Making the cut: how Urban sports teams stay afloat

As a small school—roughly 430 students—Urban sometimes struggles to accumulate and maintain the numbers necessary to field sports teams. Urban Athletic Director Joe Skiffer admits to having faced this issue multiple times throughout his 12 years at the school. So what does Urban do when a sport doesn’t have enough players to form a team?
Due to a multitude of potential factors, including COVID-19, Urban teams may be facing more trouble with numbers than they have before. “We have fewer multi-sport athletes than we’ve ever had before, which is challenging for a small school,” said Skiffer. “This has been a unique year.”
Skiffer added that it’s often hard to know how many students can commit to a team. “It’s really hard, especially with teenagers because they don’t communicate the best, to actually know whether we’ll have a team,” he said. This uncertainty can result in an unpredictable fate for entire teams, and the costs of that uncertainty can be severe. “There’s a rule in our league that you have to announce that you’re not going to form a team within a week of the start date or else you get suspended for the next year and you’re not allowed to play in the league,” said Skiffer.
The athletics department tries to form Physical Activities (PAs) for sports where numbers do fall short, but with a PA designation comes the loss of Urban’s ability to book practice sites. “Unless we have a formal team, [Parks and Rec] will remove my permits,” Skiffer said. “So then you’re trying to find space for whatever fragmented group that may want to participate in the sport but can’t participate as a team.”
Though having teams with low numbers of players can be tricky, small Urban teams, such as Girls’ Basketball, have succeeded in the past. “Even when we were rolling and had championship-level teams and were winning [North Coast Section], we probably had eight girls in the program,” said Skiffer. Though successful, the team’s variation in talent was tough on some less experienced players who were not ready for varsity competition. “It was hard for them to be on the basketball program playing varsity level [even though] they were JV-level players.”
Skiffer talks to the Urban admissions team about athletics and team numbers but recognizes it’s an issue that admissions can only address to an extent. “It’s definitely a conversation I have,” he said. Though admitting 9th graders and transfers who are committed to certain sports would help, Urban must maintain its commitment to viewing students holistically. “I think admissions keeps [athletics] in mind,” said Skiffer. “But I don’t think they’re going to accept anybody they don’t feel fits within our community.”

Urban baseball team returning from practice on February 17, 2022. Photo credit: Ben Katznelson.