By Andy Colbert
What does Oregon Athletic Director Mike Lawton see as the biggest challenge facing his school’s sports programs?
“We’re the smallest public school in an insanely good conference,” Lawton said. “This isn’t your grandfather’s Blackhawk or old Big Northern (conference). Talent and enrollment-wise, we’re definitely playing with the big boys and girls, especially in football and basketball.”
Lawton sees two major factors in Oregon’s favor, though.
“The first thing we have working to our advantage are the facilities we have,” Lawton said. “We can match anyone in the conference at that level. The other is participation.”
A defined goal by the high school administration is to have high participation numbers and to specifically focus on the freshman group to instill this notion. Studies done by OHS staff have shown that kids involved in extra-curricular activities have higher GPAs than those not involved.
“Our goal last year was to have 80 percent of the freshman involved in something, whether it was a sport, band, scholastics or any other activity,” Lawton said.
Oregon met its goal with an 81 percent for the freshman. The sophomores were about the same at 82, the juniors 75 and seniors 71 percent.
“It’s a two-way benefit,” Lawton said. “They become more well-rounded in their high school experience and as a school, we can be more competitive in sports.
Overall, 39 students were 3-sport athletes, 95 were 2-sport and 141 out for one sport. With a total of 275 kids out for at least on sport, that is over half the student population, a figure Lawton is satisfied with.
“However, the denominator (actual enrollment) gets lower and lower,” a pragmatic Lawton said. “It’s projected to drop until 2017, level off and slowly rise again.”
For Oregon to remain competitive in the BNC, it is indeed imperative that participation numbers remain strong. But, with today’s culture of club sports, Hawk athletics have taken a hit.
“Obviously, if a child and their family feel devoting all their time on one sport as means for a college scholarship, we have to support them,” said Lawton, careful in how he phrased the comment. “Our preference, though, is to have as many kids in school-sponsored activities as possible. Our coaches need to keep kids involved and try to secure multi-sport athletes.”
“Low enrollment is a challenge for our coaches and sports like cross country, wrestling and track, that demand hard, physical work can also be challenge for participation,” Lawton added. “It’s a cultural thing, not just at Oregon, but as schools all over with the advent of social media. Instead of wanting to be on a team for socialization purposes, kids can do this in other ways.”
Another concern for the athletic department is decreased attendance at sporting events. Compared to 10-15 years ago, the crowds at basketball and football have declined, partially due to declining enrollments.
“Besides having less students, there are more and more families struggling economically,” Lawton said. “More than 50 percent of our students are on free/reduced lunches. Families might be working or can’t afford to attend every sporting event.”
Another change is society is difficulties in getting people to join organizations, like a school’s booster club. Genoa-Kingston, a BNC school larger than Oregon, recently disbanded theirs, for lack of interest.
“We have a new group coming on that is actively seeking members,” Lawton said. “They have a lot of good ideas that want to put into play.”
One negative aspect of today’s prep landscape that Oregon appears to be immune to is the uncertainty of conference alignment. For decades, the Hawks have enjoyed mutually beneficial rivalries with nearby Byron, Stillman Valley and Winnebago.
“Those rivalries go across generations,” Lawton said. “All four schools have decided to stick together for the long haul. All for one, one for all is how we feel.”
Lawton is also excited about his alma mater Dixon joining the BNC the upcoming year. Add Rock Falls and Mendota into the mix and Oregon is a geographic center, allowing for less travel.
“Our crowds are always better when we play Byron, Stillman and ‘Bago,” Lawton said. “With how close Dixon is to us, I think it will be the same.”
“Plus, we host so many events and post-season tournaments, that our kids have a pronounced home-field advantage,” Lawton said. “With our facilities, other schools like coming here.
“It’s a real benefit, not just competitively and financially for Oregon, but serves as an economic engine for the community. When you have dozens of schools here, that brings money into the town.”