On sports participation score, MN girls ready to bump, set, kill

Two women in gray shirts high five in a gym.
North High School senior Penelope Herr (right) high fives a teammate during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in North St. Paul. In Minnesota, women have closed the gap in participation in high school sports.
Andy Kosier | MPR News

If you’ve set foot on any high school campus in Minnesota this fall, you are likely to see nearly as many girls competing in athletics as boys. It hasn’t always been this way.

Annual surveys done by the National Federation of State High School Associations show that in Minnesota, girls represent 49 percent of all participants in sports at the high school level. In the 2018-2019 survey, there were 122,602 boys competing, compared to 117,885 girls. Going back a decade to the 2009-2010 survey, it was 124,479 for boys and 105,564 for girls.

The participation gap has shrunk by more than 14,000 over the last decade.

A decline in certain sports for boys is also a factor in the shrinking gap. Fewer boys are playing football. Pigskin participation is down by more than 2,200.

As for the gains, cross country is leaving other sports in the dust in attracting new female athletes to join. Teams are seeing a gain of more than 4,100 new runners.

The Gopher effect

Volleyball is also thriving. It’s up by 2,127 players over the past decade.

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That’s not a surprise to Becky Leuer of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. She says Minnesota has a vibrant volleyball community, and younger girls have taken notice.

“You have a volleyball team in Minnesota, the Golden Gophers, that’s very successful,” Leuer said. “And you have Minnesota volleyball all by itself is very successful. So, the more success you have, the more kids want to play.”

Indeed, the Gopher volleyball team has been a powerhouse, racking up nearly two dozen NCAA tournament appearances over the past 25 years, along with five Final Four appearances since 2000.

But as Leuer suggested, it’s not just the Gophers’ popularity. The state’s volleyball community continues to attract many players who start out in youth clubs and play their way through high school.

A woman in a black shirt talks to students in a gym.
Head volleyball coach Stephanie Blanda instructs the North High School varsity volleyball team on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 in North St. Paul.
Andy Kosier | MPR News

Stephanie Blanda, the head volleyball coach at North High School in North St. Paul, shares that sentiment.

“I have a feeling there’s a lot more participation because a lot more coaches are trying to drive that at a younger age so that by the time they’re in high school, they’re more at a competitive level,” Blanda said.

‘I feel powerful and confident’

One of Blanda’s players, senior Yaiza Franco, says volleyball is more than just something to do after school. She says the feeling she gets from competing gives her a sense of self-worth that’s hard to match.

“Volleyball is one of the main ways I feel powerful and confident. It’s not just the boys that can be strong in their sport,” Franco said. “Growing up, volleyball helped me realize who I am and that I can be a strong young lady in my sport and in my community.”

Franco says she was inspired to pursue the sport her mother once played. One of Franco’s teammates, fellow senior Penelope Herr, also followed in the footsteps of her mom by joining the team.

For Herr, the camaraderie with her teammates has helped her shed some of her antisocial tendencies.

“It’s really opened me up. I’ve been more talkative,” Herr said. “A lot of the girls are very welcoming.”

A woman watches something intently that is out of frame in a gym.
Senior Yaiza Franco listens to head volleyball coach Stephanie Blanda during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 at North High School in North St. Paul.
Andy Kosier | MPR News

Despite some of the personal triumphs, both players say their sport, along with other girls’ high school teams, still could use more fan attention that has traditionally gone to boys’ sports.

“More and more people have come out, but it’s something we are challenged with,” Herr said.

What about the Lynx?

With the success of the Gopher volleyball team, you would think that the WNBA’s Lynx, a team that was won four league titles since 2011, would be convincing more girls to throw on some sneakers and play high school basketball.

Minnesota Lynx v Las Vegas Aces
Odyssey Sims of the Minnesota Lynx brings the ball up the court against the Las Vegas Aces during their game July 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

It might be too early to tell on that one.

The same data comparison for girls’ basketball shows that sport holding steady in participation, but no major spikes. From 2009 to the 2018-19 survey, there was only a gain of 430. In fact, the most recent survey showed a dip from the one issued in 2017-2018.

But the Lynx have shown promising attendance in recent years to coincide with their championships. And one of the biggest stars in team history, Lindsay Whalen, recently retired to coach at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota, giving the sport a recognizable female presence in the state’s amateur ranks.

Other successes; potential plateau?

There are other high school sports in Minnesota that have been successful in boosting numbers for girls. Lacrosse, up nearly 1,700, and softball, up more than 2,100 in the last 10 years, are doing well. And just like the case for boys, track and field and soccer remain popular.

Combined, both boys and girls have fared well on the participation front in Minnesota when compared to other states. The NFHS surveys have consistently placed Minnesota in the top 10 in recent years.

Leuer notes that the prevalence of more specialized youth leagues could make it too expensive for some parents to allow their kids to keep playing so they can stay competitive enough for high school tryouts.

And coach Blanda says the demands of the youth leagues could convince some players to walk away from their sport altogether.

“With it going year-round for a lot of people, sometimes it feels like it might discourage some people from playing because it’s so intensive and you’re sort of expected to stay year-round to stay at that higher level,” she said.

Meanwhile, Leuer also worries that while high school sports might continue to thrive in the Twin Cities, it could be hard to maintain popularity in rural areas. At a time when such areas are dealing with population struggles, Leuer says, resources could be hard to come by.

“A lot of those activities are community-based and you can’t bring people in to coach teams because you’re sort of limited by distance,” Leuer said.

And if there aren’t enough coaches, the player ranks — for boys and girls — might dwindle too.