On the eve of the new high school football season in Nebraska, the numbers aren’t encouraging.

Since 2003 the state’s high school enrollment has grown about 1 percent but football participation has declined 13.8 percent — from 14,544 in 2003 to 12,541 in 2016.

The state also is in the middle of a two-year scheduling cycle, when teams can’t change whether they’re playing 11-, eight- or six-man football or create new cooperative-sponsorship teams with neighboring schools.

Four schools — Omaha Brownell Talbot in 11-man and Omaha Christian, Stapleton and Creek Valley in eight-man — have dropped varsity football this season for lack of numbers. Other teams hope to get through the season without forfeiting.

Sumner-Eddyville-Miller has 12 boys on its roster for eight-man. At least five are freshmen.

Sioux County has eight players — that’s every boy in the school — on its roster for six-man.

Madison, a Class C-1 school, has 28 out for its 11-man team. The Dragons have scheduled eight-man competition for their junior varsity and middle school games.

Schools larger than Madison have inquired to the NSAA about whether in the future they can drop from 11-man to eight-man.

Officials in small schools, especially school board members, have to be realistic in the next couple of months when deciding what level of football — 11, eight or six — is best for their students. Or whether their school needs to seek a cooperative-sponsorship agreement with another school.

Some advice: Don’t rely on the size of the incoming freshman class in the decision process. Even in six-man, few ninth-graders are physically able to never leave the field against stronger and more developed older players. If they get manhandled on the field and hurt, they may punt on the sport.

The Nebraska School Activities Association has approved classification changes for football that take effect in 2018. The NSAA likely will ponder this school year whether eight- and six-man can stay on a two-year scheduling cycle. The topic is a discussion-only item Wednesday on the agenda for the NSAA board’s first meeting in 2017-18.

Reversals in the declines of rural-school enrollments and football participation in general are unlikely. So to keep the stadium lights on, sound decisions on the local level must be made and the NSAA membership willing to accept change for the benefit of the sport statewide.

Athlete of the week

Starting next week, fans can vote for the Family Fare High School Athlete of the Week.

Each week through next spring, our staff will choose five noteworthy athletes — football and otherwise — for an online vote on Monday and Tuesday that determines the weekly winner. He or she will be featured in that week’s Friday edition.

Look for the first set of nominees on Monday.

From the notebook

» Omaha Creighton Prep and Omaha Westside are selling advance tickets for their season opener Friday night at Westside. Tickets will be sold during school hours Wednesday and Thursday and until noon on Friday. Metro Conference ticket prices remain $6 for adults and $4 for students.

» Corrections to Sunday’s season preview section include Tom Van Haute as Omaha Gross coach and defensive lineman Alex Williford now at preseason No. 2 Omaha North, where he was last fall, and not No. 7 Lincoln High, which he attended last spring.

Reporter - High school sports

Stu is The World-Herald's lead writer for high school sports and for golf. Follow him on Twitter @stuOWH. Phone: 402-444-1041.

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