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Post-COVID sports participation is up
Pitman football
Football (11-player) continues to lead the top 10 boys’ sports for the high school in the California Interscholastic Federation and increased by 5.4 percent with 89,178 participants in the 2022-23 season (Journal file photo).

High school sports participation remains constant as education-based athletics has fully resumed in California for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic suspended activity during the final months of the 2019-20 school year.

Last school year (2022-23), 763,867 California student-athletes competed in education-based athletic programs, up 1.4 percent from the previous school year.

“It’s encouraging to see steady participation after a challenging past few years,” said CIF executive director Ron Nocetti. “As we move forward, the CIF looks to continue to expand and provide students with the opportunity to belong, connect, and compete in education-based experiences.”

Football (11-player) continues to lead the top 10 boys’ sports and increased by 5.4 percent with 89,178 participants. Several years ago, before the pandemic, football numbers were on the decline amid concern over concussions and other safety issues within the sport.

Look no further than Hughson High School to witness the uptick in football participation. 

“We have 51 players on varsity, 45 on junior varsity and 44 on the freshman team,” said head coach Shaun King, who guided the Huskies to the state 5-AA championship last year with a 9-6 win over Muir (Pasadena) in the final. “It sounds better the way our principal says it: ‘One out of three boys at Hughson High School plays football.’”

It should be pointed out that Hughson had a freshman roster of 50 last season, the first full school year to have COVID fully in the rear-view mirror, which has helped with participation.

“This last year, it didn’t feel like COVID was ‘a thing’ anymore,” said assistant Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Will DeBoard. “This last year it wasn’t on people’s minds, certainly not to the standpoint that it was in 21-22 and before then, when every sport happened in a three-month stretch in spring (2021).”

Soccer (53,368) is the second most popular sport for the boys, followed by track & field (52,164), basketball (45,836), and baseball (43,367).

Turlock girls soccer
Soccer is remain the top sport for high school girls, with 45,544 participants in the 2022-23 season in the CIF (Journal file photo).

On the girls’ side, soccer remains the top sport with 45,544 participants.

Turlock soccer coach Nicole Lonergan, like King at Hughson, has noticed an increase in participation.

“Definitely, since COVID there’s been more (participation),” said Lonergan, who led the Bulldogs to the Central California Athletic League title last season. “I do think it depends on the school and the year … so it’s kind of hard to tell. But, definitely an uptick since COVID.”

Volleyball came in second (45,390) among girls, followed by track & field with 40,434 participants, a 5.3 percent increase. Softball (29,483) and basketball (29,007) rounded out the top five girls’ sports.

The CIF’s 1,609-member schools participated in the survey as part of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) nationwide survey that measures the number of students competing in sports in the country.

Additionally, for the second consecutive year, traditional competitive cheer saw a notable increase, taking over the ninth most popular sport for girls. With a 16.8 percent increase, competitive cheerleading was the fastest growing sport of all.

“We have two different kinds of cheer,” said DeBoard. “There’s traditional competitive cheer, like you see on ESPN, and that has stayed fairly steady. Where you’re seeing the growth is in competitive sport cheer (also called stunt cheer). That has grown significantly.”

So, far only teams in Waterford, Livingston and the Central California Conference field stunt cheer teams in this region. 

“How it works is you have two teams competing side-by-side on mats,” said DeBoard. “Each team performs the same routine, which is given to them before the season, and whichever team does the routine better gets a point. It’s really a lot of fun.”