GREAT FALLS, Mont. — 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."
Alyssa Jonasen is a junior who participates in volleyball, basketball and track at Great Falls High. It's a grind, she said.
"I do think it's tiring, but it's definitely worth it," she said. "It keeps you in good shape. While keeping up with schoolwork can be hard, it always makes you focus and take more responsibility. So I think it prepares you better for life."
Jonasen said she believes there might be an injury risk associated with specializing by competing on travel teams.
"Because you're doing the same thing over and over again," she said. "If you branch out and do the different sports, you can get better and use your athletic skills more."
While the state's sport participation numbers for high school girls are down, it's also true for boys. The most recent available data from the MHSA in comparing the last 10 years indicates percentage declines in most sports, regardless of gender. Girls' track has been the hardest hit, seeing a 20 percent decrease in the last decade.
Of course, there are fewer schools than once was the case. And fewer athletes. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, high school enrollment in the last 10 years has declined 13 percent.
Undoubtedly, though, more youths — especially girls — could be competing for their respective schools than is currently the case.
"They're missing out," Henneberg said. "Being in a competitive situation and being in a community that cares about high school athletics is such a great thing. I think the best part of participation is the enjoyment from playing and participating. I don't know if specialization is taking a little of that away. We have to be so good in one thing that maybe we're missing the point."
And that, he said, is too bad.
"We want our kids out for multiple sports," said Henneberg, who played football, ran track and swam successfully for the Rustlers back in the day. "I don't believe in specialization. I think there's so much to be gained from competing in as many different activities as you can. And competing in something different."
Lindsey Graham achieved great success as a high school athlete in three sports. She played for C.M. Russell High softball and volleyball teams that won state titles and was on highly competitive basketball teams as well. Now the head softball coach at her alma mater, Graham said the decline in participation is distressing.
"It's very sad, and it makes me sad that there's not more three-sport athletes," Graham said. "With technology, there's a lot of things that kids are doing other than sports. I'm not sure they want to work as hard. There's a lot more distractions now."
Graham, arguably the best girls' softball player in state history and a former All-American pitcher at North Dakota State, is sorry that traveling teams have taken such precedence.
"I don't have kids yet, so I don't know what that's going to be like," she said. "But I see a lot of kids giving up on other sports, because they bank on one."
Many of the youths on travel teams do not play Little League these days.
"Now if you're not on a travel team, you're behind it seems like. That's what the mentality is," Graham said. "It makes me sad that it's that way. Some of our best competition when I was playing was in town."
The dearth of girls' athletes at Anaconda hits home for Torry Hill, who graduated from the school five years ago after earning All-State honors in volleyball and basketball. This winter she completed a stellar career as a point guard for the Montana Lady Griz.
"Obviously it's a bummer," she said. "When I was in high school and middle school, our track program was really good. I think in Anaconda it's not necessarily about the travel teams. I think they're not playing a sport just not to play. And that's the bummer part of it."
"I think it's OK if you don't play a sport as long as you're staying active and working toward a goal in another sport," Hill said. "But nowadays it's bad because a lot of girls aren't. It is disappointing. Especially for the community."
Hill's father, Bill Hill, has for many years helped organize elite traveling basketball teams. Torry competed on those, but she wasn't really specializing. She thinks playing multiple sports is the best for young athletes.
"You learn so many life lessons, teamwork and making friends. It just keeps you stay in shape, and it's fun," Hill said. "It's a good way to stay out of trouble. I think people should play multiple sports. Totally."
But it's not really happening at many schools across the state. There is little doubt that Anaconda is feeling the pinch. In the spring of 2013, the girls' track team had six members. Just four this year. The school had to petition the MHSA to allow two eighth-graders to compete in order to field relay teams.
Shawn Hansen is an Anaconda native in his fifth year as Copperheads' athletic director. He said the issue is real and troubling.
"A few years ago, our girls' basketball team won the state championship, but now we're in trouble with that too," he said.
And why are so few girls participating there?
"I don't know," Hansen said. "But I will tell that I've had parents tell me their girls aren't playing basketball because they're specializing in other sports."
Declining enrollment means fewer sports programs and fewer athletes. It's apparently a fact of life in Big Sky Country. When it hits your hometown, it hurts, Hansen said.
"Absolutely it does," he said. "Absolutely."
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com