In 2008, the OBSERVER circulation area had 11 football teams.
Those 11 schools were Brocton, Cassadaga Valley, Chautauqua Lake, Dunkirk, Forestville, Fredonia, Gowanda, Lake Shore, Pine Valley, Silver Creek and Westfield.
Since that time, Brocton merged with Westfield in 2012, Forestville joined Silver Creek in 2013, the same year Chautauqua Lake joined Maple Grove. And this year, Cassadaga Valley has partnered with Falconer, and Pine Valley is now a part of Gowanda.
Eleven football teams have quickly become six.
In 2011, the Brocton Bulldogs were forced to cancel their season midway through the season due to lack of numbers.
Forestville faced a similar challenge last season as roughly 20 players had signed up. However, athletic director Scott Hazelton knew an injury or two, with the potential of an ineligible player could quickly drop that number to below 16 - the number required by the state to field a football team.
Merging with Silver Creek has allowed freshmen and sophomores to compete at a competitive level at the jayvee program, while the varsity team is able to start mainly juniors and seniors.
"We have players playing at the correct level," Hazelton said. "We have a legitimate jayvee team and a legitimate varsity program. (Before we merged with Silver Creek) we were right around the low 20s. We could start a season, but maybe not end it. The one main thing you don't want to do is put kids in a bad position."
Scot Greenough, former Forestville head coach and now a member of the Silver Creek coaching staff, has been pleased with the way the merger has taken place.
"I don't think there has been anything negative about it," he said. "For this year, (Forestville) would have been in a similar position to Pine Valley. I don't think we would have had enough to start and make it feasible. I think to make it through last season, I don't know if we could have done it without joining Silver Creek, and this year, I'm positive we couldn't. The kids who do want to play, still can play. I hope kids around the county, no matter what school they go to, have a chance to play. It's still a great game. I still love it. I hope that every kid has a place to go."
Athletic directors must now tackle the issue as to why students are not participating in sports.
Factors include students would rather work and make money to afford a car, they would rather play electronic games after school and other opportunities are available to students. No matter what the reason is, Hazelton feels it still comes down to a work ethic.
"If you had a choice to work hard for four or five hours a day versus doing something with friends or work, it's a mindset of teens these days," he said. "When I went to school, we played sports because we didn't want to work. I grew up on a dairy farm. Sports was a way to get out of chores. There are a ton of factors, but it's hard to pinpoint one for each community. It's pretty sad and disheartening."
Every time a school merges, the argument comes up that tradition of a school is being lost. A father who once played for the Brocton Bulldogs does not have the chance to watch his son carry the tradition of being a Bulldog himself, as he now plays for Westfield, despite attending Brocton Central School. A possible solution is to have smaller schools play six-man football. Class D schools around the area are unable to practice 11-on-11, like they would see in games. If a team has 18 players, they would be able to emulate game scenarios if schools play six-man football.
Again, the issue with six-man football comes down to tradition. Greenough would rather merge than play six-man football.
"I know that's been talked about," he said. "I guess anything at this point is a possibility. I think for me personally, I would rather do what we did, which is combine and play 11-man ball. I think if it got to the point where teams didn't want to combine with somebody, then I think six man is an option for more than one place. I can't speak for everybody. I think it's a possibility anywhere."
Safety continues to be the biggest concern, as stated by Pine Valley interim superintendent David Kurzawa early last week after the school decided the Panthers could not field a team with just 16 players at Tuesday's practice.
"We have a number of juniors and seniors and then a lot of eighth and ninth graders on the roster," Kurzawa told the OBSERVER last week. "Having those underclassmen fill a spot against players who are seniors, it's not a safe thing to do. With the limited number of students who came out, we realize if we do have injuries, which does happen, telling a ninth grader to start is not appropriate."
There are very few schools left in Chautauqua County who have not merged programs.
Dunkirk and Fredonia are under this category, but the Marauders have 25 players on their roster.
With five schools merging in the past three years, the question remains, how long can schools such as Dunkirk, Fredonia, Southwestern, Panama and Randolph last before they must merge with someone?