Editor's note: This column was written before high school activities associations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota decided to cancel winter season tournaments.
If you’re from a rural area or small town, you know support for high school sports runs deep. In this tournament time of year, everyone is a fan and the stands fill up with a single-digit admission price for the games.
Communities bleed school colors and pride. Those who can’t make the game tune in on the radio, television and read post-game recaps online or in the newspaper.
In most parts of small-town America, there are no tryouts or cuts. The desire to play means you make the team. When a school is short on players, it co-ops with a nearby town to create a full team. The resiliency creates a small-town sports advantage.
Most rural and small-town kids play multiple sports to develop their skill set, contribute to different teams and be a part of a rural tradition and culture that is greater than themselves. You might never be the teammate who makes the winning shot to advance to the state tournament. You might be the team that goes an entire season without winning a single game. But a small-town sports advantage means your teammates and coaches will be there again for you next season. In the off-season for one sport, they’re your teammates again for the next sport.
Don’t believe me? How many basketball players this month are jumping right into track, baseball, softball or golf practice? I don’t know the exact number but it’s a lot.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, for the first time in 30 years, high school sports participation declined in 2018-2019. Eleven-man football and boys and girls basketball took the biggest hits.
I hope small-town sports see a renaissance of growth. It builds up a next-generation with teamwork and leadership skills, but it also builds our rural communities, rallying one another to support a team. We fill gymnasiums. We gather together at pep rallies. We drive hundreds of miles sometimes to get to the regional and state tournaments to support our teams and coaches.
You never have to play in a state tournament or win a championship to experience the advantage of small-town sports.
Our son played in the regional tournament for four varsity seasons, earning second, third and fourth-place finishes, but never advanced to the state tournament. My husband can still replay in great detail how his high school team lost with five seconds left to come up short for a shot at the state tournament. The year before I played varsity basketball, my high school team played in the state tournament. I never made it that far. The year after my sister and one of my brothers were done with high school, their basketball teams played in the state championship game. In 1972, my dad’s high school basketball team, the Fort Yates Warriors, were undefeated, averaging more than 100 points a game, with no three-pointers, in North Dakota Class A boys basketball. As some of you still remember, the Warriors lost in the first round of the state tournament. The details of the upset have been recorded in a sports history book and still frequent conversations almost 50 years later. In 1973, the Fort Yates Warriors won the state championship in a heroic fashion, after my dad had graduated from high school and was at the University of North Dakota.
Our daughters are 10 and 12 years old. Their brother has been doing “starting lineups” with them, introducing them with the fanfare of a sports announcer since they could walk. It’s their dream to play for a small-town team in a state tournament. But if they never do, I know their lives will be enriched because they had the opportunity to be a part of a community, a small school and teams that build them up for their future in a way that’s only possible in rural areas.
The wins and losses don’t matter as much as the team camaraderie. Sure – there are exceptions to the experiences I’ve shared, but the good of small-town sports far outweigh the negative.
Small-town sports give us an advantage in life, whether we’ve been a part of a team or simply a fan in the stands. The experience of small-town sports builds a sense of community, team spirit and a willingness to serve one another for a greater cause.
For the first time this winter, my husband and I will get to spend the weekend with our daughters in North Dakota. Can you guess our daughters’ sole request for the weekend? Take them to Bismarck, N.D. for the state Class B boys basketball tournament. As I write this, the regional championships have not been played. But we’re going, whether we have a team in the tournament or not. We’re fans in the stands for small-town sports, kids, families and communities.
Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.