Things were looking up for South Eugene football after it dropped from Class 6A to 5A in 2018 and posted back-to-back 5-4 records, the first winning seasons since 2009.
Now, two years later, the program is struggling to survive.
The Axe were unable to field a team in the spring season, and after a concerted effort to recruit more players during the summer, they will not be playing this fall season, either.
The cancelation of the season left a hole in the schedule for North Bend since the Axe were part of the same special district as the Bulldogs. The teams had been scheduled to meet in the Bay Area on Sept. 24, but that is now an open date in North Bend’s schedule and as a result the Bulldogs have four road games in a row (though one is the Sept. 17 rivalry contest with Marshfield at Pete Susick Stadium).
North Bend beat South Eugene twice in 2018 (the second time in a crossover round for the special district, which had 12 teams then) and once in 2019.
A reshuffling of the football districts left just nine teams in the Class 5A league this year — the same schools as the Midwestern League with the exceptions of North Eugene playing down to Class 4A and South Eugene continuing to play down from Class 6A. Now the district will have just eight teams and South Eugene will hope to be able to resume the sport next fall.
“I don't know if you ever expect it to happen,” South Eugene coach Kenny Koberstein said of canceling the season. “I think we all tried to stay pretty optimistic and work through this, and treat it like a normal season. Probably about three weeks ago, we kind of saw the writing on the wall, and started to try to have some hard conversations.”
When Koberstein took over as coach in 2019, the program had 42 players. He said the number was around 45 in the spring of 2020, but the COVID-19 crisis took a heavy toll. By the time South Eugene prepared to play in the spring of 2021, the program was down to about 22 players, and only three were linemen.
The Axe opted out of the spring season and focused on improving the numbers for the fall. But only 18 registered to play this season, and 11 of them were either freshmen or sophomores. The school has about 700 boys.
“I wouldn't say we didn't see it coming,” said Koberstein, noting that the program had two freshmen in 2019. “We tried really hard to recruit and convince kids to come out. We tried to be in contact with our middle school programs, but it's difficult. We don't have a traditional middle school program. It's a combo with Churchill. We just don't have the numbers to feasibly make football work.”
So how did South Eugene – which often had 80-100 players in the program throughout the middle 2000s – get to this point? There are several factors, according to athletic director Dave Hancock, who is entering his 21st year at the school.
Football has fallen out of favor in the community, in part because of safety concerns. It also is overshadowed by a highly successful boys soccer program that has about 70 players spread across four teams.
The youth football program splintered between Kidsports and Pop Warner in the late 2000s, resulting in many Pop Warner players heading to Sheldon. And South Eugene, which operates at capacity due to the school's sterling academic reputation, has had no room for transfers from within Eugene School District 4J.
“What we miss out on is the kid at Sheldon that's third-string,” Hancock said. “He'd start for us, but he can't transfer in.”
Hancock said there is no easy solution to putting a team on the field again.
“To resurrect this, it's going to have to go a lot deeper than, 'How can we have a team next year?'” Hancock said. “In my opinion, we can't. We're not going to have a team until you get the numbers up that want to come into South and play South football. We haven't had enough for two teams for probably five years. You can't survive on that. We just don't have any feeders.”
Hancock said that when he visits eighth-grade classes to see who is interested in playing football, about 15 or 16 students typically raise their hands.
“And I say, 'Well, are you going to play for the Axe?'” Hancock said. “And it's like, 'No way, man, they're not very good. I'm going to Churchill or Marist or Sheldon.'”
Koberstein said that three players transferred to Churchill in the spring, a contributing factor to South Eugene not being able to field a team. Since the school announced Friday that the team would not play this fall, another player is seeking to transfer.
Koberstein plans on continuing football workouts throughout the fall, but not every day and not with pads. He is down three assistant coaches, two of whom left for other programs in Edmund Rivera (Churchill) and defensive coordinator Derek Brimmer (Springfield).
“We're going to try to provide an enriching experience,” he said. “The plan right now is to try to do some Friday night stuff under the lights. I don't know if we do 7-on-7 with ourselves or we do drills or whatever that might be.
“This is about our seniors. I feel terrible for them. I wish I had more to give them. The kids that we have that are pretty dedicated, those are the ones I feel for the most.”
Hancock talked with the OSAA about the possibility of South Eugene playing eight-man, but it wasn't feasible to do so this fall. The coaches and players also discussed it.
“It was one of those issues where, 'How many of our seniors are going to stick around for that?'” Koberstein said. “It's so late to put together an independent schedule. And travel becomes a huge issue. We would have to play freshmen who have not played football before.”
The future of South Eugene football is murky. The Axe already dropped one classification and might have to do it again. To get back on their feet, it is likely they will have to play an independent schedule.
Is football in danger of going extinct at South Eugene?
“It will unless there's some policy changes,” Hancock said. “There has to be a lot of work done in the middle school.
“It's kind of like everybody was caught at the wheel and said, 'Well, gee, I didn't think this would ever happen.' But it has happened. And it's been happening for several years.”
Editor’s Note: Jerry Ulmer writes for the Oregon School Activities Association on its OSAAtoday platform. For more stories about high school sports in Oregon, visit www.osaa.org.