Senior Sam Heneger takes the field against Olathe South on a fall Friday night football game. He looks across the field only to see what seemed like a cinder block with legs huddle up with the opposing defense. “Oh my goodness,” Heneger says to his teammate, senior Tyler Nelson. “Holy crap. Who is that?” Nelson replies. Heneger then remembers the team’s scouting report sheet that the players are given before every game. Number eighty-seven. Six-foot five, 240 pounds. This is the kid everyone was talking about, Heneger thinks as he watches South player after South player take the field, all of them ranging from 180 pounds to 250 pounds.
That evening, East lost to a much thicker and much more athletic Olathe South, 28-24.
“It might just be something in their water out there in Olathe or because of their earlier weight training in middle school, but these kids were huge,” Heneger said. “Last year a kid outweighed me by over 110 pounds. They seem like they have really good team chemistry and have been doing weight training for longer than a lot of the kids on our team.”
Since 1987 the Shawnee Mission School District has been without organized middle school sports teams. While SMSD has not had any teams, districts like Blue Valley and Olathe have had organized teams in basketball, volleyball, football, cross country and track starting in middle school. According to the Olathe School District athletic director Lane Green, the middle school teams have helped young athletes get ready for high school sports.
“I think there is a correlation between having middle school sports teams and our high school athletic success,” Green said.
The relationship between playing organized school sports and classroom success is something Green also feels has helped the students learn key skills.
“Middle school sports teach kids how to go to school and balance practices with academics,” Green said. “The kids develop a lot of discipline and good habits at an early age.”
Green believes that if Shawnee Mission were to reinstate middle school sports it would help the kids academically, because kids that get involved tend to do better in school.
“There’s research that involvement with being connected to your school correlates with academic achievement,” Green said.
Unfortunately according to Indian Hills Middle School principal Carla Allen, it is almost impossible to have those kinds of teams in Shawnee Mission middle schools.
“It would be great to have them, but we are in one of the worst financial situations in high schools in Kansas ever,” Allen said. “I don’t think we will be able to reinstate the middle school sports teams any time soon.”
Associate principal Jeremy Higgins knows firsthand how helpful and fun middle school sports can be for students. Higgins grew up in the small town of Lyons, Kansas and played football, basketball, wrestled and ran track for Lyons Middle School.
“It felt like a high school at a smaller level,” Higgins said. “Not only did it prepare us for high school sports and dealing with both sports and school, but it was also nice to have all the school spirit and feel that kind of connection with your middle school.”
Higgins believes that if SMSD were to have middle school sports again it would be a huge asset for the middle school student in terms of school spirit and camaraderie, and would help them connect to the school better.
But Higgins agrees with Allen that it is just not the right time for middle school sports even with all the advantages of having them. With all the budgets cuts, the district board hasn’t even brought it up at meetings in a long time.
“I see no negative in middle school sports — the drawback is costs,” Higgins said. “There is the cost of uniforms, equipment, facilities, coaches, buses and officials. It’s not cheap and right now people are more concerned with having enough teachers in classrooms.”
Higgins says that the board wants to make sure we can keep the fine arts department, theatre department and other programs like high school athletics, which all cost money to run.
“We are more focused on keeping those programs in place than bringing something new in.”
Higgins believes that until the financial crisis gets resolved, intramural sports have been working as a great substitute in place of organized teams in middle schools. Right now, Indian Hills has kickball, flag football, cross country, whiffle ball and volleyball available to their students. Although the intramural sports may be mostly recreational, Higgins thinks that they help kids get to know the coaches in high schools and the coaches get to know the kids at an early age.
“It may mostly be just an hour or two a couple days a week, but the intramural sports do help establish an early relationship with the coaches and the middle school athletes,” Higgins said.
“But as of now, anything more than that is simply not possible.”