Bland County High School has canceled its 2019 varsity football season because of a lack of available players.

Bland assistant principal and athletic director Tyler Eastep said the decision was made Thursday after the number of players on the team dropped to “under 10” following several days of preseason practice.

Bland County, a VHSL Class 1 school in the Mountain Empire District, listed 29 players on its 2018 roster, including nine seniors.

Eastep said he was not expecting the situation to be this dire for 2019. He said the junior varsity schedule also has been canceled.

“You never see something like this,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Absolutely.

“We graduated a larger number, and the younger groups coming in … participation’s been, not an issue, but a worry. I think it’s not just a Bland County thing but a nationwide thing. Unfortunately, when it does it to a small school, it can be catastrophic.”

Bland County head coach Harris Hart was preparing to enter his 15th season with the Bears — the third-longest continuous tenure at a Timesland school — until Bland announced the cancellation of its 10-game schedule.

Eastep said the decision did not require a meeting of school administrators.

“There wasn’t a call to be made,” he said. “There weren’t enough kids to play. We had a couple days of practice. It just came to a point where we had to take another look at it.”

The Bland County AD said he is unsure whether the program will return in 2020.

“We don’t really know yet. We’re going to keep moving with our middle school-aged kids and take it day by day and kind of come up with a plan,” he said. “Hopefully, participation will come up.”

Eastep said Hart is committed to the Bland County program.

“That’s never wavered,” he said. “We’re extremely lucky to have him.”

Eastep was in the process of calling Bland County’s 10 scheduled opponents to officially inform their administrations.

Eastern Montgomery and Grayson County have already replaced Bland County on their 2019 schedules.

They will play Oct. 4 at EastMont, which originally was the Mustangs’ open date. EastMont now will be idle Sept. 27.

“We had kind of heard some rumblings that they were down to like, eight kids,” Eastern Montgomery AD Kirk Litton said. “I think everybody was trying to get a jump on getting some fill-ins just in case.”

Narrows has picked up Northwood as a replacement for Bland County with a home date on Sept. 6.

Bland County was scheduled to open the season Aug. 30 with a home game against Craig County, another school with historically low varsity numbers.

The Bears’ other scheduled games were Oct. 11 at Rural Retreat, Oct. 18 vs. Auburn, Oct. 25 at George Wythe, Nov. 1 vs. Galax and Nov. 8 at Fort Chiswell.

Bland County is the third VHSL to cancel its football season in the last two years.

Class 3 Manassas Park and Class 1 Charles City punted their 2018 seasons, while two other VHSL schools — Park View-Sterling and Bruton — played abbreviated schedules for reasons related to low turnout.

“A lot of that was over on the other end of the state,” Litton noted. “Bland is the first one on this end that it’s hit.”

Several independent schools in the VISAA including Virginia Episcopal in Lynchburg played eight-man football in 2018. The VHSL distributed a study to its 317-member schools in the offseason to gauge possible interest in the eight-man game among public schools.

“They’re a good argument for eight-man football,” Litton said of the Bears.

The Virginia Department of Education website listed Bland County with an enrollment of 260 students at the beginning of the 2018 school year.

The school — which was formed by the consolidation of Bland and Rocky Gap high schools — is the smallest member of the Mountain Empire District, which also includes Auburn, Fort Chiswell, Galax, George Wythe and Grayson County.

Bland County’s football program has posted just one winning season in the last 10 years, but as recently as 2015 the Bears finished 8-4 including a victory in the first round of the Region 1C playoffs.

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