WHITTEMORE – When Joe Bicoll was named head coach of the Whittemore-Prescott soccer team back in August, he did what he could to recruit players and ready his squad for the upcoming fall schedule. That season will never happen however, as the school district announced recently that it was canceling the season, due to a lack of student athletes coming out for the team.
“I was having fun, it was my first time coaching but the three or four players that I had that came out every day were good athletes and I had a lot of expectations for them,” Bicoll said. “We only had a total of seven faces that ever showed up.”
A lack of numbers is nothing new for the Cardinal soccer program. In recent years, the team, which operated as one of the few co-ed programs in the state, regularly played contests with limited, if any bench players.
“I know there are other schools in the same boat, Fairview cancelled their season due to the same issue,” Bicoll said. “I know we are not the only ones fighting with it.”
The Cardinals are coming off three-straight winless seasons, though the team’s lack of success on the field doesn’t make the decision any easier for the school’s administration.
“It is never a good feeling to cancel a program, never,” W-P athletic director Anne Mervyn said. “It was a difficult decision, soccer gives kids another option to get involved in at school and it was nice for those kids who wanted to be involved but didn’t want to play football. With our decrease in enrollment (down to 230 in high school this year) it has been difficult to support soccer; as your numbers go down so does your participation and at this point we just didn’t have an option, we didn’t have enough players. It was just time.”
Prior to this season, the school had attempted to operate soccer as a co-op team with nearby Hale participating as well. However, according to Mervyn those plans were never hashed out, and they only expected to gain one or two players from that venture.
Not only is the 2021 season officially cancelled, Mervyn admits this might be the end of the soccer program entirely.
“I am not sure, but I would think this is probably it,” she said. “There is no feeder program, there is no junior high team and we don’t have any youth soccer in the community. I don’t see it being a successful program anytime in the near future due to low numbers and a lack of a youth program. We used to have cross country, possibly we can look into that again and give the kids that option.”
Despite the cancelled season, Mervyn appreciated Bicoll’s effort with the team in his brief time as head coach.
“He stepped up when he saw a soccer coach was needed and I was pleased with his effort,” she said. “He is a young guy, but he was excited to coach soccer and tried to help the kids and help the program and make sure it wasn’t discontinued, but in the end, there just weren’t enough numbers to keep it going.”
The W-P soccer program was started back in 1999, with Leroy Oliver serving as the first head coach. After getting six wins in its debut season and 10 wins in 2000, things trended the other way in the win-loss column as the program struggled to get athletes out for the team.
From 2003-to-2007 the Cardinals were unable to win a game. They posted single wins in each the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons, and after a winless 2011 campaign, had one win each in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
After winless 2015 and 2016 seasons, W-P was able to claim what very well may be the program’s last ever victory in 2017, a 6-3 win over Gladwin Skeels Christian. The team was winless once again in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Perhaps no one knows of these struggles better than longtime head coach of the team Ed Schulte. Schulte led the program from 2005 until 2017, where he admirably led his constantly undermanned squads through difficult seasons.
“The kids that played, even under those circumstances, enjoyed the game and wanted to play,” Schulte said. “These kids wanted to be able to participate in something, and in some cases this was really their only athletic season that they participated in. They could get beat by 10 goals on a Tuesday night and come back out the next time and give it another 100-plus percent and try and do whatever they could to try and make things better. That was the great thing, in most games the outcome was kind of inevitable since we were playing teams like Ogemaw Heights, John Glenn and Tawas. You knew going in that your backs were against the wall, but they still went out and gave all that they had.”
Back in 2005, in what was Schulte’s first season, W-P had a high school enrollment of 434 students. That number dipped to 389 by 2006 and continued to steadily decline nearly each season, down to 230 in his final season. Much like the school’s enrollment, the longtime coach saw his team’s participation numbers shrink as well.
“There were some years that we had 16 or 17 kids,” Schulte said. “Then, we were down to 13 or 14 and when you play with 11, and you get a couple that are out with injuries or whatever reason, that can make it tough.”
Throw in the fact that he was trying to recruit male athletes away from a strong football program and female athletes from volleyball, it was never an easy sales pitch.
“It was hard to draw kids away from those teams, so we just made the most of who we had out,” Schulte said. “It was nice on the few occasions that we had a senior come out for the team for something different and by the end of the season say they had wished they had come out and tried it earlier.”
The answer to whether or not W-P will field a soccer team next season, or anytime soon for that matter, is a bit murky.
“For a soccer program to thrive, you would need some kind of feeder program at the lower levels,” Mervyn said. “We had some youth soccer around here, but it just kind of fizzled out. We have always tried really hard to maintain the program, it gave the kids another avenue to play but the numbers aren’t there.”
If things change participation wise in time for the 2022 season, Mervyn won’t have to look very far for her coach.
“I would like to try again next year, if the school wants to,” Bicoll said. “If we can get a list going that shows more than seven or eight people that want to play, we can get it going again, but obviously that is the school’s decision. The players were sad that the season was cancelled and they want to try and recruit for next season. They aren’t a fan of the other fall sports and this was a good option for them. Hopefully they get some people corralled; I would be interested to do it again.”