FARGO - George Duenas knew small-town football. He had coached other North Dakota high school football teams with small rosters.
But for his first practice as coach of Center-Stanton in the west-central part of the state, 12 kids showed.
"What the heck do I do?" Duenas asked with a laugh. "When you have more referees on the field than players, that's when you know you have issues."
Duenas' team situation illustrates a trend that has longtime high school football fans worried: Participation numbers are falling in a sport that for decades has helped define communities and schools, just like those playing in the Dakota Bowl state championships at the Fargodome on Friday, Nov. 10.
From 2000 to 2016, North Dakota's high school football participation numbers went from 5,024 to 4,062, a 19 percent decline, according to the North Dakota High School Activities Association.
"This won't go away. I hope we find the right solution, but nobody knows what that is yet," said Fargo Shanley head coach Troy Mattern. "I know this is not being ignored, and hopefully we can come up with a solution soon."
Why is it happening?
Duenas, the Center-Stanton coach, said students are less likely to join sports if they have to spend more time in buses just to get to practice every day as well as games in towns farther and farther away.
And as kids drop out of the sport, schools are more likely to form football co-ops, forcing kids to travel more, which causes further decline, Duenas said.
Center-Stanton is one of three 6-man teams in North Dakota. The Wildcats played teams twice during the year and also played teams in Montana to give them enough games.
"We had to go to 6-man to try and save our program," Duenas said. "We had to give it a chance."
Wyndmere-Lidgerwood head football coach Scott Strenge said he could see 6-man football becoming more popular as 9-man teams struggle to find enough players.
Student-athletes may also be participating less in football due to sports specialization, when a student commits himself to one sport year-round, and that sport may not be football. Strenge said kids have to be in multiple sports just to keep rural programs alive.
Mattern said he wants his football players to play other sports to keep them competing.
Fear of concussions may also contribute to the participation decline.
Strenge said concussion-free helmets don't exist, but he and other coaches try to make the most of their budgets to provide the best helmets and equipment to keep the kids protected.
Hillsboro-Central Valley head coach Scott Olsen said injuries are a part of the game, but he's tried to teach his teams proper tackling techniques to avoid head trauma and how to avoid further brain injury if a concussion occurs.
Mattern believes football is as safe as it's ever been, with better coaching education, safer equipment and tougher rules that penalize dangerous hits. But he said he has met with families and players to explain that more football might not be best for a player's future after multiple concussions.
"I'll support the family, whatever they decide," Mattern said. "Living life is far more important than high school football."
Strenge, Mattern and Olsen all said participation on their teams has been at recent highs, and West Fargo head coach Jay Gibson said despite its split with West Fargo Sheyenne about four years ago, each team in the West Fargo school district has about 75 players compared to 90 on one team before the split.
The numbers on those teams are likely factors in helping them reach the Dakota Bowl. Fargo North head coach Adam Roland said greater participation usually leads to more success.
Mattern, who saw Shanley's team grow from 43 players to 70 players this year, recognizes kids are walking away from sports and said he immediately tried to establish Shanley football as an appealing choice.
As for the future of North Dakota high school football, Olsen said he could see more schools in co-ops moving forward. Participation is usually cyclical for his teams, meaning numbers could be up now but might drop soon and then pick back up. But he's not sure how to solve the state's participation drop.
"The people have a lot of pride out here because sports are a big identity of the school," Olsen said. "I hope people stick around."