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Out-of-the-box sports finding homes at high school level

1/12/2009

Friday Night Lights are in no danger of dimming in the foreseeable future. Basketball and baseball are doing just fine, too. Ditto other traditional high school sports like soccer, track, cross country, volleyball and softball.

But with millions of high schoolers scattered throughout the 50 states, there are plenty of interests beyond the mainstream sports. Some are quirky (double dutch), some are foreign (cricket), some are just plain fun (flag football) and some are simply inspiring (wheelchair basketball). All of them, however, are unique and worthy of some love.

So it's our pleasure to rank our Top 10 favorite non-traditional sports recognized by various high school state associations:

1. Wheelchair basketball
Nothing on this list is as inspirational as wheelchair basketball. Colleges around the country have long offered scholarships to talented players, while travel teams composed of high schoolers have also been around for a while. But recently, states like Illinois and Georgia have started offering wheelchair-bound athletes the chance to experience the pride and thrill of high school sports.

2. Double Dutch
For years, athletes have used jumping rope to get ready for competition. Now, jumping rope is the competition. Check that -- double dutch is the competition. Needing at least three participants and two ropes, double dutch consists of two people turning the ropes while one (or more) jumps over them, usually adding some flair with dance or acrobatic moves. This spring, double dutch will be played at 10 high schools in New York City.

3. Flag Football
With its emphasis on speed, athleticism and flatout fun, flag football is starting to catch up to softball and track in terms of popularity among girls in Florida. Recognized by the Florida High School Athletic Association since 2003 but played on a club level since 1998, flag football participation in the Sunshine State has grown by more than 500 percent in the past 10 years. Recently, the Boys &
Girls Clubs of America joined forces with the NFL to promote the sport around the country.

4. Cricket
Spend time in New York City parks and you'll undoubtedly see a game of cricket. So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that NYC's Public Schools Athletic League launched the nation's inaugural prep cricket season last spring. Fueled by the interest of immigrants coming from cricket-mad countries like India, 15 co-ed teams hit the field in 2008. And the name of the Queens school that won the inaugural title couldn't have been more appropriate -- Newcomers.

5. Bass Fishing
With the rise in popularity and TV exposure for pro bass fishing, it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the high school level. Starting this school year, bass fishing is an officially recognized activity by the Illinois High School Athletic Association. If Illinois has any success during the spring season, who knows how many other states will be lured in by the sport.

6. Synchronized Swimming

On the radar of most Americans once every four years during the Summer Olympics, synchronized swimming is actually part of many high schoolers' lives year round. The nation's largest state-sanctioned
program is in Minnesota, where nearly 500 participants competed in 2007-08. The numbers might not be huge, but anyone who can pull off those ballet-like moves while treading water with a clip on their nose and gelatin holding their hair has our respect.

7. Fencing
Limited mostly to the movies these days as a relic of another era, fencing can't keep up with the major sports. But in some areas, it's thriving at the high school level. The Georgia High School Fencing
League was created four years ago with just two schools and now has 13. Fencing is also huge in New Jersey, with major newspapers putting out team rankings and Player of the Year honors.

8. Weightlifting
We all know how impressive those Olympic power-lifting competitions look on TV. Well, turns out high schoolers -- male and female -- are showing their muscle in similar competitions at the state level. In Florida, for instance, last year's girls' champion in the 101-pound class recorded a bench press of 120 pounds and a clean and jerk of 145.

9. Bowling

We thought bowling was cool way back when The Dude was hitting the lanes in "The Big Lebowski." Nowadays, the coolness is catching on in high school. And we're talking as an officially recognized sport, not on the Wii. During the 2007-08 season, 51,744 high school students participated in bowling (compared to 45,288 participants in ice hockey), an increase of 53 percent since 2003-04.

10. Archery
Participation is scattered across the country, but more than 1,500 boys and girls let the arrows fly for their high school teams last year. And if it were up to us, every competitor would have to shout, "This arrow shall blot out the sun!" before each shot. But that might just be our lingering obsession with "300" talking.