Football, like so many other sports, has become specialized.
And specialized means expensive.
On the field, the past 10 years has seen a widening gap between Clark County high schools in wealthy and poor areas.
The reason? Economically stressed athletes struggle to meet the sport’s growing year-round demands.
Columbia River coach John O’Rourke said he started noticing the change about 15 years ago.
“There is a real emphasis now on the private trainer, helping you improve both your conditioning and your statistics,” said O’Rourke, now in his 20th season as River’s head coach. “That put a lot of pressure on people to get enough money to go to camps. Even at our school, there are a significant number of students who need some kind of financial assistance (to attend camps).”
It wasn’t long ago when high school football really was a one- or a two-season sport.
Work out in the summer in the school’s weight room, then maybe go to a camp for a week before practice starts in August.
Back then, just about all schools with a quality coaching staff and a steady stream of athletes could compete.
These days, the game occupies the entire calendar.
Some athletes perform individual drills with a personal coach. There might be weight training with a strength coach. There are off-season clinics not associated with the school program.
Standing atop the football chain is Camas High School. The Papermakers have made the state semifinals in each of the past two seasons. Camas also had the lowest percentage of students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program (19 percent) of all the schools in the Class 4A and 3A Greater St. Helens Leagues.
On the other end of the numbers, a majority of students at Fort Vancouver (73 percent) and Hudson’s Bay (64 percent) were on the school lunch program last year. Going into this season, those two football teams had won a combined two games the past two years — each beating the other once.
It is not as though players at those school do not want to excel in football. It’s just that a family in an economic crisis has other priorities, said Mick Hoffman, the athletic director for Vancouver Public Schools.
“A lot of the out-of-season work takes an incredible amount of time,” Hoffman said. “There are transportation issues. Some kids are working or providing day care for their siblings.”
That is usually not the case at a school such as Camas.
“Our program has benefitted greatly from kids who are training year-round,” Camas coach Jon Eagle said.
He does not ask any players to specialize in football. Many of Camas’ best players, in fact, play another sport for the school. But, Eagle added, multi-sport athletes still carve out time to work on football when they can.
Union and Skyview had a much lower percentage of students enrolled in the lunch program than Battle Ground, Evergreen, and Heritage.
The last two seasons, Camas, Skyview, and Union have won a combined 57 games while the other three teams in the 4A GSHL have won 17 games.
In the 3A GSHL, Columbia River has the lowest percentage of students enrolled in the lunch program. The Chieftains won the league title last year.
There are exceptions, of course. There are lower-income programs winning and some higher-income programs that are not perennial powers.
It is not that poorer communities cannot win in football; they just have more obstacles to clear. Again, simple math.
Hudson’s Bay won back-to-back district titles in boys basketball just a few years ago. With five athletes on the floor at once, it takes a couple of standouts and a few solid players to be competitive.
But no other varsity high school sport demands the numbers that football does.
Coaches and athletic directors interviewed for this story agree that it probably takes 10-15 standouts and another 20-30 who are committed every year for a football program to be a consistent achiever at the Class 4A and 3A levels.
That consistency can be more difficult to achieve in lower-income areas.
Poverty in football is more than not having the money to train year round, Hoffman said, describing it as a “mobility” issue.
“Families in poverty are on the move. Job issues. Housing issues. You’re not necessarily going to have the same kids who start (at your school) as freshmen who finish as a seniors,” Hoffman said.
Football success demands all athletes on the field doing their part at the same time, for a common goal. It takes practice. Constant turnover among the student-athletes can have an impact on a football team.
The problem starts long before high school.
“A lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to play youth football,” Hoffman said. “We get a lot of kids coming out for football for the first time.”
Stoney Myers, the athletic director at Hudson’s Bay, said the key is getting coaches who understand that scenario.
“There is a misconception that poor school means poor athletes. That’s not the case,” Myers said. “Some of these kids just don’t get to play sports until high school. We have athletes everywhere. We just have to focus on teaching technique.”
That is rarely a problem for schools such as Camas or Union.
So how does a low-income football program compete?
One is to stop using the situation as a crutch.
“We just have got to find ways to overcome,” Hoffman said. “We’re a ‘No excuses’ program. If the adults start making excuses, the kids are going to be in that same place. As ADs, we don’t accept excuses. We’re looking for solutions.”
Heritage football, for example, has reached the postseason in six of its 14 seasons.
Evergreen won a state championship in 2004. The Plainsmen have struggled in recent years, but the number of participants is up this season with new coach Don Johnson Jr.
A key, athletic directors agree, is stability within the program. Union has had one coach. Camas has had two coaches in the past 17 seasons. Skyview’s coach has been in place since 2004. And John O’Rourke became the head coach at River in 1994.
Fort, though, has had six coaches since 2000. Hudson’s Bay has had seven since 2002.
“We’re putting some things in place now to keep our coaches there,” Hoffman said. “We think we have two excellent coaches at those schools.”
Sylvester Green, now in his second season at Hudson’s Bay, told The Columbian he wants to be there for decades. Todd Quinsey took over Fort’s program this year, his eyes wide open before accepting the job.
“You treat it as starting a program, not continuing one,” Quinsey said.
He knows it is a long process. Fort Vancouver dressed 27 players last week for a varsity game against Columbia River.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Quinsey said. “The administration has been great, supportive. I’m going to be here a long time and turn this thing around.”
Eagle said quality at the top — athletic director and coach — will attract more athletes, regardless of the economics of a particular area. The more athletes, the easier it is to find those 10 standouts, those 20 others who are committed.
Take Battle Ground for example. Coach Larry Peck is in his fourth season, and this summer the program had its best turnout, consistently, in the weight room. The Tigers, while only 1-4 last season in the 4A GSHL, had their first overall winning season since 2003.
Heritage also it trying to use that template. Jack Hathaway is in his third season as coach.
Still, there are huge gaps between the haves and have-nots in each league.
Football is a numbers game, and dollars can play a big role in the overall numbers.
Athletic directors and coaches in Southwest Washington are vowing not to use economics as an excuse. It is more difficult to compete in some areas, but, they say, it is possible.
Web editor John Hill contributed to this report.