The Cape Elizabeth High girls’ basketball team lines up for the national anthem prior to its final game on Feb. 7 at Lake Region High in Naples. The Capers finished the season with just nine healthy players and were unable to field a junior varsity team this winter. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Getting through games was difficult for the Cape Elizabeth High girls’ basketball team this winter. Practices were a challenge, too.

There were only 10 players on the Capers’ roster, and one of them was sidelined by an injury suffered in the preseason.

The team couldn’t practice 5-on-5. At times, Coach Chris Casterella had to join the players to fill the void. It was difficult to pull off full-court, up-tempo practices designed to simulate the pace of games.

“When we get in games, it’s harder to go up and down because we’re not used to it in practice,” senior forward Olivia Manning said late in the season. “My teammates and I, we find ourselves playing almost 30 minutes (of 32 regulation minutes in a high school game). It’s tiring.”

The lack of players is not limited to Cape Elizabeth, which had 22 players in its program as recently as four years ago. The decline in roster sizes has led to developments that would have been unthinkable in girls’ basketball not long ago.

On the eve of this season, Massabesic High in Waterboro – one of the largest schools in the state – opted to drop its varsity schedule because it had only 11 players, three of whom were injured. Lisbon High has been unable to field a varsity team for two seasons; its eight players played a junior varsity schedule this winter. Cape Elizabeth, Freeport and Kennebunk were among high schools unable to field sub-varsity teams because of low numbers.


As teams and fans head to arenas across the state this week for the annual basketball tournament – the marquee event of the interscholastic sports calendar – girls’ basketball is among the high school sports in Maine experiencing a sharp decline in participation in the past decade. In the 2012-13 school year, 3,039 girls played basketball on varsity, junior varsity or freshman teams. Ten years later, the number dropped to 2,417 – a decline of 20.5%. By comparison, boys’ basketball participation in Maine was down 7.3% over the past 10 years.

“The number is drastic, but I have seen the steady decline,” said Biddeford Coach Jeannine Paradis, who is in her second year with the Tigers and 21st overall as a girls’ basketball coach in Maine. Biddeford has 14 players in the program this season, down from 22 last year.

The decrease in players is not exclusive to basketball. Almost every sport at Maine high schools has seen a decline in participation over the past decade. And the problem has been more acute among girls’ sports.

The pandemic contributed to the drop in numbers. Many high school sport seasons were canceled or modified in 2020 and 2021. Once sports fully returned in the 2021-22 school year, athletes were required to wear masks at indoor venues.

But research by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram shows that athletic participation at Maine’s high schools was decreasing at a similar pace for several years prior to the pandemic – and at a rate much greater than Maine’s enrollment decline.

The newspaper examined participation data from the past 10 years collected by the Maine Principals’ Association and submitted to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Over that time, participation in high school sports in Maine decreased by 12%, compared with a 1.2% decrease nationally. Girls’ participation in Maine dropped by 13.3% during the decade, boys’ participation by 10.9%.


Across the state there has been a net loss of 6,449 roster spots in 10 years. That number would be even greater without the introduction of new sports sponsored by the principals’ association such as Unified basketball and Unified bocce, which had 871 combined participants in 2021-22. The result is dramatically fewer junior varsity and freshman teams in traditional team sports – the squads designed to give younger, less-experienced players a chance to participate in high school athletics.

Interscholastic sports enhance a student’s overall education. Playing a high school sport improves fitness habits, and provides a stronger sense of self-confidence and ability to persevere. Team-based athletics can often be a catalyst for improved academic results while in school.

The Winslow girls’ basketball team celebrates after winning the 2018 Class B North championship game. The Raiders went on to win the state title that year, but this season had just 13 players on its roster. The decline in numbers has been felt in other sports at the school, which was unable to field a boys’ lacrosse team last spring. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We all know, a student connected to the school is a better student,” said Jim Bourgoin, the athletic director at Winslow High, where participation dropped more than 30% between 2015-16 and 2021-22 – twice that of the enrollment decline.

In 2021-22, high school sports participation in Maine was down 4.7% compared with 2018-19, the last full school year that the data was collected in Maine and across the nation prior to the pandemic. Girls’ participation was down 5.7% during that time, while boys’ participation dropped by 3.9%. Nationally, participation dropped by 4% during those years.

“Given what occurred in our country the past three years, we believe a decline of only 4% in participation totals from 2018-19 is pretty remarkable,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of National Federation of State High School Associations.

However, the three-year post-pandemic decline in Maine was barely greater than the one-year participation drop recorded from 2017-18 to 2018-19, During that year, participation dropped by 4.5% overall – a 5.7% decline for girls and 3.4%  for boys.



The Press Herald conducted dozens of interviews with athletic administrators, coaches and players to find out why fewer high school students are participating in sports, and asked whether the pandemic made it even harder to recapture the lost athletes. Among the reasons most cited are:

Sport specialization: More high school athletes are choosing to focus on one sport year-round, rather than play other sports during the school year.

“Specialization is right at the top of the list,” said Mike Murphy, who’s in his 18th year as the girls’ basketball coach at Deering High. “The three-sport athlete is just not there. It used to be, the kids went from playing soccer to playing basketball to playing softball and lacrosse. … We’re losing that two- to three-sport athlete that made up our teams.”

Declining enrollments: In central and southern Maine, some high schools have seen sharp declines. Enrollment at Madison High was down by 37% over the past 10 years, according to data from the Maine Department of Education. Cony of Augusta, Lawrence of Fairfield, and Skowhegan have each seen a 14% reduction.

Greely High in Cumberland has had a 14.7% enrollment decline over the past 10 years. Scarborough (12.9%), Massabesic (13.0%) and Windham (11.4%) high schools have had similar declines during that span. In southern York County, York High’s enrollment was down by 16.6% over the past decade and Marshwood has had a 13% drop since 2018.


Overall, however, enrollment at public high schools in Maine declined by 3.9% over the past decade – far less than the 12% reduction in high school sports participation statewide.

Greater job opportunities for teenagers: Since the start of the pandemic, the labor market has tightened and entry-level wages have increased, making a part-time job after school more attractive to teenagers.

“A lot of these kids are working. They can make $17, $20 to go to work at Target,” said Beth Murphy, the athletic director at Westbrook High.

Pandemic interruptions: From March 2020 through the end of the 2020-21 school year, middle school sports – an important avenue for introduction to competitive sports – were put on hold, as were many community-based youth sports programs.

Lake Region Athletic Director Paul True, who coached the Lakers girls’ basketball team for 18 years, says girls can be more apprehensive about joining a sport than boys. “If girls don’t have somebody really encouraging them and supporting them, I think they’re a little more hesitant to continue participating.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Tentativeness among girls: Paul True, the Lake Region athletic director who coached the school’s girls’ basketball team for 18 seasons, said girls can be more apprehensive about joining a sport than boys.

“If we don’t connect with girls at a young age and really build on their confidence, I think that boys typically will take more risks and get involved with activities just because they have less of a fear factor there,” he said. “With girls, if there isn’t built-in relationships there, if girls don’t have somebody really encouraging them and supporting them, I think they’re a little more hesitant to continue participating.”


True said girls tend to look for reasons to join a team beyond a chance to play and compete.

“I definitely think there’s a social aspect there,” he said. “If there isn’t familiarity or a relationship there for females to stay engaged or try something new or to keep going, they are less apt to be involved.”

Beth Murphy agrees that girls have become harder to reach because their attitude toward high school athletics has changed.

“It’s the boys’ sports that are still standing strong but the girls, they’re finding other things to do and putting the time in is not something they wanted to do,” she said.


Participation declines in many of Maine’s high school sports are dramatic. Over the past 10 years, swimming participation has been down by more than 40% for both boys and girls. Tennis is down by more than 20% for both. Field hockey has seen a 25.8% decline. Boys’ wrestling is down by 28.5%. Football, with its widely publicized concerns about the potential for head injuries, has seen a 17.3% decline.


Indoor track is one sport where the participation decline can be directly tied to the pandemic. Indoor track was the only sport other than volleyball (which added 23 teams) with significant participation growth between 2012-13 and 2019-20. But after a canceled 2020-21 season because college facilities were off limits for high school teams, 472 fewer boys and 363 fewer girls ran indoor track in the winter of 2021-22 – a season in which athletes were required to wear masks at indoor venues. The decreases of 23.3% fewer boys and 26.5% fewer girls were by far the most dramatic post-pandemic falloffs among the 19 sports with more than 1,000 participants.

York High has won seven of the past 10 boys’ Class B indoor track titles and is among the top girls’ teams. In 2019-20, York indoor track had 68 boys and 48 girls. Those numbers fell to 40 and 29 in 2021-22.

“I haven’t seen it come back this year, either,” York Coach Ted Hutch said. “We had over 100 kids and now it’s about half that. I have quality. But not the same quantity.”

Surveys by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, a national leader in the study of youth sports, indicate many high school students would prefer sports to focus more on fitness and fun and less on competition.

“We surveyed about 6,000 high school students and one of the key takeaways was the current menu of high school sports options is not meeting the demand,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute. “So many kids, they would play sports but they don’t want it as competitive. There’s a fear of embarrassment, too, particularly for girls.”

Playing high school sports requires a significant time commitment. Long gone are the days when players picked up a basketball after the fall season was over, and started swinging a bat only when the last jump shot was taken. Now high school sports are year-round endeavors, including organized training or practicing in the summer.


“That’s Monday and Wednesday for soccer and Tuesday and Thursday for basketball, and God forbid if you want to have a job,” said Kari Sawyer, the athletic director at Sacopee Valley High.

Sacopee Valley has seen the drain on its girls’ sports. This fall the field hockey team had seven players, down from a barely-enough 12-player squad the year before, and had to combine with Bonny Eagle’s junior varsity team. Its girls’ basketball team had 11 players in 2021-22 and 10 this season. This winter’s JV schedule consisted of four or five games played with four-minute quarters.

“We have really pushed hard to get kids to join sports. I have personally asked kids. I have had players go ask kids personally,” Sawyer said. “In my opinion, many kids got jobs during COVID and really like having money. Sports are a big commitment of time and energy. Kids don’t seem to be willing to make that commitment as much anymore.”

If summer time commitment steers potential athletes away, then winter can draw kids toward other activities.

Cape Elizabeth’s Juliet Moore drives with the ball in a game against Lake Region. Moore has tried to recruit classmates to play for the team. “Everyone thinks that winter is the season to kind of relax and not really do any type of sport that season,” she says. “I’ve definitely tried to recruit, but no one seems to want to play.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I play soccer and I tried to recruit some people, and everyone’s like ‘Oh, it’s the winter, it’s the offseason, I need to ski and focus on school or college stuff,’” said Cape Elizabeth senior Juliet Moore, a member of the basketball team. “Everyone thinks that winter is the season to kind of relax and not really do any type of sport that season. I’ve definitely tried to recruit, but no one seems to want to play.”



Basketball is regarded as the premier high school sport in Maine, rich in history. The annual tournament provides a community-bonding experience during the dead of winter.

So it was particularly striking when the Press Herald’s research showed that in 2021-22 there were 622 fewer girls playing high school hoops in Maine than just 10 years earlier – and 1,164 fewer than 20 years ago in 2002-03.

The decline in numbers reflects a national trend. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports a 14.5% decline in girls’ basketball in the past 10 years.

Solomon of the Aspen Institute said girls’ basketball is being hurt at the high school level by a fundamental issue affecting youth sports – the growth of privately owned club programs, commonly known as AAU or travel teams.

“The AAU basketball circuit for girls has exploded – where it had been around for years for the boys – and that’s priced out girls at younger ages,” Solomon said.

Even players with basketball experience can be dissuaded by seeing the talent gap between themselves and those who play year-round for a club team.


“The casual basketball player may be getting pushed a little bit out by the AAU kid who’s just coming in like gangbusters,” said Mike Andreasen, the girls’ basketball coach at Gray-New Gloucester.

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels said that can be a daunting prospect for players deciding whether to play.

“The kids that don’t participate in that sport out of season, they think in their mind they’re going to be behind the 8-ball,” he said. “‘I’m not playing travel, I’m not playing club, I’m not going to be as good, so I’m not going to come out and play that third sport.’ … Those who don’t play travel or club, they see themselves at a disadvantage, so why bother putting the time in?”

Freeport High’s Emily Groves is introduced before the start of a home game against Greely on Feb. 6. The Freeport girls’ basketball program has just 14 players this season and was unable to field a junior varsity team. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Freeport is one of the schools that opted to drop its junior varsity girls’ basketball team this winter.

“We’ve struggled with a JV program for at least five or six years now,” Sickels said. “This year, we’re not even trying to do JV games. … It’s a phenomenon. We’re not the only ones.”

The decline in high school sports participation begs the questions: Is there a better way to get girls involved in athletics? And would those approaches also work with the boys?


The answer may be as simple as high school coaches doing more to prepare for the future with old-school tactics like holding youth camps, checking in on rec games, and even coaching younger kids.

“I really want to, in the next year, really push to get my high school kids back involved with the rec kids,” said Paradis, the Biddeford girls’ basketball coach. “Do a bigger push with those younger players and try to get them to our summer camp, get them to our gym even to do an hour of ball-handling skills with me and the high school kids. Just building that love for basketball again.”

John Young, the first-year girls’ basketball coach at Westbrook High, made boosting numbers a priority when he took over in May. Westbrook has a JV team this season after going without one for two straight seasons. Young let it be known he had room for 40 players in his high school program and the high school players would be working with youth teams in Westbrook.

“The kids were like, ‘Let’s play. … We just want to be on the team and have fun,'” Young said. “It’s about getting them younger. … You’ve got to be involved. Get to know the kids, so they know your name, they know who you are. We’ve got young girls now coming to the games, asking our girls for autographs.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story