Mention high school sports, and most folks imagine football stadiums packed with screaming fans. Or maybe basketball, even soccer. But these days, the options have expanded to include such rookie sports as bowling and fencing. And students’ interest in athletics is growing overall: During the 2000-01 school year, 6.6 million kids took part, an all-time high.
Bruce Howard, director of publications for the National Federation of State High School Associations, attributes the growing number largely to female athletes. More diverse options, however, also play a part. As less traditional sports gain popularity, schools add them to their rosters and sometimes attract students who wouldn’t go out for football or other standards. Bowling, for example, “gets a whole new type of individual interested,” observes Howard.
Following are four of the unusual sports appearing in high schools around the country.
Playbook: On a two-by-fourteen-meter (seven-by-forty-six-foot) mat, usually made of metal or rubber, two kids face off using one of three weapons. There are two thrusting instruments: the foil, a thirty-five-inch, flexible blade that weighs less than a pound, and the epee, a stiffer, heavier blade of about the same length. Finally, the saber, similar in size to the foil, is a cutting, as well as a thrusting, sword. Each encounter, called a bout, involves a series of subtle moves occurring so quickly that touches are registered electronically. One touch equals a point; 15 points win.
Season: Fall or winter.
Popularity: Moderate. Six state high school athletic associations report fencing programs, involving a total of nearly 1,800 boys and girls, according to the NFHS. New York and New Jersey boast the greatest participation.
Cost: High. Beginner equipment-jacket, mask, foil, and glove-runs about $150 per kid. A more serious competitor, who also needs pants and electronic scoring equipment, shells out $350 to $400.
Classroom Benefits: According to Rob Madril, moderator of the fencing club at St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico: “The fencer is often required to analyze a situation, come up with a plan, make a decision, and execute it without any assistance from a teammate or coach. . . . [That] translates well in the classroom.”
Playbook: In three-position shooting, the standard for high school competitors, kids shoot 10 pellets each at targets three yards away in the prone, standing, and kneeling positions. One shot is worth up to 10 points, and a perfect score is 300.
Popularity: Moderate. Nearly 3,500 students participate in rifle programs nationwide, says the NFHS. It’s most popular in Georgia, Hawaii, New York, and Pennsylvania, with Georgia boasting more than 900 high school competitors.
Cost: High. The .177-caliber pellet rifles used in three-position shooting go for upward of $1,500. Other gear-including shooting glove, trousers, jacket, and shoes-can cost another $600. Many rifle programs, however, are extensions of Junior ROTC associations, which fund the teams.
Classroom Benefits: “It’s a precise sport,” explains Sid Oliver, the riflery coach at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia. “It requires a lot of concentration.” Last year, six of his eight shooters were honor roll students. And riflery programs take great pains to distinguish sport shooting from violent gun use, says the 33-year veteran of the armed forces. “In the military, we call the pieces we use weapons. In riflery, they are guns and rifles. We make that distinction because we don’t shoot at people.”
Playbook: For four 12-minute quarters (boys) or two 25-minute halves (girls), opposing teams try to outscore each other by running with and passing an eight- inch-round rubber ball between their “crosses,” wooden or synthetic sticks with a net pocket at one end. Boys’ teams consist of three midfielders, who run the whole field; three attackmen, who do most of the scoring; three defensemen; and a goalie. A girls’ team fields five attackers, six defenders, and a goalie. The sport varies drastically for boys and girls: There is little stick or body contact in girls’ lacrosse, making it much less combative than the boys’ game.
Popularity: High. U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, estimates that in 2001, more than 100,000 high school students participated in either school or club teams. The Middle Atlantic states and New England boast the greatest level of participation; New York alone has more than 14,000 high school players. The popularity of the sport is steadily expanding, as well. In 2001, state athletic associations in California, Georgia, Illinois, and Minnesota officially sanctioned lacrosse, and the National Federation of State High School Associations reports a 20 percent jump in the number of high school participants nationwide from 2000 to 2001.
Cost: High for boys; low for girls. Gear-including gloves, helmet, protective pads, and a decent stick-runs about $250 per player, says Mark Flood, coach of the boys’ lacrosse team at West Linn High School in Oregon. The price, however, is less than that for hockey or football. Girls, who require no protective gear, need only a stick, costing $30 to $80.
Classroom Benefits: “There’s more creativity in lacrosse than any other sport,” claims Flood. “That’s what draws a kid with intellect. We’re probably second in the school in GPAs.”
Playbook: There are a variety of bowling formats, but in one of the most popular, each school plays three games, with five kids bowling each time. They earn two points per game for a win and one point for the highest total pins for all three games. At the end of the season, the team with the most points wins the division.
Season: Usually winter.
Popularity: High. According to High School Bowling, a national organization that helps create varsity-level bowling programs, such teams exist in 10 states: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Washington. Another 20 states have club-level teams.
Cost: Low. The approximate cost for maintaining both girls’ and boys’ varsity teams is between $2,000 and $3,000 a year. But many bowling centers provide alleys and shoes free of charge. Plus, there aren’t officials to pay.
Classroom Benefits: According to Terri Thrash, girls’ coach at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, what’s true for all sports is true for bowling: “It makes [students] do better because they have to have a good GPA to participate.”