The decision to not have a season last year was easy for Ripon Youth Football due to an uptick of COVID-19 numbers and the decision the Ripon Area School District made to move fall sports to the spring.

“We really felt that with the school doing as much as they could do to keep everybody safe, we didn’t think it made sense to then turn around [and have Ripon Youth Football] ... send 200 kids on the field,” Ripon Youth Football Board of Directors’ Vice President Greg Dragolovich said, adding the board also was told it would be unable to use Ingalls Field if it elected to move forward with the season.

While the decision to cancel the season was easy to make, Dragolovich noted it was “really tough” because many kids didn’t get a chance to play summer sports because they were canceled as well.

After a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Ripon Youth Football program is eager and hopeful to return.

According to Dragolovich, the plan is to have a season this year despite COVID-19 numbers starting to see an uptick again as the Delta variant makes its impact felt. However, he noted it is an ever-changing situation.

“I think it’s just going to be a fluid situation like it was last year,” he said. “So last year at this time, we planned everything as if we were going to have a season, knowing that at any point we could suspend the season.”

Dragolovich added that if protocols change within the school district, Ripon Youth Football will adjust and make sure that it is going to follow similar protocols to what the school is going to do in order to keep everyone safe.

“We’re just going to take it a day at a time and we’re planning on playing at this point, but it’s going to be something we might have to pivot, so we’ll see what happens,” Dragolovich said.

With the season moving forward as planned right now, Ripon Youth Football is hoping to see participation numbers increase as the registration deadline nears. The organization, which began in the 2000s, extended the registration deadline to Sunday, Aug. 15 after numbers were lower than what they have been in the past.

Dragolovich noted as of last week Friday, 26 seventh- and eighth-graders were signed up for tackle football, which “is a pretty good number” but the program would “love to see more.” Flag football on the other hand, which is for students in first to sixth grade, is down almost 90 participants from what it had been averaging, Dragolovich said.

He believes some of the struggles with numbers may have to do with the fact that the incoming first-grade class has never played football and Ripon Youth Football wasn’t able to get into the schools last year to let people know that it was having a season. Dragolovich also wonders if by having a lost season last year if maybe some kids did some different activities and pivoted away from football, noting that it is too early to tell.

The vice president added it is traditional to see some late registrants and that the program is hoping that there will be a flourish of registrations before the Sunday, Aug. 15 deadline to narrow the participation gap.

Flag football, which usually sees registrants from Markesan, Berlin, Green Lake and even had a North Fond du Lac team one year, plays Saturdays at Ingalls Field. Dragolovich noted the season is tentatively set to start Sept. 11, with games happening Sept. 11, 25 and Oct. 9 at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. and Sept. 18, Oct. 2 and Oct. 16 at 6, 7 and 8 p.m.

Tackle football, meanwhile, will be played Tuesday nights, with home games slated to be played Sept. 28 vs. Mayville, Oct. 5 vs. Lomira and Oct. 12 vs. Omro. Home games typically start at 4:30 p.m. There also will be two away games for Ripon Youth Football, which are scheduled for Sept. 14 at North Fond du Lac and Sept. 21 at Waupun.

Dragolovich noted that specifically with flag football, Ripon Youth Football provides a good team sport and an organized activity for children to have fun, be safe, learn about the sport and improve upon their skills.

“We adhere to the NFL Flag rules, safety being a big issue,” he said. “Really what our program is designed to do is to be a building block program to the tackle program, so they’re learning all the skill sets now about knowing a few plays, breaking down to grab flags and so they’re learning body control. They’re understanding the game without having to worry about getting hit or making hits or getting concussions, so we think it’s a really good developmental league.”

Dragolovich added the reason Ripon Youth Football doesn’t start tackle until seventh grade is that when children go to tackle at those young ages there are weight restrictions on who can carry the ball and he believes that could discourage kids. Ripon Youth Football made the switch from starting tackle in fourth grade around five years ago.

Prior to that, children in kindergarten to third grade played in a flag football league at the YMCA, while kids in fourth and fifth grade participated in a tackle league at the YMCA. Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades competed as part of Ripon Youth Football in the Heart of the Valley Conference. They now compete against more of the Flyway schools.

“You’re telling some of the bigger kids in fourth grade, ‘Sorry, you’re never going to get to carry the ball,’ and they get stuck on the line for the rest of the time and maybe they get frustrated and leave the sport,” Dragolovich said of tackle football. “We’ve always hoped that by keeping it with a flag program that every kid that signs up has the opportunity to carry the ball, be a quarterback, be a running back, so it’s just an all-inclusive experience that’s super fun.”

The vice president noted it also has been fun to see some of the Ripon flag football alumni come back and help referee games on Saturday as the program is getting to the point where some of the high school kids played in the program.

“They love coming back and helping to ref and they remember the Saturday morning games and the Saturday night games,” Dragolovich said. “You can see the joy in their faces when they see the younger kids.”

Cost to participate in flag football is $60 per child and includes an NFL-branded jersey, set of flags and balls for each team, with money also going to pay for the referees and to be able to run concessions. Tackle football costs $100 per player and covers all the necessary equipment with the exception of a mouthguard and pair of cleats.

Dragolovich noted that scholarships are available if money is an issue for families and that they may reach out to the club privately by emailing riponwiyouthfootball@gmail.com.

“We want everybody to have that opportunity to play, that includes tackle or flag,” he said. “We’re really hoping for a season; we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We’re super excited; I know my kids are stoked and ready to go. Please get out and register if you haven’t already. We’d love to have you and hope you have a great time with it.”

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