Youth football

Lake Geneva Youth Football players practice their proper tackling form Aug. 8 in a drill during practice at Lake Geneva Middle School.

The Lake Geneva Youth Football program merged with the Badger High School football program and the YMCA flag football program over the winter. Not only are the three organizations working more harmoniously as a result, they also tweaked the program’s structure to improve player safety.

Now that the season is getting underway, the partnership is already paying dividends.

First off, the Lake Geneva Youth Football program and the YMCA flag football program’s participation numbers are up from last year. Considering the fact that nationwide football participation numbers are declining, LGYF president Russ Hayes and YMCA sports director Avi Mor are both excited to see local numbers rising.

Officials would not release sign-up figures, saying that the enrollment period was still open.

Lake Geneva Youth Football had about 100 kids last year.

Hayes believes that the numbers increase is due, in part, to the newly established progression from flag football to youth tackle football that does not toss kids into a full-contact sport before they are ready for it.

“I think parents want to be able to have their kids start at the basics. They don’t want them dropped into a meat grinder, and losing confidence right off the bat,” Hayes said.

With this fall season being the first under the new partnership, the group was not sure if it would take a year or two for the word to get out about the new safety initiatives. But officials are happy to see the community’s quick response.

“If anything, this was more of a trial run to see what the numbers were going to look like. The progression was the whole focus of the thing, getting the safety of football out there,” Mor said. “So, I think the higher numbers are just a bonus to everything.”

Another benefit from the group synergy is that the youth players can receive coaching from the varsity coaching staff from time to time.

During the Badger High School football camp — traditionally only for the freshman, junior varsity and varsity high school teams — varsity head coach Matt Hensler extended an open invitation to seventh- and eighth-graders in the Lake Geneva youth program for the first time.

Hensler was impressed by how attentive the youth players were in trying to glean what they could from the limited camp time.

“Boy, it’s amazing how quickly those kids absorb everything and how quickly they caught up and how much progress they showed in just five short days,” Hensler said.

Hayes also got some of the high school coaches to spend time at the first few youth practices of the season so that the players will get top-quality instruction on the basics of the game. That will give the volunteer youth coaches a solid base of fundamentals to work with as the season wears on.

While drawing in new players and making sure they are playing high-quality football are both crucial to the new football partnership, the most important goal, according to all three parties, will not be clear until the start of next season: making sure the kids stick with football year after year.

“That’s the number-one thing we’re looking for, and the number-one criteria we’ll use to judge our coaches and our program, is if we’re getting kids back, making them have fun and letting them be a part of something they have pride in,” Hensler said.