The rise of the girls

Number of girls up, three-sport athletes down in high school sports

Sycamore high school girls' tennis coach Dave Hillmer confers with Alexa Farris during a match last week against DeKalb.
Sycamore high school girls' tennis coach Dave Hillmer confers with Alexa Farris during a match last week against DeKalb.

Angelina We is the No. 1 singles player on the Sycamore High School girls’ tennis team this season.

“My parents have always wanted me to play sports, and I picked tennis,” the gangly freshman said. Her parents didn’t play sports themselves. “They wanted me to get out of the house and enrich my life.”

According to her coach, Dave Hillmer, We has enriched the Lady Spartans so much, the team has won its first eight conference matches. Her serve is so powerful, he said, she’s actually made some of her opponents cry.

We is just one of the teenage girls going out for high school sports in record numbers. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that the number of female athletes in high schools has risen each year for the past 23 years.

“I think a lot of girls like to compete,” SHS senior Caitlin Mereness said.

The federation’s annual High School Athletics Participation Survey reports that there are 3,207,533 girls participating in sports in American high schools this year, an increase of 33,984 over 2010-11. Volleyball and soccer had the biggest increases.

For the first time since 1993, the report showed a decrease in boys participating in high school sports. There are 4,484,987 male athletes, a decrease of 9,419 since last year.

As one might expect, the states with the highest participation from both genders are also the most populous: Texas, California, New York, Illinois and Ohio.

According to Matt Troha, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, boys still far outnumber girls in high school sports in Illinois – 205,218 to 141,678.

“I would say our female participation is increasing, but I do not see a decrease in our guys,” Sycamore High School Athletic Director Chauncey Carrick said. “The guys have been fairly consistent.”

Carrick said he has seen more girls’ teams fielding three levels in softball and soccer, after years of fielding two.

“You see more kids trying out, so some teams have to cut kids,” he said.

Although he isn’t aware of a big increase in the overall number of athletes, Genoa-Kingston High School Athletic Director Dirk Campbell has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of athletes playing multiple sports.

“This is my fourth year, and we’ve gone down 10 to 12 every year,” he said.

Campbell speculated one reason is the time commitment involved. Each sport can have 25 contact days a summer; for a three-sport athlete, that’s 75 days, not leaving much time for anything else. Another reason is that a lot of kids are specializing in just one sport for a variety of reasons, including a better chance at a college scholarship.

“Most parents only have so much money to go around,” Carrick said. “You can only send them to so many camps.”

“If you want to play (in college), you want to play club sports,” Campbell said. “A lot of our girls play traveling softball in the summer. I don’t think my daughter would be playing today if she hadn’t played for the Kishwaukee Storm.”

That’s also the attitude of We, who specializes in tennis. When not playing high school sports, she competes on four club teams, which she says a serious player has to do.

“I think it’s a lot more important to focus on one sport and get really good, rather than be mediocre in everything,” she said.

DeKalb High School senior Christin Bothe said she played basketball and soccer when she was a freshman, but has since switched to just running, including cross country and track.

“There’s a lot of pressure to be the best at your sport,” she said. If someone wants to start on the basketball team, for instance, they almost have to attend all of their sport’s pre- and post-season camps and workouts, she said. “It’s difficult, but I like it. I like running.”

Cross country teammate Kelsey Schrader, who finished second in the state cross country meet last year as a sophomore, has a practical reason for not playing other sports.

“I used to play basketball, but when I got to high school, I thought I’d stick to running,” she said. “I’m not the tallest and my arms aren’t the biggest.”

Like Bothe, she also runs track, qualifying for state in the 1,600 meter and the 3,200 meter runs last spring.

DeKalb High School Athletic Director Bryon Houy said he doesn’t think young athletes should specialize.

“I don’t think it’s a positive thing,” he said. “I’ve talked to college coaches and they prefer kids who play more than one sport.”

Athletic programs at small schools rely on athletes playing multiple sports, Indian Creek Athletic Director Ehren Mertz said.

“I would say we are having more girls going out, but no decrease in boys,” Mertz said. “We have kids doing three sports. Small schools, you have to have kids doing three sports.”

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