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Girls Sports Seeing Growth in Participants and Booster

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You won't find thousands of cheering fans at a volleyball game at any high school in central Illinois. The girls on the team don't crash through a paper breakaway banner before each contest.

A few hundred might show for a girl's basketball game, if the team is good or has a star player of potential future pro caliber.

Those are just the facts, ma'am. Girls' sports have come a long way in recent decades, but they still have a long way to go before they draw the same kind of fanaticism the boys do at football or basketball games.

That does not, however, mean they should be treated different when it comes to getting help from their schools or from booster clubs established by parents and others who want to help sports programs make up shortfalls in school budgets.

So says Donna Williams, in her second year as president of the East Peoria Athletic Boosters Club. After she came on board five years ago she began to realize the girls' sports programs at East Peoria High School were not getting the same benefits from the boosters club as the boys teams.

It was not, she said, an intentional slight. Rather, "I just don't think the girls coaches were made aware of how we could help them. When I took over as president I said that was going to be my thing, to make sure everybody, all the programs, were treated equally.

"I do not for one minute think they were being slighted because somebody didn't think they were as important. They just needed to be told to come to us when they had needs we could help them meet," said Williams.

A social worker in Peoria, Williams said she is aware many students can't afford their own equipment when the school is unable to provide what they need. "It shouldn't be up to them to have to buy their equipment," she said.

Just in the past year, the EPABC has helped girls' sports programs buy equipment they needed to ensure they were meeting Illinois High School Association requirements, such as certain track equipment. The boosters also have helped teams with uniform purchases.

"All we did was make sure we were at the coaches' meeting so we could tell all the coaches to use us. That's what we're here for," Williams said.

The EPABC has two major fundraisers each year, a dinner in the spring that includes a silent auction and raffle, and a golf outing each August. It also runs the concessions at sporting events, including the well-equipped concession stand at the high school football and track stadium at Eastside Center.

"Just because the girls' games don't draw near the same size crowd doesn't mean they should get their fair share. So money we raise at the various events are shared with all the programs," Williams said.

Her daughter plays tennis and runs track at East Peoria High School but Williams said she intends to stay involved in boosters activities even after her daughter is out of high school.

"I got involved before she even got to high school because I thought it was important that I help where I could and to try and make a difference. That won't change after she graduates," Williams said.

Booster club and parental participation is getting stronger for girls sports at Peoria Richwoods High School, but there is still a need for more, said Ching Zedric, head volleyball coach for the Knights. "The booster support is getting much stronger and the parents of our players are really stepping up. We would like to see more fans at our games and we try to do a different theme for every home game to bring in more people. It's a process," said Zedric, who is in her third season at Richwoods.

She is pleased to note participation in the sport also is growing and that she is seeing younger players become interested. "Volleyball takes a lot of skill so the younger they start the better they will get and the more they will enjoy," she said.

Zedric is a native of China and she said it is difficult to compare school sports there with those in the United States. "It is totally different. In the United States almost every kid is involved in at least one sports and many are in more than one. In China it is more of a luxury to be able to participate because of the equipment needs and such. But it is getting better," she said.

Expenses are still a concern in this country and the dedication from parents and booster club volunteers is possibly more essential for girls' sports because they don't have the same kind of revenues from ticket sales, said Beth Sauser, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association. Her responsibilities at the IHSA center on sportsmanship, but she also oversees girls basketball and girls and boys soccer programs in the state.

"Participation is up in girls sports statewide, which is helped by the fact girls can now start participating earlier than they used to. We're also seeing more students coming out to cheer the girls teams on, to support their schools. But there is still a ways to go before it reaches the same level of fan support as the boys teams, if it ever does," Sauser said.

She coached girls basketball and was athletics director at Trinity High School in the Chicago suburbs, so she had first-hand knowledge about the level of financial support girls programs needed. Sadly, she noted, equal treatment isn't always the norm.

Because of federal laws girls programs must be treated equally by the schools themselves, Sauser said, "and at some schools the booster clubs are set up to make sure all the programs are treated equally. At the same time, though, you have to realize there are differences in the sports themselves, especially when you consider the numbers."

For example, Sauser said, there is a major difference in the support 100 families can give to a football team if there is one member from each family playing the sport than 12 or 14 families can give to a volleyball squad.

Speaking from her experience as an athletics director, Sauser said equipment costs are daunting and have to be considered when budgeting. Longevity of equipment and uniforms are factors, as well. "You will rip a football jersey a lot quicker than you will a volleyball or basketball jersey," she said.

Sauser said she had enjoyed watching as the number of opportunities for girls to participate in school sports has grown. "The opportunities now are amazing, for girls with skills of all levels, for sports that have different skill sets. High school sports are a great way a student have can an all-encompassing high school experience, so as those opportunities grow it helps all students," she said.

She said she is seeing solid growth in the number of girls taking advantage of those opportunities. "I think overall it's growing because student athletes are proud to represent their schools. Communities and boosters are proud to support their teams," she said.

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