When Evans Middle head coach Carter Morris held football tryouts earlier this month, his school didn't have enough uniforms for the large number of players.
Some players worked out in football gear while others ran sprints and caught passes without wearing pads. After three days Morris trimmed his team's roster from 80 to 65 - the number of team uniforms.
"I don't think that was the fairest way to do it," Morris said. "The fairest way would've been to suit them all up and practice in pads. But it was not possible."
Columbia County middle schools faced a surge in players trying out for football earlier this month. Leaving no child behind, though, has been a problem.
Five of the seven middle schools, excluding Grovetown and Harlem, were forced to make cuts during the first week of school. Coaches cite a limited supply of lockers and jerseys, lack of transportation and a six-game schedule as reasons for reducing rosters.
"When you have 40 trying out you don't have to cut anybody," said Riverside Middle School head coach Dan King, who trimmed his roster from 68 to 47. "If I had exactly 50 that tried out, I probably wouldn't have cut any of them. We always go through that debate when we talk about numbers and how many we're going to keep. It's a difficult thing."
An influx of pupils the past five years has put positions at a premium. Columbia County middle school enrollment rocketed from 4,074 pupils in 1997-98 to 4,919 this year. The more children, the increased participation.
"I didn't expect to have to cut at the beginning of the year," said Columbia Middle School head coach Tony Kramer, who cut players for the second time in nine years. "It's a football philosophy that you keep everybody that you can. Ideally, I'd love to do that."
Keeping players becomes tough when most middle schools have just three or four coaches. Limited personnel means less personal attention for the individual.
"You don't want them standing around," King said. "We want them to understand what to do and get quality coaching."
Associate Superintendent Charles Nagle of the Columbia County Board of Education said the middle school concept the school system embraced in the early 1990s was to encourage participation.
"In middle school for years we tried not to cut," he said.
Some coaches still try to apply that philosophy. If not for his team's tight purse strings, Morris would've kept everyone. Instead, he made cuts for the first time in three years.
Morris said he tried to retain everyone trying out for football for the greater good of the school, along with having more depth. The more involved the children are, the more well-behaved they are in the classroom.
"We feel like we help out the school as well as the football program by having them out here," he said. "It's a good outlet for them, and we try to teach them discipline."
Harlem High School head coach Jimmie Lewis said he'd like middle school teams to keep as many players as possible, but for another reason. These feeder programs could send a larger talent pool to the four Columbia County high schools - which have a combined total of zero state football championships.
"You've got to get a lot of numbers in middle school," Lewis said. "By the time they graduate (middle school), we don't get half of them."
The odds of a player cut in middle school trying out for his high school team is even less likely, Lewis said.
"If you cut a football player, you're killing that spunk," he said. "If you've got a kid that wants to come out for football, you have a special athlete with special makeup inside."
Middle school coaches say it's easier for high schools to keep more players. High schools have two teams - junior varsity and varsity. In middle school, seventh- and eighth-graders play on one team. Sixth-graders are not allowed to participate in contact sports.
Columbia County high schools also have three times as many coaches as their middle school counterparts, thus reducing the player-coach ratio.
"It gets to be a handful with all those kids out there," said Kramer, who reduced his roster from 75 to 50.
King, Kramer and Morris agree that cut players should not quit football. Some players - who coaches may have overlooked - can still receive a quality gridiron education playing recreation football.
"Kids develop at different ages," Morris said. "A lot of kids don't play in middle school, but end up playing pretty good in high school. And sometimes your best players in middle school never play in high school."
Kramer said: "Just because he doesn't make the team this year, that doesn't mean he can't participate in football ever again."
COLUMBIA COUNTY MIDDLE SCHOOL FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Sept. 3: Riverside at Grovetown, Evans at Columbia, Harlem at Greenbrier
Sept. 9: Columbia at Riverside, Greenbrier at Evans, Lakeside at Harlem
Sept. 16: Columbia at Grovetown, Harlem at Evans, Greenbrier at Lakeside
Sept. 23: Lakeside at Riverside, Columbia at Harlem, Grovetown at Greenbrier
Sept. 30: Riverside at Greenbrier, Evans at Lakeside, Grovetown at Harlem
Oct. 7: Harlem at Riverside, Evans at Grovetown, Lakeside at Columbia
Oct. 14: Riverside at Evans, Greenbrier at Columbia, Grovetown at Lakeside
Note: All games begin at 5 p.m. All Riverside home games held at Greenbrier High School.
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