ARLINGTON -- On a newly lined field at the Arlington Rec Park on Wednesday, 26 boys soccer players went through dribbling and passing skills under the watchful eye of assistant coaches Travis Hess and Glen Sherman.
Both Arlington Memorial High School alums, Hess and Sherman played while in school and now coach the Eagles. Each speaks to the fact that the current group could fill out more than two separate teams.
And while the numbers might never reach the heights of two decades ago, participation heading into the 2013 season is at one of the highest levels in years.
"We have no [junior varsity] program, so everyone is thrown into the mix right off the bat," said Hess, filling in for regular coach Todd Wilkins during practice on Wednesday. "The numbers are starting to increase. Last year, we had 20, the year before 18."
Hess, an assistant coach for the Eagles for the past seven years, attributes the rise to the success of the town's youth soccer program. The youth league was founded by legendary coach John Werner in the mid-1970s and continues to thrive to this day.
"A lot of kids are [playing in the youth league]," said Hess, who coached his son's K-1 team last year. "There [have] been pretty consistent numbers. We lose some to football, but the majority stick with it. In a small town, this is what Arlington offers."
As much benefit as there is having good numbers, there is also a downside. Since there's no JV, many of the freshmen and sophomores won't see the field -- or at least not very much -- a fact that could hurt numbers in the future.
"The problem this year with such big numbers is kids may not get any or very little playing time," Hess said. "There's no JV to play for. So for freshman coming up, if they sit the bench the entire season, they get frustrated and they may not come out the next year. Then numbers go down even more."
The pool of players isn't that large to begin with in Arlington.
According to the state Education website, Arlington has 107 total students from 9th to 12th grade and the 26 players at training camp represent more than half of the school's male population.
But there was a time, when Werner, the winningest boys soccer coach in state history, led the Eagles, participation rates were even higher.
"I graduated in 1995 and Todd in 1994, and we used to have 44 -- 22 on varsity and 22 on junior varsity," Hess said.
In those years, Arlington played in Division III -- and as enrollment fell, the school dropped into Division IV, the state's smallest division, in 2003.
There is hope, though, that the increase is here to stay despite the fact enrollment numbers are down in the district.
If participation in soccer stays the same or continues its upswing, Hess said it could be possible to have a JV team in the next couple of years.
"It's encouraging ... maybe we can keep those numbers going," Hess said. "[This year] we're hoping to schedule a couple of JV-ish scrimmages, just to get those kids some playing time."