BLAND COUNTY, Va. – The lights will stay off and the stands will remain empty this fall in Rocky Gap. The Bland County High School football team is the latest example of the effects of the nationwide drop in interest in the sport.
The Bears said they had to punt after fewer than 10 players came to practice this week. School leaders said their hearts dropped when they realized what they’d have to do, but they will try to keep recruiting and field a team next year.
“(It’s) excruciating to be honest with you. (We) never want to see something like this,” Athletic Director Tyler Eastep said.
In this rural southwest Virginia community, people look forward to Friday night home games.
“It was a very social event,” Bland County School Board Vice Chair Gerry Schepers said. “It impacts the entire community. It's definitely not something we wanted to happen.”
The Bears had a winning season in 2015, even making the playoffs, and they often played with 25 to 30 guys over the last few years. But with a continued decline in interest, they knew a cancellation was a possibility -- they just didn’t think it would happen this soon.
“Interest in football nationwide is declining so it's not just a Bland County thing,” Eastep said.
School leaders said there are multiple reasons for the low turnout. Ten seniors graduated from last year’s team and the school’s overall enrollment is down. After having 72 seniors in last year’s graduating class, there are expected to be around 42 this year.
School leaders also cited injuries and concerns over concussions.
They said they will keep their middle school football program going and they’ll keep recruiting players for a future high school team.
10 News asked Eastep how the players took the news.
“Hard, like everyone else. It's a difficult thing to even think about but to talk about, it's even harder,” he said.
Bland County explored the option to move down to 8-man football, which means it could play with fewer players.
Leaders noted that the school has a strong basketball program and thriving arts programs.
Other local high schools have felt the impact of low interest.
Craig County leaders said they were worried they might not be able to finish their varsity football season two years ago when they had 14 players to start the year. They have 16 guys out this year and they hope to keep competing.
There has not been a mass move to 8-man football in the western half of Virginia, but Virginia Episcopal School made that change for 2018.
Roanoke Catholic took at look at the idea, but has been successful staying in its division and has 25 kids out at camp this week.
“It's been kind of up and down for the last 20 years,” Athletic Director Matt Peck said. “We decided to table those discussions and stay the course for 11-man.”
Roanoke Catholic has 25 players in fall camp this year, Peck said, and had 21 for its 2014 state championship run. Peck said the school is proud to be as successful as it’s been, particularly because scheduling other private schools has been a challenge after many of them moved to 8-man divisions.
A VHSL official told 10 News that this year it reached out to Virginia schools to gauge interest in 8-man football but did not receive a lot of positive feedback.
Bland County is the third Virginia high school to cancel its varsity football season in the last two years. Manassas Park and Charles City also cancelled in 2018.