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Minnesota vaults to No. 1 in girls sports participation

From left, in front, Natalie Andres, Maggie Blanding and Maddie Verkerke and others from a girls' cross country team from White Bear Lake meet in Mahtomedi to stretch and warm-up and then run along Gateway Trail for one and one-half hours Friday, July 27, 2018. Minnesota is No. 1 in the nation for participation in girls' high school sports. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Minnesota has more girls participating in high school sports per capita than any other state. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Minnesota's rate is triple that of some other states, and 60 percent higher than Wisconsin's.

The number of girls surged 17 percent in 10 years, and increased in every sport listed by the federation.

Girl athletes in Minnesota are on the verge of overtaking boys, with 49 percent of the total. That gives Minnesota the highest percentage of female prep athletes in the nation.

Hearing that, Mary Jo Kane let out a whoop.

"You can't buy this. It's priceless," said Kane, a University of Minnesota professor of kinesiology and founding director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

"This absolutely is a victory for Title IX," she said, referring to the 1972 federal legislation that created the right to gender equity in sports.

According to coaches, parents, students and experts, Minnesota is at the intersection of several positive factors:

•The inspiring effect of professional female athletes, particularly the Minnesota Lynx.

•A larger number of girls sports. Many Minnesota sports—hockey, skiing, trap shooting—aren't even offered in other states.

•A widespread appreciation for equal opportunity in sports at all levels, and for all ages of girls.

The surge in girls sports is hailed by women who have bitter memories of discrimination.

As a girl in the 1960s, professor Kane was called a tomboy for wanting to play what the boys played—football, basketball, baseball. But all sports were closed to her, with one exception—cheerleading.

"I tried it, and it was a disaster," she said.

When Title IX was passed, she said, one in 27 girls participated in high school sports. "There was no such thing as an athletic scholarship for girls. Now, 43 percent of students with college scholarships are female," said Kane.

"Then, girls hoped there was a team. Now, they hope to make the team."

How the Lynx inspire

Minnesota's high school girls are in the first generation to grow up with a local professional women's team—the Minnesota Lynx, founded in 1999.

Nick Roberts has seen the Lynx effect firsthand. He directs 380 girls in the softball program of the Woodbury Athletic Association, and he has an 11-year-old daughter.

"Girls see the Lynx and other role models and they think, 'I could do this, too,' " said Roberts.

The Lynx give Minnesota a comparative advantage in inspiring girls, because 38 other states have no women's professional basketball team.

And professor Kane said the Lynx aren't just another team—they have won the title four times.

"They are champions. They are household names and role models. You don't see them on police blotters," Kane said.

Coverage of other success stories has the same effect. Before a recent workout, White Bear Lake cross country co-captain Josie Moor was asked if she was inspired by female athletes on TV.

"Oh, yes! Jessie Diggins!" she said, referring to the Afton woman who won America's first Olympic gold medal in Nordic skiing.

Minnesota also has an edge in girls' participation because of sports that don't exist in many other states, including:

•Girls lacrosse, with 3,855 participants. Half of the states have no girls lacrosse programs.

•Girls hockey, which has 3,731 players. Only 17 states have girls hockey.

•Girls cross-country skiing, with 2,484 participants. Minnesota is one of 13 states offering that sport.

The tally of Minnesota athletes would be even higher if the federation included one of the hottest sports in high school—trapshooting. This year, that sport will attract 12,000 boys and girls in Minnesota—making it more popular than boys and girls hockey combined.

Minnesota schools are free to add sports whenever there's an interest—and they pile them on.

"At White Bear Lake, we have yacht clubs, trapshooting, ultimate Frisbee," said girls cross country coach ­Patti Percival.

Of course, there are girls sports that Minnesota high schools do not have, including bowling, spirit squads, field hockey and slow-pitch softball. But participation numbers in those sports are usually low, and don't outweigh Minnesota's advantage.

How coaches encourage

It's difficult to measure attitude, but every person contacted for this report cited Minnesota's effective encouragement of girls sports at every level.

"We get a message from the school administration, the athletics director and the state high school league that we need to be positive with athletics," said coach Percival.

On teams, that results in encouraging participation—even at the expense of winning every matchup.

"We do not cut kids from the team. That is huge," Percival said. "Everyone is going to improve and get better."

John Dierkhising said that a more supportive approach keeps participation high.

He is the co-coach of the White Bear Lake girls soccer team.

Gone are the times when a coach would scream at a player who flubbed a play. "We never berate or embarrass a player," said Dierkhising. "You don't hear coaches yell, 'You are an embarrassment to me out there.'

"It's not about you. It's about her."

He said boys teams can be too competitive, which results in boys dropping out.

"Girls can be competitive, but not ultra-competitive," Dierkhising said. "They will stick with something even though they are not the best at it."

"Girls are more supportive of one another, compared to being derogatory," he said. "There is a huge social aspect."

He said that the social aspect—boosting the lesser athletes, making friends, building teamwork—is a key to Minnesota's high rate of girls' participation.

Consider the effect of the "Gossip Run."

Cross country coach Percival often declares that the workout of the day will be easier, so that team members get a chance to talk to each other. That is a Gossip Run, an integral part of the regimen.

For the White Bear Lake team, the runs are still evolving.

As she warmed up before a recent 7-mile run, 16-year-old Maddie Verkerke explained her new invention—the Anger Run.

"That's when I sprint the whole way," said Verkerke, kicking a leg from side to side.

At that, running mate Haley Miller rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know, you say that you have to rant. And I think, 'Oh, this is not going to be good.' "

The Anger Run means ­several miles of listening to Maddie vent about something—which fulfills the serious purpose of building camaraderie and, along the way, participation.