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Pop Warner offers to tackle cutbacks in youth football

Rogue Valley Pop Warner will expand its middle-school football program this fall after Jackson County's public middle schools decided to do away with sports programs to save money.

Ashland, Central Point and Eagle Point school districts have announced the elimination of school-sponsored sports at middle schools, and Medford and Phoenix-Talent school districts are expected to follow suit. The districts face millions of dollars in budget cuts next year due to a $3 billion state revenue shortfall.

"We offered middle-school football last year, but we didn't push it," said Greg Reeser, commissioner for Rogue Valley Pop Warner Football.

"We had one team of seventh- and eighth-graders in the Phoenix-Talent area," Reeser said. "The difference this year is the middle schools announced the fact they're dropping the program. After they made that announcement, we decided to pursue the seventh and eighth grade expansion."

The decision by large Jackson County public middle schools effectively means the end of the Southern Oregon Middle School Conference. Middle schools such as Sacred Heart School will continue to participate, but without the public schools the competition will be dramatically reduced.

Pop Warner will fill a void in middle-school football. The league expects to double in size as a result of the expansion, Reeser said. The league currently has 36 football teams in six associations, divided by region. Students in grades 2-6 play on the teams. After the expansion of the middle-school program, the number of teams could multiply to 72 with up to 1,600 kids.

"That capacity is going to necessitate a lot of things," Reeser said. "We are going to need more venues. We are going to need to double our volunteer staff at the six associations in the valley in addition to the coaches for the additional teams."

Volunteer coaches have to take a four-hour online course plus practical training on the field, the latter of which is determined by each association.

Some of the drawbacks in replacing a school program with an outside league is additional costs to students and lack of transportation.

It costs between $100 and $175 per season to participate in Pop Warner, depending on which association the student belongs to, and transportation to and from games is not provided, Reeser said.

But some schools have thrown as much support as they can afford behind the program.

"Ashland is on board," Reeser said.

Ashland Middle School will contribute existing uniforms and field space for Pop Warner's middle-school program in the Ashland area.

"Ashland Middle School would like to maintain strong contact between the school and the team," Reeser said. "They want to keep the team colors and want to have the games on the home field. Other schools may have less of a connection with us in that they may not want to have the program at their fields because they would have to maintain the fields, in which case we would use the high-school fields."

Reeser said his organization will meet with officials in the Medford and Eagle Point districts to determine how to tailor the middle-school football programs for those areas.

Medford is still undecided on whether to hand over middle-school sports to community groups such as Pop Warner and Kids Unlimited or whether to have a Medford district league in which Medford's two middle schools would compete against each other. However, Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long has been meeting with community sports groups to gauge their willingness to operate programs.

Tom Cole, director of Kids Unlimited, said he and Long met Thursday to discuss the potential for sending more Medford students to Kids Unlimited's basketball program, but there's no timeline for when Medford might make a decision.

Other groups that could play a potential role in providing middle-school sports include the YMCA, Rogue Valley Soccer Club, MAT Club and Little League.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.