Now in his seventh season as head girls basketball coach at Waterville Senior High School, one thing has been a constant for Rob Rodrigue. Each season with the Purple Panthers, Rodrigue deals with a shortage of players.

“We’re at 12 strong,” Rodrigue said when asked how many players are in the Waterville girls basketball program — which includes varsity and junior varsity teams — this season.

Low participation numbers aren’t a problem exclusive to Waterville. Around the state, high school basketball programs are dealing with fewer players trying out for the teams. With the regular season set to begin Friday, St. Dominic Academy of Auburn announced earlier this week it would play a junior varsity schedule only in boys basketball. The Saints have just seven players. Also this week, Greater Portland Christian of South Portland canceled its girls basketball season, citing a lack of players. Last week, Islesboro canceled the boys basketball season due to a lack of participation.

Lack of participation isn’t a new problem for some area basketball coaches. Now in her sixth season as head girls basketball coach at Winslow, Lindsey Withee said it’s an issue she’s dealt with each season. Withee’s Black Raiders have 17 players currently in the program, up two from early practices after two players recently returned to the team. That’s three more players than Withee’s low of 14 two years ago.

“It makes me worried about where the program is headed. We graduate five seniors,” Withee said.

Withee graduated from Nokomis Regional High School in 2003. She can’t recall the Warriors ever dealing with a shortage of players when she was in the program.

“We had almost too many players,” Withee said.

Why are fewer student-athletes playing high school basketball, and how can schools reverse the trend? There are no simple answers the either question.

To a small extent, the drop has to do with injuries. For example, Rodrigue has two players he expected to be with the team out with ACL injuries. Others elect to change sports. At Winslow, Withee lost a few players who decided to join the indoor track and field team. Withee said she supports their decision to pursue another sport.

Basketball has increasingly become an almost year-round activity. With summer teams a big part of program development, some athletes may feel like they cannot make the commitment to be part of the team.

“You have to be willing to put the time in and improve to be successful,” said Rodrigue, who lost two players to knee injuries and had three more decide not to come out for the team this season. “It’s been a seven-year fight for me. It’s hard work, and I think kids struggle with that… There’s a change in kids interests, I think. Kids are doing a lot of things. They have more options.”

Some athletes simply have to make a choice, basketball or an after-school job.

“I have kids say ‘I can’t play coach. I need to work,’ and I feel for them,” Withee said.

Skowhegan girls basketball coach Mike LeBlanc has 19 players in his program, up from 15 when he became Skowhegan’s coach two seasons ago. LeBlanc has just eight full-time varsity players, with others splitting time between varsity and JV.

“We run quite a bit and conditioning-wise, I don’t think a lot of kids want to do it,” LeBlanc said.

Added Rodrigue: “It’s a big investment to get the time in. We’re getting kids who struggle to understand how to work on something. A lot of kids don’t get that it’s important just to be on the basketball team.”

Rodrigue said in recent years, he’s seen travel basketball and AAU programs trend younger. Where third- and fourth-graders once played in local rec leagues, where they learned and developed basketball skills, many are now playing on travel squads instead — or both.

“AAU bottlenecks the talent pool,” Rodrigue said. “Now we’re making cuts in third and fourth grade.”

Withee said she hopes kids who might be late bloomers aren’t dismissing themselves at an early age. For those with less experience or ability, a sub-varsity team can be the right fit, if they’ll give it a try.

“Life is a marathon. Four years is a long time to a teenager. I just wish they’d be more patient,” Withee said.

A longtime coach, LeBlanc said he sees fewer athletes ready to accept lesser roles for the good of the team.

“They don’t like to be the first or second off the bench. They want to be the leading scorer,” LeBlanc said. “They don’t want to take their role seriously. I feel it’s very important to be those role players.”

For those who do make the commitment to joining the team, the coaches agreed there is more to be gained than playing time.

“There’s no other place in the school we can teach them perseverance, teamwork, life skills, grown up skills they’ll use,” Rodrigue said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: TLazarczykMTM

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