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Surrey leads the way in post-pandemic rebound for B.C. school sports numbers

B.C.-wide there were 3,526 football players in schools, in line with the sport’s 10-year average
Tyson Galye of Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers, in green, evades a Sullivan Heights Stars tackler to score a touchdown during an exhibition football game at the Cloverdale school on Sept. 8. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

As the largest school district in B.C. by numbers, Surrey represents nearly 10 per cent of all enrollment in school sports in the province.

The latest stats show that of the more than 117,000 registrations across B.C. last school year, a total of 11,412 student-athletes registered to play a sport in Surrey.

Showing an 18 per cent jump in province-wide registrations from 10 years ago, figures from BC School Sports reveal a “remarkable” increase in student-athlete participation during the 2022-2023 academic year, according to Jordan Abney, the organization’s executive director.

After the pandemic shut down school sports from March 2020 until September 2021, there were concerns about the resiliency and sustainability of those activities, so Abney is thrilled with the post-pandemic rebound.

He said the 450 BCSS member schools put renewed emphasis on physical activity, inclusion and engagement in the 19 sports overseen by the Burnaby-based organization.

“During the pandemic school sports were basically shut down for seven months, full stop, there was nothing,” Abney noted. “I think that really created a bit of a, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ type situation. And I think it kind of showed not just the kids, but the schools, how important it is — not necessarily the winning and losing, but just the impact sports have on the school communities and the student body at large.”

BCSS member schools fielded nearly 400 more teams in 2022-23 than in 2021-22, or 8,858 of them, a 26 per cent increase from the number of teams 10 years ago.

Many of the team sports rebounded first in 2021-22, Abney said, but it was the individual sports that drove growth this past year, with an 18-per-cent increase in track and field, breaking over the 10,000 participants mark. Other increases included 27 per cent more participation in aquatics and 44 per cent more in mountain biking. Boys volleyball saw the greatest increase this year in team sports, with 79 more teams fielded across the province.

“What I’ve seen is schools making a bigger effort to get programs off the ground because there’s been some interest, to find a way to make it happen,” Abney explained. “And there’s also expansion of sports, like, ‘We’ve always had one basketball team, but, you know, we always end up cutting 15 kids so why don’t we have a second team, too,’ that sort of thing.”

“So that’s added capacity, they’ve added new teams, new sports,” he added. “I think, you know, the students have asked for it and the schools, in a lot of cases, have kind of found a way and responded to say, ‘You know, we’re gonna make this happen.’”

The school sports year starts with football, a game introduced to Surrey’s Sullivan Heights Secondary six years ago, prior to the pandemic shutdown.

Head coach Gord Randall says interest in football is strong for the varsity team, but not the junior ranks.

“I’m optimistic, but we have some work to do still,” Randall said. “With our numbers, I haven’t noticed a noticeable downtick, it really just depends on the cycle, like it often does. Some groups are bigger than others, and this varsity group is on the back of a pretty big group that was in Grade 10 last year moving up. That’s kind of been the backbone of the roster here.”

Randall says he’s pleased with the progress of the football program at Sullivan Heights, where recruiting players can be a challenge.

“It still feels like it’s very much a community where there are some people that get football, and some people who don’t,” he said. “And so despite the fact that our school is massive, our effective pool to recruit kids from can be kind of small. We have some new-immigrant families that don’t know much about the sport who go, ‘That looks rough and dangerous and I’m worried about my kid playing it, and I don’t know.’ So just demographically I wonder if that will ever truly change at our school. That’s part of the challenge we have.”

B.C.-wide there were 3,526 football players in schools, in line with the sport’s 10-year average.

“The 10-year average for the number of (football) teams is 124,” Abney noted, “and last year we had 105, so that’s fewer teams, which is likely fewer schools offering football. But then the schools who do are having bigger rosters, having more kids play. For us it hasn’t been a sharp decline in football numbers that we’ve seen in some areas of North America. I think that’s because of safety measures we have put in place — you know, our coaches are all tackle-certified, they’re all concussion-certified. We try and really create a safe environment.”

Sports under the banner of BC School Sports include football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball, aquatics, cross country, basketball, curling, wrestling, skiing, snowboarding, badminton, golf, rugby, tennis, ultimate, mountain biking and track and field.

In Surrey, the most popular school sports include basketball, volleyball and soccer.

“They’ve got large rosters and most schools will have multiple teams, with girls, boys, junior, senior,” Abney said of the Surrey stats.

“Their schools do a good job in Surrey,” he added. “They’re pretty good at supporting their athletic directors better than most school districts, which is nice to see. Athletic directors are, you know, criminally under-supported, pretty much across the province, but Surrey is one of those doing more, and I think as a result you’re seeing the benefits of that with the schools, you know, they have a little bit more time because of that support. As a result, the programs are stronger, they’re more sustainable, they’re able to offer more because of that leadership that is available, because of support they provide.”

In B.C.-wide registration numbers for all sports, gains were lower in most female sports, and significantly higher in boys’ sports.

Other figures of note include the 25,559 student-athletes who participated in more than one school sport in the 2022-23 year, a 7.3-per-cent increase from 2021-22. “This demonstrates how critical school sport is for many youth as it provides the majority, if not the entirety, of their organized sport participation,” Abney said.

More volunteer coaches are needed, and he encourages anyone who may be interested to reach out to the local school and see where they can help fill a need.

Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news for Surrey Now-Leader and Black Press Media
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