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You go, girl: Minnesota maintains ranking as No. 1 state for girls sports participation

Girls high school sports is robust in Minnesota, but with the numbers comes much responsibility

The Windom Area Eagles bench celebrates a point against Worthington Trojans in high school volleyball in Worthington in a high school volleyball match. Minnesota continues to lead the nation in high school girls sports participation. (file photo)
The Windom Area Eagles bench celebrates a point against Worthington Trojans in high school volleyball in Worthington in a high school volleyball match. Minnesota continues to lead the nation in high school girls sports participation. (file photo)
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WORTHINGTON -- In the 2021-22 high school school year, Minnesota maintained its status as the No. 1 state in the United States for active girls sports participation. That’s a point of pride for schools, athletic directors, coaches, athletes and parents.

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It’s also a tremendous responsibility, say southwest Minnesota ADs and coaches.

When current Windom Area varsity volleyball coach Crystal Fast was an athlete at WAHS in volleyball, softball and basketball prior to her graduation in 2001, things were not quite the same as they are now. Minnesota still had good participation levels in girls sports then, though it wasn’t until 2011 that it reached the top of the food chain.

“These kids are growing up a lot faster than I ever did. That is because of the expectations put on them, not only in sports but in the classroom and also at home,” Fast said.

It used to be that once the high school sports season was done, girls felt free to move on to something else. But nowadays in the drive to keep up with a heightened level of competition, sports can sometimes become a year-round exercise. So much so, in fact, that Fast said on Monday that she’s prone to feeling sorry for them.

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“They don’t know any better,” she explained.

What? Are today’s girl athletes ignorant of their options? No. Far from it, in fact. They have more options today than they’ve ever had. But for some, the pull toward competitive athletics begins years before they ever get into high school, and, as Fast said, they are born into a world where they are “expected” to play.

That means the responsibilities for schools, coaches and athletic directors -- and parents -- are ever-present.

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James Wajer, the athletic director at Murray County Central High School, said that many younger kids are driven, and by the time they get to high school he feels his job is to stress the educational aspect of sports -- in other words, sportsmanship, fair play, and the idea that losing can be as much of an educational experience as winning.

“I like having our numbers that way, because I like all the lessons being taught,” Wajer said regarding Minnesota’s No. 1 girls sports ranking.

But he is also constantly evaluating what’s being learned. It’s important, he said, to evaluate what a school’s numbers are doing for the athletes. At the lower levels, kids are sometimes trying to run before they walk, and participation numbers can change if competitors stop being challenged in the right way.

“If kids find value in something, the kids are going to go out for it,” Wajer said.

Jackson County Central varsity volleyball coach Deidre Wierson (a 2003 high school grad) moved through a program led by legendary coach Carolyn Hummel, who was a pioneer in girls athletics. Wierson said she’s “super proud” of Minnesota's girls athletic ranking, and she’s also proud of Hummel’s legacy, along with the fact that several former JCC players are continuing to advocate for girls’ and women’s athletics.

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Wierson is an advocate of girls participating in more than one sport, but she’s wary of burnout. She asks questions of her athletes, probing them for evidence in case they become overworked. She reminds them to slow down and to “listen to your body.”

Numbers nearly equal to boys

The 50th anniversary of Title IX legislation, which prohibited sex-based discrimination throughout the United States, will be celebrated on Thursday. Today, for every 100 high school girls enrolled in Minnesota, there are 82 sports registrations. The numbers have grown so much that they are now near boys’ participation rates.

Worthington High School coach Jessica Hogan, who will take over the girls’ varsity basketball team for 2022-23 after leading the volleyball program for many years, believes Minnesota’s sports participation levels correspond to the state’s commitment to education in general.

“Athletics is an extension of the classroom, and Minnesota is a leader in both categories,” she said. “I think Minnesota has always been a leader in equal opportunities, and the MSHSL (Minnesota State High School League) does a good job of providing opportunities for girls sports. By having an exciting section and state tournament, the girls see those special events as motivating factors that they want to be a part of.”

Hogan adds, “It also trickles down from the top. As more professional and college women’s sports are promoted and supported, younger girls see those role models and choose the path of sports for themselves.”

Worthington High School’s AD, Josh Dale, chimes in that high girls’ participation is evident. At WHS, girls grace the weight room in numbers almost identical to their boy counterparts.

Fast pointed out that, in the past, coaches weren’t allowed to work with their school-year athletes in the summertime. But now that that’s changed, there are both pluses and minuses to consider.

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“It’s great to be able to work with the kids one-on-one,” she said. “But as a human, I feel bad for these kids. Obviously if we’re leading the nation, these girls are doing more than one sport. … Obviously, they enjoy it, but they’re so busy. Plus, they have to work.”

The bottom line is, student-athletes have a lot of balancing to do, while at the same time they’re trying to remember what it should be like to be a young person.

“These kids are pulled in a million directions. I know how much we ask of them as coaches. I appreciate the sacrifices they make -- not only them, but also their families,” Fast said.

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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