PORT BYRON – With only seven varsity athletes expected to return to their varsity football roster, the Riverdale Rams have canceled their upcoming season.
In a letter to the Port Byron school district households written July 27 by Superintendent Josh Temple, Principal Keith Stewart and Athletic Director and Head Coach Guy Dierikx, the high school “exhausted every avenue possible to maintain the program,” the letter stated. “At this time, none of these avenues is a possibility for the 2022 varsity season.”
The program does have enough players to field a junior varsity team, made up of players from each of the four grade levels. The district, whose high school had 305 students enrolled this past school year, felt that the safety of the players currently in the program was a concern for varsity-level competition, where students typically are juniors and seniors. Current juniors and seniors are eligible to play on the junior varsity level, a situation not possible at Illinois’ larger schools.
“We do not make this decision lightly, and we understand the impact this will have on our student athletes and our community,” the letter continued. “However, our current roster of seven varsity athletes has led us to make this difficult decision.”
High school football participation numbers have declined nationwide since a peak of 1.1 million students played in the 2008-09 school year, with the current number estimated to hover just over 1 million, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Small, rural schools are particularly feeling the bite of low participation. Ashton-Franklin Center and West Carroll high schools are among those in Illinois within 50 miles of Port Byron that have canceled varsity seasons. West Carroll played a junior varsity schedule in the fall of 2021 due to low numbers, but plans to field a varsity team this season. In the spring 2021 season, AFC switched to 8-man football, which has been a staple at small, rural schools in Iowa for decades, and recently has picked up in Illinois.
“As a school district, we believe it is in the best interest of all our student athletes’ safety to not play a varsity schedule,” according to the letter. “Again, this is a difficult decision facing many coaches and administrators across the country as participation numbers in school sports have declined, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic.”
Riverdale’s last winning season was in 2011, when the Rams went 6-4 under coach Nick Schroder; the varsity program is 15-70 since. Riverdale finished 1-8 in 2021, with the lone win coming in Week 9, 28-14 at home over Sherrard. The Rams’ absence from the Three Rivers football schedule is the first such occurrence since 2004, when the River Valley cooperative based at Midland High School in Varna canceled its varsity season.
The cancellation of Riverdale’s varsity schedule forces its opponents to find replacements. The Rams were scheduled to play, starting with the first week of the season, at home against Bureau Valley, at Mendota, at home against Rockridge, at Orion, at home against St. Bede, at home against Erie-Prophetstown, at Monmouth-Roseville, at home against Morrison, then at Sherrard to conclude the regular season. All but the Bureau Valley, Mendota and St. Bede games are Three Rivers Rock Division games.
The official first day of varsity practice was scheduled for Aug. 8.
Depending on the junior varsity number situations at their opposing schools, the Rams’ JV schedule may see some changes. The school is arranging a schedule in the coming weeks. In addition, due to a growing officials shortage, the possibility of scheduling junior varsity games has become challenging, and games could be scheduled for any day of the week.
Participation in the Rams’ feeder football program for its junior high students remain steady, according to the letter. Dierkx confirmed Thursday that there are 25 kids total in the high school program, and the feeder programs saw 50 kids at a recent third-through-sixth grade camp, and 31 combined at the seventh-and-eighth grade levels. As far as the future of the program, Dierikx said Thursday that “all options are on the table to do what we need to do in order to allow our kids to compete on a yearly basis.”
“We will continue to play a JV schedule in hopes of developing our athletes by giving them an opportunity to participate,” the letter concluded. “We are working on a modified schedule, and we ask for your patience and flexibility as we work with several area schools to create a new schedule.”
Continue to watch this story for updates.