A wee turnout for Pee Wees

Third-year Pee Wee football player Carson Zajonc fits his helmet after conditioning camp Thursday evening. There are quite a few more helmets to go around this year, as younger players for the “C” and “D” teams have yet to turn out. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Third-year Pee Wee football player Carson Zajonc fits his helmet after conditioning camp Thursday evening. There are quite a few more helmets to go around this year, as younger players for the “C” and “D” teams have yet to turn out.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

At Thursday evening’s Pee Wee Football conditioning camp, the older “A” and “B” team squads are making a thunderous noise, pumping out jumping jacks in unison while spelling “Bainbridge” at the top of their lungs.

Across the Strawberry Hill Park field, a small group of younger players are working on the same calisthenics, but the jumping and clapping and shouting sounds more like a rain shower than thunder.

It’s not for lack of effort -- the 7 through 10 year-olds are just as excited to be playing this season -- and individually, are as vociferous as their senior Pee Wee counterparts.

But the numbers just aren’t there, and that has troubled Bainbridge Island Pee Wees president Earl Johnson since the county-wide Pee Wee Football organization restructured the “A” through “D” team groupings last month.

“The D-team only had three kids on Wednesday,” said Johnson. “The middle age groups are pretty well-represented, but it’s not just Bainbridge. This is happening county-wide.”

Today, there are four more D-teamers ready to play some football -- but seven players do not a Pee Wee team make.

In previous seasons, players were assigned to teams loosely based on size, weight, age and playing experience. A strapping 155-pound 12-year-old would more than likely not play on the same team as a wiry 85-pound 12-year-old, for obvious reasons.

This year, the age brackets are divided in two-year increments with minimum and maximum weight limits imposed for each group, and that change is excluding some potential football-playing youngsters.

Seven and 8 year-olds make up the “D” team, 9 and 10 year-olds comprise the “C” team, the “B” team is 11 and 12 year-olds and kids ages 13 to 14 play on the “A” team.

With such a spartan turnout of younger players, Johnson says he may not even be able to field a “D” team for this season.

“And that would really be unfortunate,” he says.

While the majority of communities in Kitsap County have junior-high football programs, Bainbridge has relied exclusively on Pee Wees to feed the demand for up-and-coming prep football players.

Under the previous Pee Wee rules, a heavier player over the weight limit for his category could play “up” one level, to even the playing field for all teams. Younger players who developed more quickly than others physically would play with kids their own size and weight, but not necessarily their own age.

“Now,” said Johnson, “the heavier kids don’t get to play, and once they get to high school they haven’t played four years of football. It’s a disadvantage.”

Other programs in Kitsap County -- Chico, Silverdale and North Kitsap -- regularly field junior high teams with no restrictions on weight limit, which affords larger players the opportunity to continue taking to the gridiron at a competitive level of play.

But while the prospect of a Bainbridge junior high team feeding the high school football program is appealing, it might not help much with the Pee Wee drought.

The organization has seen something of an exodus throughout the rest of the county, with older players opting for more “glamorous” junior high football play in lieu of Pee Wees.

“They want to wear that jersey, even though they might be on a 60-man roster and only play five minutes a game,” Johnson said. “They could play every minute of every game in a Pee Wee program if they wanted to.”

Johnson also worries that parents of 7 and 8 year-olds might have the wrong idea when it comes to the physicality of a contact sport like Pee Wee football, or they might not even know it’s an option for their younger kids.

Bainbridge High School head football coach Andy Grimm agrees.

“It’s just not really in people’s mindset,” said Grimm, whose son plays on the Pee Wee “C” team. “Especially with their 7 and 8 year-olds.”

And with the draw that island baseball, soccer and lacrosse teams have, it’s not surprising that football is sometimes overlooked -- despite the success island Pee Wee teams have had in recent years.

But Johnson remains optimistic, and reinforces the positive qualities that organized sports as a whole can bring to island youth -- and he hopes a few more kids will turn out at Strawberry Hill before the Aug. 19 team roster deadlines.

“We run a fun, safe, healthy environment, and the younger kids get positive reinforcement from the older ones.” Johnson said.

“And we’ve got the equipment and great coaches,” he adds. “We’d love to get 25 more kids out here.”

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