Photos by Carlos Gonzalez, Alex Kormann, Aaron Lavinsky, Anthony Souffle • Star Tribune; Nicole Neri • Special to the Star Tribune

Minnesota is national leader in girls' high school sports participation

Star Tribune analysis of participation data finds that Minnesota has led the nation in girls' prep sports participation for a decade, and that girls here have drawn even with the boys in athletics opportunities.

By John Volk Star Tribune

Ellie Volkers signed up for three sports this year as a sophomore at Tartan High School. Soccer in the fall, hockey in the winter, track and field in the spring.

Those are three of the 24 state-sanctioned sports offered for girls like Ellie who love to train, practice and compete. Hundreds of girls in those sports are winning state championships across Minnesota this month, as the 50th anniversary of Title IX on June 23 draws near.

"For a lot of people, sports are your number one thing in life," Volkers said at a recent track meet. "It's something you do every single day, especially if you do it really competitively. It's nice that we get the same amount of support. It makes us feel like what we're doing is important."

Minnesota has many girls like Ellie Volkers — so many, in fact, that the state leads the nation in girls signing up to play high school sports. For every 100 Minnesota high school girls, there are 82 registrations for sports. Minnesota girls first claimed the No. 1 spot a decade ago and haven't relinquished it since, according to participation data collected annually by a national survey and analyzed this month by the Star Tribune.

Girls' prep sports participation in Minnesota — about 118,000 signups by the 143,000 high school-aged girls — has grown enough over the years that it now often runs even or close to the boys' participation rates in the state.

This streak of nation-leading participation and the even-with-the-boys statistics all would have been difficult for Geri Dirth to imagine in 1980 as she stood in front of her team of Apple Valley girls' cross-country runners — all three of them.

Dirth graduated from high school in Iowa in 1972, the same year Richard Nixon enacted Title IX, the law banning sex-based discrimination in federally funded education and activities. She started coaching track and cross-country runners eight years later, and by the end of that 1980 season Dirth had increased her roster size to 33.

For the next 34 years, she made it her mission to involve girls in sports at Apple Valley. Before retiring in 2014, Dirth would watch her track and field team and reflect on how much things have changed for girls in Minnesota.

"I remember I had our girls all dressed in their gold, and they would come out, and to watch them warm up together, I mean, it still gives me goosebumps and chills," Dirth said. "I'm still so proud of it. We'd have 100 girls out there."

Women and advocates like Dirth moved Minnesota to the top. Minnesota recorded a participation rate of 82.2% in girls' high school sports in 2019, the most recent year of the National Federation of High School Associations' (NFHS) annual participation survey due to the pandemic. This participation rate counts signups; if a student-athlete competed in three different sports, they are counted three times.

"I think Minnesota has always been known as a state that is sort of at the forefront of pushing for human and civil rights in a number of areas," said Nicole LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "And I think our participation numbers for girls in sport is a good indicator of that."

LaVoi called Title IX "critical" to that success and cited Minnesota's emphasis on providing equal opportunities, the cornerstone of the law, as a difference-maker.

"We know girls are interested and the Minnesota State High School League has provided a lot of opportunities for girls to play sports," LaVoi said. "And we know when girls are afforded the opportunity to play sports and be in the right environment, it leads to a lot of positive developmental health and psychosocial outcomes."

Erich Martens, the executive director of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), agreed. He pointed to the state championships directed by the MSHSL as indicative of equal opportunities for all student-athletes in its 24 state-sanctioned sports. Examples include both the boys' and girls' soccer state championships at U.S. Bank Stadium and both hockey tournaments at the Xcel Energy Center.

"Our focus is on providing great experiences and opportunities for girls in our activities, both our sports and our fine arts," Martens said. "And we're seeing that those numbers have continued to rise over the course of time."

There are several reasons behind Minnesota's rise to the top. Some are obvious, such as additions in Minnesota midway through the Title IX era of sports such as girls' hockey and girls' lacrosse, and the leaps in popularity in recent decades of running sports (cross-country, track and field) and soccer.

Some reasons are a little harder to define. Martens gave it a shot, calling it "part of Minnesota tradition" to be "always thinking about what are the opportunities for both genders and how do we make that equitable in all aspects."

More to come

When Dirth's Apple Valley coaching career began in 1980, the boys' participation rate was 22 percentage points higher than the girls'. That chasm has largely disappeared. Those two rates have been roughly even in recent surveys, with even a slight edge for the girls in some of the most recent surveys.

Volleyball (16,398 participants in the most recent survey) has led the way for 20-plus years in Minnesota girls' participation, with track and field, softball and basketball rounding out the top four. In recent years, cross-country and soccer have also topped 8,000 participants each. Thirteen different sports had more than 3,000 participants in Minnesota in 2019.

"Athletics have definitely come so much farther than when my parents were younger," Volkers said. "It's good to see how we get the same things boys get."

Mara Campbell, a Tartan teammate of Volkers, credits coaches for driving equality in the sports she plays.

"There's mutual support between the boys' teams and the girls' teams, and the same goes with coaches," she said. "Both teams are active and doing stuff year-round — even in the summer, camps for sports, both guys and girls have them. We both have access to the weight room and a weight-training camp — that's pretty cool."

That Volkers and Campbell can train and compete in multiple sports without a second thought is the exact confidence and comfort Dirth spent a career trying to instill in her athletes.

After practices, Dirth would often treat her teams to milkshakes or popsicles. This was her building a community. Once a girl saw a friend succeed, Dirth said, it became that much easier to encourage her to compete. As more and more girls succeeded over time, camaraderie and confidence grew — and participation, too.

Growing her team was a challenge Dirth did not see coming. She grew up in Iowa and never felt the need for legislation such as Title IX until she arrived in Minnesota and saw the lagging girls' participation.

"In Iowa, I never even heard of Title IX," Dirth said. "I played basketball all four years. I played softball. I didn't even realize that there weren't teams for girls until I moved to Minnesota."

Dirth and many others worked hard on change, and that work is far from over. LaVoi said this 50th anniversary is just as much about what needs to happen in the next 50 years.

Sports opportunities are "rooted in a system that privileges men and boys, that is built by men," she said. "That system takes a lot of time to change."

LaVoi wants to see major systemic change, pointing to the fact that girls still start sports later and drop out faster than boys. Girls are about two to three times more likely to drop out of sports in high school than their male counterparts, according to the Tucker Center.

Athletes can see the disparities, too. Josie Mlejnek and Cleo Jurkovich, members of the White Bear Lake High School track and field team, noted at a recent meet that a booster funding disparity led to the boys receiving school-branded windbreakers but not the girls.

"Because they get more stuff, they feel like they have power over us," Mlejnek said.

Mlejnek and Jurkovich are appreciative of the opportunities and taking full advantage, but they're not finished striving. Among their hopes of what's yet to come: an all-girl Bears football team.

Maia Irvin, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.