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Sportswriter and commentator Richard Estrada follows high school football in the southern region of the Sac-Joaquin Section using the Twitter handle @BlackHatFootball.

There could be several high schools pull the plug on football as an interscholastic sport over the next five years unless changes are made to keep the interest necessary to justify fielding a team.

That bold prediction came recently from a man who has made it his life to follow and cheer on football teams in and around his home of Modesto.

Richard Estrada is a former newspaper sportswriter, who in recent years has covered prep football exclusively on the Internet and in social media. He is seen everywhere between Stockton and Merced and points to the east and west wearing a black cowboy hat and taking in as many football games and scrimmages as he can. Thus, the moniker “Black Hat Football” with which he strokes the journalistic pen these days.

As enthused as he is talking about high school football “in the 209” (referring to the old area code for that part of California), Estrada is deeply concerned about the future of high school football in his region.

“We just don’t see the crowds we used to see,” he observed. “In a decade from now I think we’ll have three-quarters the number of the schools we have now playing football. I can take eight schools (in the southern parts of the Sac-Joaquin Section) that are always struggling. And, with interest declining those schools are going to say, ‘Hey, we’re just not going to do football.’”

Plus, there is added expense and staffing when a school hosts a football game that is bigger than all the other sports.

“Football is the big sport, it has the most difficult logistics, you got to take sometimes three teams on buses someplace to play,” he said. “The issue is travel.”

One school he sees declining interest in football is Johansen in Modesto.

“It’s a big school but you don’t have the demographics and the on-staff knowledge to have a good program,” he said. “But, slide them down into a league where they can have success.”

One of Estrada’s remedies is for at least a dozen schools in the southern half of the Section to be realigned into leagues specifically to revive their football programs.

“There are places in the country where they align (leagues) for football,“ Estrada said. “The reason is this; football is a physical game, unlike any other game it’s downright physical, and you have to have roster depth if you are going to survive.”

The Section will begin league realignment talks in January 2023 for play to begin in 2024. Estrada claims football must be treated differently than the other sports, thus, competitive leagues/conferences should be aligned for football only, with the other sports remaining where they are currently.

“We need to get our best teams in our best leagues, and let’s be real honest, we need to get our worst teams in common leagues,” he suggested. Then Estrada gave specific examples of the latter.

“Bear Creek, Chavez, Weston Ranch, Summerville, they will never survive, ever, in the leagues they are in with the big, power football teams,” he said. “If we can get those teams into leagues with other lesser teams and let Bear Creek play Weston Ranch and you throw Summerville in there, let them experience some success and what it does it allows these schools to slowly rebuilding their programs.”

The last five seasons Bear Creek’s record in football is 10-24, Franklin (Stockton) 5-29, and Weston Ranch 4-28.

Estrada believes some wins on the field will result in more players coming out for the football.

“Those extra 10 to 12 kids in the program will let them all come up a little bit,” he claims.

This kind of league realignment was done in 2018 in the Sacramento area. Though in its early stages, the Greater Sacramento League has seemed to have helped the sports programs in schools such as Florin, Valley, Johnson, Natomas and Cordova. The Section grouped together these schools, all with similar issues, and it has seemed to have worked. Last season Johnson had its best season in football, going 9-1.

This fall Foothill High School will join the GSL.

But, in the southern portion of the Sac-Joaquin Section – mainly from Stockton south to Merced – football has really taken its lumps in some of the schools. Estrada pointed out how Grace Davis in Modesto was put in a different league and had great results.

“They had gone into the dump,” he said. “Attendance was down and they probably should have dropped football a few years ago, but instead what they did was the Section realigned them out of a Division I league with all the giant schools and put them in the Western Athletic Conference with some smaller schools and they went 10-0 last year. It’s not an Elk Grove High 10-0, but it was 10-0 and it was amazing.”

How about seven-man football?

Another option for the schools who struggle with numbers might be to field either seven-man or eight-man football. That idea has been kicked around for a while in this Section, Estrada said.

“I think that’s an option for a school like Riverbank, a school like Modesto Christian,” he said. “They are so small, so struggling, trying to survive.”

Estrada says in states that do play this kind of football, it’s quite an exciting game with more scoring and it requires smaller rosters.

“(Seven-man football) is a wide-open game, too. It’s a different sport, sort of like tennis played on a ping-pong table. And, you’re not getting beat up as much,” he said. “At these schools, they just don’t have the big guys up front, they have more of the lickety-split kind of guys, the skill guys.”

Estrada thinks there’s probably seven or eight schools in the south Section that would go for this type of football, if offered.

Section League Realignment

With realignment talks right around the corner, Estrada says serious consideration should be given for these ideas now before schools actually begin to pull the plug on the sport.

“It’s important to have football and here’s why: when I was in school, I was not a good student. Athletics got me to go to school. The teachers got ahold of me and taught me a few things, whether I wanted to be there or not. Football was what kept me there. You got to keep that carrot out there, whether it be football or band or whether it is debate or theatre. You got to get that carrot out there to not just entice them to come to school, but to get involved in school,” he said.