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Anne Arundel County

Girls' sports power reflects long-term national trend

Lil Shelton sat on a shaded hillside one sunny afternoon this week and watched her beloved Severna Park High School field hockey team prepare to defend its 22nd state high school championship.

When she created the program in 1973, it consisted of 15 or 20 girls scrimmaging many a fall afternoon on the school's front lawn, on a field Shelton had to mow herself.

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Four decades later later, the retired coach looked on as her protege, Ann Andrews, drove 44 toned student-athletes through windsprints, stickhandling drills and shooting exercises on a $1.6 million turf field.

"When we started, we played because it was fun," marvels Shelton, 84. "I had no idea how big this was all going to get."

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Few sports can match the expansion of field hockey in Anne Arundel County. A mere three high schools — all of them private — fielded teams before Shelton began her mission; now virtually every secondary school — including all 12 public high schools — has at least a varsity squad.

But the growth mirrors a striking trend nationwide: The number of girls playing interscholastic high school sports has grown for 26 straight years, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported this month, to an all-time high last year of nearly 3.3 million.

"There's nothing greater than knowing that opportunities continue to increase, that all students have expanding access to the kinds of activities they enjoy," says Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the Indianapolis-based organization, which writes the rules for many high school sports. "That it can increase year by year is a great thing."

Though the annual jump can seem negligible — last year's was by 20,071, or less than 1 percent — viewed through a wider lens, the climb is steep.

Since 1973-1974, the first full school year after Title IX mandated equal access for boys and girls to competitive sports at educational institutions that get federal funding, the number of girls taking part in interscholastic high school sports has grown by more than 250 percent.

Boys' participation has also increased steadily since 1973-1974. That year's roughly 4.1 million participants became more than 4.5 million by 2014-2015, a jump of about 12 percent.

The total number of participants nationwide last year — more than 7.8 million — was also the highest ever.

"This tells us the interest in school-based athletics and activity programs continues to be very strong in the U.S., and that can only be a good thing," Howard said.

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The trends resemble those in Maryland, where the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association has kept close track of participation since the late 1970s.

Last year's total of 48,256 girls was just shy of the record set four years ago. The boys' total of 64,789 was 1 percent lower than the high mark set in 2012-2013. And the ratio of male to female participants — about 57 to 43 percent — was virtually the same nationally and in Maryland.

The number of female participants in the state has more than doubled since 1977-1978, the association said, and boys' figures have jumped by 46 percent during that span.

Andy Warner, executive director of the state association, said the growth indicates a healthier and better adjusted population of high school students in Maryland.

"We think more and more students are aware of the advantages of being active, embracing a healthier lifestyle and becoming part of a group activity, being part of something bigger than yourself," he said. "We want to keep the [increase] going."

Explanations for the trend vary, touching on everything from population growth to better education and more publicity about the benefits of fitness and involvement in community activities.

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The single most significant factor for female athletes, of course, was the passage of Title IX in 1972.

The landmark legislation mandated that any institution that receives federal money must make its benefits equally accessible to members of both sexes.

The impact on girls sports was immediate. School districts that had poured most of their sports resources into boys' games began adding new sports for girls, from volleyball and gymnastics to badminton and tennis, as well as the facilities to support them.

In the first 20 years after Title IX, the number of girls taking part in interscholastic sports jumped by about 72 percent, from about 1.3 million to more than 2.2 million.

The change cut into the male domination of competitive high school sports, which in many places had been all but total.

Mildred Murray remembers growing up in a less hospitable time and place: rural West Virginia in the middle 1940s.

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For a girl who loved softball, basketball and field hockey, she says, those years were painful.

The highlight of her school year, she has said, was playing basketball in the boys' gym, which was far bigger than her usual facility.

"There were no organized varsity athletics for girls to speak of. We were second-class citizens. If we wanted to play games, it was intramural or not at all," she says.

Murray moved to Baltimore County to teach physical education in 1948, and found that there weren't many more opportunites for girls to play interscholastic high school sports. She eventually became coordinator of athletics for the county, and over the next quarter-century became a leading advocate for girls sports in secondary school.

She helped add lacrosse, track and field, tennis and golf to girls' choices in the county, and worked closely with leaders throughout the state to get more funding and better facilties for those and other sports.

When Title IX came along, she said, so did state tournaments, which attracted still more interest from fans and potential players in all corners of Maryland.

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The ratio of male to female participants eventually levelled off to about 57 to 43 percent in the state, where it remains today.

That's fine with Murray, who says it's simply an indication that more boys like playing sports than girls.

"If in a certain school district, there are no girls interested in lacrosse, don't railroad it in. If they come out and are interested, there should be support," she says. "Whatever the numbers are, if anyone wants to be able to play interscholastic sports, they should be able to."

In Maryland, Warner says, growth in total participation can be attributed in part to the growth in the number of member schools in the association from 176 to 200 since 2000.

But when individual programs succeed, he said, it tends to have a snowball effect, as more young people learn about a sport, see its benefits and aspire to take part.

At the Falcons field hockey practice in Kinder Farm Park — the team is using the site while the campus undegoes construction — players and coaches said the effect in Severna Park has been pronounced.

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Junior varsity coach Tracy Atcheson, 44, played for Shelton in the 1980s and helping win a state title in 1988. She says the experience reinforced the value of perseverance, teamwork and dedication — qualities she believes can last a lifetime.

Her daughter Macey, 16, a forward on this year's varsity squad, says she's learning the same lessons from Andrews. But mother and daughter agreed things have changed even since the 1980s.

In Tracy's playing days, they said, simply being a good athlete, listening and working hard might be enough to land you a spot on the team.

But by the time Macey tried out in 2011, there were dozens of new youth rec leagues in Severna Park, all as a result of the excitement the Falcons have generated. If she hadn't begun playing in those leagues at age 8, she said, her chances might have been slim.

Macey made the JV her first and second years, played varsity last year, and could help win a 23rd crown this season with a team that has already seen half a dozen players earn college scholarships.

It all traces back, she says, to the legend who started this tradition decades ago

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"I absolutely love Coach Shelton," she says. She glances in the matriarch's direction and sprints back onto the practice field.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com


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