- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Nine years ago at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls, the girls’ track team from Anaconda clinched a state championship as four athletes combined to win both the 400 and 1600 relays.

Simply assembling a foursome would be a major triumph for the program today.

The Anaconda girls’ program this spring had just four athletes report for opening workouts. Period. The slim turnout, along with slender girls’ numbers at other schools across the state, has the attention of officials who are worried about the future.

“It’s concerning to us,” said Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High School Association. “We’re going to launch an initiative to what we hope will lead to increased participation. Of course that’s in all sports.

“We want to try to make sure that student-athletes aren’t getting caught up in specializing compared to diversifying and competing in multiple sports.”

The sports choices, especially for girls, have increased. Way back when, girls played basketball or ran cross-country in the fall, played volleyball in the winter and went out for track in the spring. When volleyball and basketball flopped seasons, it didn’t affect numbers much.

But there are many more choices these days.

Softball, soccer, golf - even hockey and wrestling - are offered for girls at many places. And not just in high school. The proliferation of club sports, along with “travel teams” that often coincide, is seen by many as barrier to high participation numbers.

“It seems like in the last 20 years it’s gone more toward specialization, but I’d like to see as many of our kids as possible be three-sport athletes,” C.M. Russell High track coach Mike Henneberg said. “I think it makes them better in the long run.”

Beckman said the Anaconda varsity track situation is worrisome. He said more and more schools, even at the Class AA level, are having some trouble fielding junior varsity sports teams this spring.

“It’s very obvious to me. And it’s alarming,” Beckman said. “At Missoula Sentinel, for example, which has a pretty good softball tradition, they only had 11 or 12 out this spring. So they can’t field a JV team.”

The girls have gone elsewhere, it would appear.

“Club sports has a lot to do with it, with athletes specializing, and that’s concerning to us,” Beckman said. “We have to get more information out there for schools to provide their female athletes, emphasizing the values of diversifying sports opportunities. . I just think it’s very important that athletes don’t put all their eggs in one basket.”

The problem isn’t acute in Great Falls.

“I’m not saying our numbers are great, but they haven’t really dropped,” said Gary DeGooyer, athletic director for the public school system. “There are a lot more things for kids to do now, but we still have a lot of athletes involved.”

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