quarter,” he told The Union.

“Our kids as juniors were making those plays. This year as seniors I do believe they are going to make the difference. They will make those plays that will give us the opportunity to be in it at the end and win the game.”

“We very easily could have been 6-4, 7-3 last year,” he added, “where we were up at half and couldn’t hang on to it…I think you’re going to see the change.”

The reason the Miners couldn’t hang on last season was that injuries decimated the team’s small roster, and football is a 4-quarter game. The team’s style of play–run the ball down your throat–becomes a game of attrition as the season wears on and they don’t have the numbers to stay competitive.

NU has the second smallest roster in the SFL with every other school except Rocklin claiming at least 50 players, according to MaxPrep Sports. Houlihan better pray for perfect health.

Every high school coach banks on the hope his players get better as they get older and the payoff comes when they are seniors, and it’s clear that Houlihan is hoping that’s the case at NU. But the seniors at every other school NU plays are getting better too, and nobody on the Miners has ever won a league game at the varsity level.

One more thing: NU has managed to concoct a schedule in which they have no bi-weeks to rest and regroup.

As long as we’re on the subject of schedules, it should be pointed out that Bear River has just four home games this season and will hit the road for four consecutive weeks. The Bruins are going to have to be road warriors if they are going to rebound from their first losing season in almost 30 years.

While small in numbers, BR plays just one ranked school (Placer) and is considered a bubble team in The Bee’s rankings, along with opponents Marysville, El Dorado and Colfax. On the other hand, eight of their opponents had winning records and made the playoffs last season. The school was 0-4 on the road last year and plays 3 of its 5 league games away from home.

Like Houlihan, Bruins co-head coach Terry Logue is counting on his seniors to make the season a success. At least they have tasted success, making the playoffs two of the last three seasons.

And like every other coach who ever existed, Logue sees no easy teams on the schedule. “Our league is brutal this year,” he told The Union. “Our league schedule is really tough. Preseason we don’t have any pattycakes on there either.”

Let the games begin.

VERY PREDICTABLE: We will once again offer our predictions on the outcome of league games for Bear River and Nevada Union. The predictions are based on a fairly basic power rating system that takes into account a team’s performance and the strength of its schedule. In the two seasons we’re predicted games, we’ve gone 48-14, a 77 percent win rate. Too bad you can’t bet these games.

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