SEE ALSO: Many former players now coach for free

The same number of athletes are still out on the playing fields.

And they're still learning from the same number of coaches, although more and more coaches are giving those lessons for free.

It's a result of the trickle-down of budget cuts to school districts in York County. Athletic departments haven't dodged the cuts.

And in recent years, some athletic directors have dealt with the cutbacks by eliminating paid assistant coaching positions.

Northeastern athletic director Bryan Stephens said it's either that or find other ways to save money.

York High assistant football coach Patrick Weider works with player Jon Philips before the team s game last week at Northeastern High School. Weider is one
York High assistant football coach Patrick Weider works with player Jon Philips before the team s game last week at Northeastern High School. Weider is one of York High s volunteer coaches. MORE PHOTOS (Randy Flaum)

"Cutting a program completely, I am absolutely against," Stephens said. "And we could go the route of an extracurricular fee, but we are already a cash-strapped school district. I'm just not ready to do that. So, basically the decision was to cut back on coaches."

Positions: A study of coaching staffs at 14 high schools in York County conducted by The York Dispatch found that three high schools reported a drop-off in the number of paid assistants from the 2010-11 school year to the 2011-12 school year.

Six school districts reported decreases in the amount of money spent on coaching salaries during the same time period. Two other high schools put a salary freeze in place for all coaches.

Dallastown, Kennard-Dale and Susquehannock slashed a combined 31 paid coaching positions in the 2011-12 school year. However, Kennard-Dale athletic director Gary McChalicher said although the Rams left three coaching spots vacant in the 2011-12 school year because they could not find qualified applicants, those positions were not eliminitaed from the athletic budget.

Northeastern and York High have cut a combined 28 positions this year, though total salary information isn't available yet for this school year because districts are still filling winter and spring coaching vacancies.

Volunteers: While there were assistant positions cut in a variety of sports, many came in boys' basketball, field hockey, football, swimming, boys' and girls' volleyball and wrestling.

To make up for the loss in paid assistants, most head coaches said they have put an added emphasis on booster clubs and fundraising.

But the common solution has been relying on volunteer coaches.

"Necessity breeds invention," Dallastown swim coach Rich Howley said. "What we do is try to get a little bit more creative. We have a lot more volunteering. We help each other out wherever we can."

Howley, who has been involved in the Dallastown swim program in some capacity since 1986, lost a paid assistant position last year. But that coach stayed on board as a volunteer.

The Wildcats now have three paid coaching positions -- Howley, a diving coach and an assistant -- and two volunteer coaches. The program typically has around 60 to 70 swimmers each year, Howley said.

"Hopefully things will turn around and we'll get back to a sustainable budget," Howley said. "As of right now, we're in pretty good shape because of our staff. We have a staff that's very committed."

Susquehannock boys' basketball coach John Zerfing is in a similar situation. The Warriors' basketball program lost one paid assistant position last winter.

"We were lucky in that the person who filled that position teaches in the school district and was able to stay on board as a volunteer," Zerfing said.

The program, which normally has 16 to 20 players each season, now has two paid positions -- Zerfing and a junior varsity coach -- and one volunteer coach.

"We could get by with two (coaches) because we practice together, junior varsity and varsity. We're one of the few programs who do that," Zerfing said. "Our numbers situation allows us to get by with two, but having a third person certainly helps. We can break into three groups to get more accomplished. And you have another set of eyes to evaluate players."

Sustainable? Some athletic directors aren't sure if their budgets will get better or worse in the near future.

"That's the million dollar question," Dallastown athletic director Tory Harvey said. "I know we're going to start the budget discussion process here in a couple weeks."

For Stephens at Northeastern, he said he's not sure what he'll do if he has to cut back even more in coming years. He just knows he doesn't want to have cut more coaching positions.

"I couldn't do that to my staff anymore," he said.

In the meantime, many coaches are taking an optimistic approach at making their current situations sustainable.

"I think a large majority of them (volunteers), if not all, will continue to stick with this," York High football coach Shawn Heinold said.

The Bearcats cut six sports programs this year in addition to dropping an athletic director position and eliminating seven other paid assistant positions -- two in cheerleading and five in football.

York High's football program, which includes freshman, junior varsity and varsity, went from nine paid coaches to four this year. Four other coaches stayed on as volunteers, although Heinold said he hoped to fundraise to pay the volunteers.

"Money is not a big issue," Heinold said. "We're talking a few thousand dollars (for the assistant positions). Hopefully through fundraising and other means, we'll find enough."

Howley feels the same.

"This downturn in the economy has hit everybody. Fortunately so far our swimmers and swimming program have been able to survive to a point," Howley said. "Maybe down the road there will have to be some adjustments. But I'll keep looking at it like the glass is half-full."

- Reach John Walk at jwalk@yorkdispatch.com.