Low participation in youth leagues could be hurdle down the road

Youth baseball participation throughout the area has been on the decline, and Dunkirk has felt the affects as much as anyone.

What once was a robust program that produced dominant all star teams and fed a constant stream of talent to the high school is now struggling.

Over the past decade, Dunkirk Little League and Babe Ruth has had to drop teams due to lack of participation, which in turn has led to a steady decline of both the varsity softball and baseball teams.

After the age of 12, there is nothing available in the summer for Dunkirk girls and the boys have one 13-15-year-old team with nothing available to 16-18-year-old boys.

“On the softball end, what has really hurt is not having anything available for the girls over 12 years old,” Dunkirk softball coach John Sliwa said. “It’s having an affect on (varsity softball), that’s for sure. We are getting less players that have less skills.”

“The decline in numbers for Little League and the problems we are having with the 13-15 and 16-18 ages is definitely affecting the varsity program,” Dunkirk baseball coach Frank Jagoda said. “The problem that I’m seeing is more from the kids 13-17, but you are also starting to see it with the lower levels as well.”

T-ball is down about 30 players this year while other age brackets are struggling to maintain a decent number of teams.

Parental involvement has also declined. With the responsibility to sign kids up and get them involved falling on the parents, they are the ones who must also shoulder much of the blame.

“A lot of it is the parents aren’t getting the kids out there,” Dunkirk Little League President Gary Haase said. “You don’t see the parents now. Before they were very active in Little League and helping out. There is a core of good ones that still come out and support their kids, but for the most part they aren’t there.”

“If you could get the right group of kids and parents that were enthusiastic about getting their kids involved it wouldn’t be such a drastic decline,” Jagoda said. “Kids at 8, 9 and 10 years old don’t sign up for sports, their parents do.”

Another issue has been the lack of minority involvement. With such a large number of the population being made up of minorities, their lack of participation has hurt every level from Little League to varsity.

“The minority kids just don’t play,” Sliwa said. “We are trying to work on that, but it is a big part of our population and to get those kids in our programs is important to us. At least on the high school level we are starting to get that part of the population back in the mix.”

“We have a large group of minorities and they just don’t have the parental support to come and watch,” Haase said. “That is huge. We have a bunch of them playing in the league, but they just don’t have the parental support. Their parents will come and register them and that is the last you will see of them for the rest of the year.”

The decline in youth baseball and softball participation continues to hurt Dunkirk’s varsity programs.

Both Dunkirk varsity softball and baseball have enjoyed rich histories as successful programs, but in recent years they have seen a decline in quality.

“There is talent out there who just never gets involved in anything,” Sliwa said. “It affects us on the high school level because (starting the coming baseball/softball season) we are a Class A team. But we don’t have the amount of kids trying out that most Class A schools have.

“It was nothing to cut 10 kids on the varsity and 20 kids at the jayvee level,” Sliwa added. “Mario Muscarella (Dunkirk jayvee baseball coach) had to cut more kids his first year than he had kids try out this year. We used to have 30 kids come out every year for softball. Baseball had 50 kids come out.”

Everyone involved is making an effort to curtail the decline in any way possible. Dunkirk Little league hasn’t raised its rate of $40 in eight years and continues to offer youths a variety of services and well maintained facilities.

Jagoda and Sliwa hold multiple clinics and open gym times for kids ages 9 all the way through grade 12.

And while Jagoda has opened the sessions to the entire school, he is only getting six to eight kids to participate.

The numbers simply aren’t there anymore.

This problem isn’t unique to Dunkirk either. The effects are being felt all across the area. Many programs in the area have even had to begin playing inter-league seasons to combat the low numbers.

With seemingly no way to reverse the trend, and the trickle down effect negatively impacting the varsity programs, it would appear that there are tough days ahead for Dunkirk high school athletics.

“I’ve been there for 30 years and our athletic program is not in a good place right now,” Sliwa said. “We had very few winning teams. In team sports there weren’t even many .500 teams. This year was not a good year for Dunkirk athletics.”