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High school sports

Spring high school sports are back, but participation numbers have taken a hit

After 22 months of not playing high school lacrosse, the Medfield boys' lacrosse team was practicing under the lights Wednesday night.
After 22 months of not playing high school lacrosse, the Medfield boys' lacrosse team was practicing under the lights Wednesday night.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

This past week, high school athletes across the state enthusiastically returned to the diamonds, fields, and courts for the first time in two years after the cancellation of the 2020 spring season because of COVID-19.

But as athletic directors and coaches quickly learned at the start of tryouts, it was not a mad dash. The participation level has been lower than anticipated.

ADs from a number of schools — public, private, vocational/technical, charter, urban, and suburban — are finding that students are opting out of spring sports, unlike the fall, winter, or Fall II seasons. It is an unexpected drop.

“Our numbers are down, especially on the boys’ side,” said St. Mary’s of Lynn AD Jeff Newhall, who is also the girls’ basketball coach. “We had an 80-100-student increase in enrollment this year, but to see a drastic reduction in athletes was a surprise. In the fall and winter, numbers didn’t fall as much.”

Haverhill AD Tom O’Brien said participation numbers are down in certain sports.

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“We are not able to field a JV boys’ lacrosse team, a freshman baseball team or a freshman boys’ volleyball team. We typically have those teams on an annual basis,” he said.

Those programs are not alone.

Burlington AD director Shaun Hart said numbers are down across the usually robust Middlesex League. At his school, the numbers for track and field are half the norm.

At St. Mary’s, it’s a Lynn staple — baseball — that’s taking a hit. The freshman squad didn’t have enough numbers to proceed, along with JV lacrosse. Boys’ tennis has just enough players to start a season.

Why are students and families opting out? The reasons vary. One is obvious: remote learning remains, either because not every high school has returned students to the classroom or families have opted to keep students home.

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Though the Commonwealth wants high schoolers back to in-person learning by May 17, there will be students who opt to remain remote and schools who receive waivers. When students aren’t in the classroom, it can create barriers to getting to practices and games.

Randolph AD Tony Price cites that as a factor for his programs, especially baseball, softball, and tennis.

“Our overall participation numbers are down,” said Price in an e-mail. “A few of them remain remote learners, and the cancellation of last year’s spring season had an impact. I think you’ll find a few urban schools that are facing this challenge.”

Price hit on another reason: a lack of interest due to the lack of a 2020 season. If a student’s spring sport is not their dominant sport, or if they have no way to practice it outside of school, they may have now gone two years without putting the work in.

In some districts, the economic realities of the pandemic have student-athletes opting out. Teenagers’ part-time jobs have become key to their family’s income, which leaves little time for other pursuits.

Another reason for lower participation is the result of the very reason ADs thought numbers would be up: a full state tournament.

The MIAA paved the way for the first postseason in a year, but the guidelines have mitigated much of the excitement surrounding it. It’s an open tournament, allowing any team to opt in by June 2, regardless of record. If a team goes on a deep run, it could be playing until July 3.

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“Can you just imagine what this will look like if every girls’ lax team opts in?” asked first-year Gloucester girls’ lacrosse coach Manny Lopes. “We could be playing into July or playing every day in June. It’s going to be interesting.”

For underclassmen committed to a summer club team, or for those who work summer jobs, the decision on a statewide tournament (made in late March) may have come too late for them to change plans.

Or those plans could be more in line with their future, especially if they involve a sport they are trying to play in college.

The late start to the season and late postseason has especially deterred seniors. St. Mary’s holds graduation before Memorial Day, just two weeks into this spring season. “My seniors have 20 days left of school,” said Newhall.

“Seniors really don’t want to play because of how late the season started and how long it will go past graduation,” said Lopes. “I have a total of 17 players, no seniors.”

But not every senior has opted out. In Ipswich, Jack Wile will suit up for one final baseball season, though he was on the fence due to the odd schedule and the lack of a break between football and the spring season.

“I felt like it was important for me to play a spring sport this year because I have played baseball since I was little,” said Wile. “It’s my last season of high school sports ever.”

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And while some of this year’s seniors are opting out, some of last year’s are opting in.

In Medfield, 2020 graduate Jack McCordic will be with the boys’ lacrosse team — as a assistant coach.

“While I’ll never get the chance to play for Medfield again, being a coach is the next best thing,” said McCordic, who led the Warriors in scoring as junior in 2019. “I know this team has what it takes and I want to help them achieve the goal we’ve had in mind for almost two years now. Winning this [Division 2] state championship would mean so much to our MedLax family. To me, it almost counts as double.”

Craig Larson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nate Weitzer contributed to this report.