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The numbers are in. Despite a year-long global pandemic, student participation in Alabama high school and middle school sports increased substantially during the 2020-21 school year.
That was the one word Kim Vickers, the newly appointed Associate Executive Director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA), repeated throughout our conversation when we reviewed this year’s participation totals.
“At this time last year we were running around like crazy just trying to see if we were going to have sports throughout the next school year,” Vickers said. “We spent the whole summer determined to find a way for our kids to get back.”
The Totals—A Record Year
And get back they did. It was a banner year.
Compare this school year (2020-21) to AHSAA participation numbers in 2017-18.
Because the 2019-20 school year ended abruptly in March 2020, the student participation totals were not finalized for that particular year.
The numbers this year—2020-21—include middle school student-athletes, while the 2017-18 numbers reported only a few middle school students. The 2020-21 totals are also missing thirteen schools that did not participate in football and nine schools that did not participate in sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are the sports with the biggest increases:
- Volleyball – 35.3% increase from 9920 students to 15,327 students
- Cheer – 34.1% increase from 7,311 to 11,093
- Basketball – 32.3% increase from 8,314 to 12,283
- Wrestling – 34.3% increase from 2889 to 4395
- Football – 25.8% increase from 31,249 to 42,100
- Bowling – 24.7% increase from 698 to 927
- Soccer – 24.0% increase from 6390 to 8409
The total number of participants in all sports jumped from 141,319 in 2018 to 190,219 in 2021 – a 25.7% increase – thanks in part to counting all middle-school student participation for the first time.
Just Let Us Play
How did the AHSAA set participation records, start and finish on schedule all AHSAA sports this season and crown 115 state champions?
Vickers described their strategy.
First they listened to the school administrators, coaches, parents and students who were begging “just let us play” when it looked possible that no sports would be allowed due to COVID-19.
“We didn’t go into the season expecting a season, we were just hoping to have a season,” Vickers added. “We worked very closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health and with the State Department of Education, and spent the entire summer putting together best practices for return to play. Our schools were so cooperative. We couldn’t thank them enough.”
From the beginning, AHSAA knew they had to get the health guidance right or they may not finish the season.
Crowds were limited and everyone had to sit six feet apart and wash their hands. The balls were cleaned regularly and the AHSAA even amended, in some cases, some rules of the game.
“We just wanted to be able to play,” said Vickers. “And when it was all said and done, when we got through our first fall championships with volleyball, it was just like, hey, we can do this. That’s been our motto the whole school year. Things may look different, but the mission is still the same. And that mission was to provide our student athletes an opportunity to play.”
AHSAA Helping Schools Succeed—Wilson Ball Grant
Growth in high school sports participation does not happen by accident. AHSAA is always on the lookout for creative ways to increase student participation. One such partnership is the Wilson Ball Grant through Wilson Sporting Goods.
Annually, high school volleyball teams can apply for new volleyballs from Wilson. The grants are awarded to schools that are either building a program or may be struggling economically. Each year, between seven to 10 schools receive 10 new balls and a volleyball cart.
Top-of-the-line equipment is a game changer for Alabama high schools in need. Just ask Cody Woods, head volleyball coach at Cornerstone High School in Birmingham.
“To say that the volleyballs have helped build our program is an understatement. We had tattered, worn-down balls, and a lot had gone flat. The new balls helped us tremendously. We do drills where each girl needs her own ball. With that cart and with those balls, each girl can do a drill. It makes us all better.”
The new equipment invigorated the program. In just a couple of years, the small 1A school went from 18 junior varsity (JV) and varsity players to 45 players (52 trying out) filling middle school, JV and varsity rosters. The team also started winning.
According to AHSAA’s Vickers, supplying high-quality volleyballs has helped other high schools around the state, notably Chilton County’s Isabella High School and Phil Campbell High School in Franklin County.
“Isabella started their program the same way as Cornerstone,” Vickers said. “I can remember when my daughters were playing, we actually played Isabella, and we would travel over and play them and I watched them.They did an amazing job continuing to grow that program, continuing to get better and better with more girls starting to come out to play.”
AHSAA is getting more students involved by fostering new sports. For example, bowling is popular and growing. In just six short years, it has given students who ordinarily did not play team sports a chance to play. Same with ESports, which held its first state championship in 2019.
And this fall, for the first time ever, Girls’ High School Flag Football will launch its inaugural season. Supported by the NFL, the new sport is sure to be a hit, especially here in football crazy Alabama.
Hungry for Sports
In a year when a number of high schools across the nation did not play sports, Alabama did. AHSAA provided the chance “to just play” for 190,219 students from middle school through high school.
Vickers summed it up best. “I’m a sports enthusiast, a former coach and the mother of athletes. To me there’s nothing more rewarding than those relationships you have among teammates, coach and player relationships, and the experience of high school sports. When something is taken away from us. We appreciate it a little bit more.”
Did you make it out to an @ahsaa game this past season? Tag us @bhamnow on Instagram to let us know which game you went to!