Cutting a team — an entire team — was never something Justin Conyers thought he’d have to do.
Since Battle High School opened in 2013, the Spartans’ coach had always fielded varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. However, at the beginning of this season, there was a disturbing trend in the freshman program: Fewer and fewer players were showing up to practices. Conyers grew concerned enough to personally reiterate the need for their commitment.
The players agreed to hold themselves more accountable, but it only lasted a few days, and the cycle repeated itself. With the decline in the number of freshmen willing to put in the work to play the game, Conyers made the decision to cut the team after Week 1.
“It was completely about accountability,” Conyers said. “You’d have 25 (to start the season) ... (and) you feel pretty confident with those numbers, but you can’t hold a practice when 13 kids show up. They were just deciding not to come.”
While cutting the freshman team means Battle has seen a dip in its overall roster size, Conyers and his staff have found positives out of what would usually be seen as a negative.
The junior varsity team ended its season with a 6-1 record after defeating Jefferson City on Oct. 15. The addition of 13 of the remaining freshmen and the four freshman-team coaches paid dividends for the younger Spartans.
“Our JV program is benefitting immensely from this, and I hate to say it that way, but it really is. They’re thriving right now,” Conyers said. “Our JV has not been that way the past few years, so you can see the difference in our JV program.”
Some of the players brought up from the freshman team have also provided a boost in both varsity practices and games, including running back Gerry Marteen and receiver Jaylen Broadus. Marteen in particular has played a big role in alleviating some of Battle’s depth issues.
When the Spartans went on the road to play Harrisonville in a Week 4 matchup with the Wildcats, starting running back Darren Jordan was ruled out with a sprained ankle. Daleshaun Coleman was named the starter in his place, and Marteen became the primary backup.
Late in the game, with Battle already up 72-39, Conyers called Marteen’s number after the Spartans forced a punt. On the first play from scrimmage, Marteen broke away for a 59-yard score, the first varsity touchdown of his career.
Marteen said that even though it hurt to hear that the freshman team would fold for the season, he realizes he wouldn’t have had the opportunity if he wasn’t on the varsity squad. He knows he would be on the field more often at a lower level, but playing with the upperclassmen will ultimately benefit him in the long run.
“(Playing against Harrisonville) was very intense, way more high intensity,” Marteen said. “But I’ve been playing football my whole life, and playing up is nothing new to me.”
As Battle progresses through its season with fewer players, Conyers is confident in his program’s ability to bounce back.
The Spartans’ roster size typically sits in the triple digits each year, according to data provided by MSHSAA, so this is by far the lowest total number of players Conyers has had in six seasons. This being the first year the program has felt such a loss, though, it’s still too early to determine if it is the beginning of a trend or just an outlier.
And with the large number of players on Battle’s feeder middle school teams — Lange and Oakland have roughly 80 combined — Conyers has faith that his program will rebound from this “anomaly” of a season.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley: email@example.com, 882-5729.
About this series High school kids across the nation are walking away — hobbling away, in some cases — from football. National participation numbers are down, and have been going down for over a decade. The same is true in the state of Missouri. But in Columbia? Not so much. As the 2018 season winds down, the Missourian takes an in-depth look at how the city’s four football-playing high schools are bucking the trend. See columbiamissourian.com for more.