Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

July 3, 2014

Panel suggests joining TMSAA next year

Principal asks for year delay

CROSSVILLE — A committee of coaches and administrators has recommended the county's elementary schools join the Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association (TMSAA) to provide structure and guidelines for school sports programs.

But some would like a delay in the implementation of the recommendations and others worry that the recommendations would lead to a reduction in athletic opportunities at schools.

"The community is rich in elementary athletics. I had the privilege of being a part of that myself over the years, playing as well as coaching," said Radhika Miller, CCHS girls basketball coach. "By all means, we want to continue to promote participation. We want to make sure that our young students who want to participate have the opportunity to participate, as well as continue to foster the progression of athletes who may want to compete at the next level."

The committee is recommending starting with the TMSAA rules this school year, and wants to study co-opting some teams in sports with limited numbers, including football, baseball, softball and other sports.

Darrell Threet, principal at South Cumberland Elementary, did not want to implement the rules this next school year, saying parents needed time to know what the rules would be.

"I asked the committee for a year of transition. Let the parents know ahead of time what you're going to do," Threet said. "If they had planned to hold their child back, they should be allowed without penalty. Football, they've been practicing but they may not be able to play fifth graders. The only thing I asked was for a year of transition to let the parents know ahead of time. That is fair."

Benefits of joining the TMSAA include standards for eligibility, calendars, transfers and rules. Also, the governing body can also handle complaints and violations.

"Any violations, eligibility issues, complaints, anything, just pickup the phone and you can ask them," said Miller. "They deal with this on a daily basis. They have the knowledge. They have the experience. That's what they deal with every day. Our first priority is academics in this county. These gentlemen, their focus is athletics throughout the state."

The organization also provides affordable catastrophic insurance. The yearly fee is $300, $200 of which pays for the insurance.

"At this time, there is no catastrophic insurance in our district," said Miller, adding such policies for small school districts can cost $2,000 to $2,500.

The committee recognized the rich history of elementary athletics in the county, but Willie Patton, Stone Elementary coach, noted TMSAA membership would allow for greater competition for teams, with teams able to travel outside of the county to face tougher competitors. However, allowing each school in the county to play each other team at least once would be a priority, along with the annual tournament.

Miller said, "The county elementary tournament is great in this community. It should be. However, this also promotes opportunity for first and second place [to advance]."

Winners of that county tournament could progress through the TMSAA tournament to district and regional levels, based on classification.

Joining TMSAA would involve some changes, such as in how elementary sports are classified. Currently, elementary schools have junior varsity (JV) teams in basketball that can include students in grades 3 through 6, with varsity teams for grades 6-8. Under TMSAA, sports teams for grades 3 through 6 would become "elementary" teams, while the teams for grades 6-8 would be called "middle school" teams.

Younger students would be prohibited from playing on the middle school teams. This could affect some schools who have used younger athletes to fill out their roster. Patton said this would affect his team, which has two fifth graders playing varsity basketball.

"I can't do that with this," he said. "But this is not about me or my team. It's about the future and establishing clear, set guidelines."

Also, TMSAA does not allow students to participate in athletics if they have been held back a year. Patton noted the decision to hold a student back is made by the parent and can be for many reasons. Typically, students are held back in the 6th grade, as the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association prohibits a student who repeated seventh or eighth grade and participated in school athletics from participating in school athletics in the ninth grade.

Sixth-grade students who repeat the school year would be allowed to participate on the elementary teams, but not the middle school teams.

Patton said, "We're not trying to [get rid of JV sports]. We're not trying to do that at all. We're trying to promote participation instead of decrease it."

Coaches would need to complete training on the fundamentals of coaching and first aid, health and safety for coaches.

"There is constant regulation regarding their training, as well as regulations for non-faculty coaches," Miller said.

TMSAA provides a calendar that would reduce overlap of sports seasons, making it possible for student athletes to participate in more teams. The calendar specifies dead periods in the summer at the end of June and first of July. There are also restrictions in off-season and summer practices.

"Students can play any sport they want without there being a conflict of having to choose one because I can't do both," Patton said.

There would be a maximum number of games, such as 18 for basketball, and tournaments would count as two games.

Several board members balked at the idea of co-opting teams, which allows schools to combine with another school in order to field a team if there is not adequate participation. That is already allowed under current policy, with Pine View Elementary students playing football at Crab Orchard.

Dave Prichard, CCHS baseball coach, has coached the county-wide elementary baseball team for several years. TMSAA would allow that to continue, with one school serving as the base school.

"When you look at some of these other sports, you're talking about practicality with limited numbers," Prichard said. "For example, if I tried to have a baseball team at every elementary school, we couldn't even play a game. It would be ridiculous."

Co-opting also has added benefits of building familiarity among players with the high school facilities and coaches, as well as teammates.

"When I get a freshman, he's not a stranger to my program. He's not a stranger to my facility. He's not a stranger to who I am. He's not a stranger to the other guys he's playing with," Prichard said.

It also makes it easier to find quality coaches, Prichard said.

"I couldn't find eight baseball coaches, either. It's hard enough to find one," he said.

In the case of elementary football teams, the committee had safety concerns with students as young as fifth grade allowed to play on teams with eighth-grade students. Football is also an expensive sport to provide due to the cost of equipment, Prichard said, adding principals had said football programs lose money.

The committee is not asking for any changes to football teams this fall, as spring practice had already started while they were discussing possible changes. The committee wants to study the number of students participating in football and see if it might make sense to consolidate teams from eight in the county to four or two teams.

David Bowman, 7th District representative, said, "When did a piece of plastic, which is all the championship trophy is made of, become more important than a kid getting to participate? There has been a push all four years I've been on the board to combine the football teams so they're better in high school."

Bowman said a lot of kids playing at the elementary level will likely never play at the high school level, but the participation helps keep them interested in elementary school.

"The communities have a lot of pride in their sports programs. If we do this, it will take a lot of say away from parents," Bowman added.

Jim Blalock, 8th District representative, said, "I disagree 100 percent with this. You're cutting out the little schools' football teams. They've got pride in their schools, too."

He said students from other schools would likely be shut out from playing on other schools' teams. Prichard disagreed schools would not play the other school's players.

"If I'm coaching, I'm going to play a kid who can play, no matter where they're from," he said.

Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, said, "David, you're right, we don't need to shut down the opportunity, but the other side of that coin is this will provide that opportunity if there are not enough students."

Bowman said that opportunity currently exists. He also noted excluding fifth graders from participation could harm smaller schools' teams.

"Pine View may need fifth graders to field a team," Bowman said. "But I've gone to their gym. There is more spirit in that little school than many of our big schools. I've seen how much spirit they have in their schools. We'd be killing it."

Amy Hester, a parent of a student at Brown Elementary, noted her daughter had been injured playing as a fourth grader on varsity.

"She did get hurt. Her injury was minor — a chipped tooth and a bloody mouth. But she was playing against eighth graders. We need to look at that," Hester said. "Some schools, like Brown, may not have a team without younger players...The idea of co-opting worried me, but the more I've heard, maybe it is a good idea. I kept thinking my child may not have the same opportunity as these other schools, but it could pull students together to make a team. That put me more at ease."

Miller said, "It is never our intention to limit participation. But did a school have enough players to field a team? That is where that came from. I think every kid should have the opportunity to play multiple sports they want to be involved in. We're not trying to limit anyone's participation. We want to provide the structure."

Bowman noted there was a lot of competition at the elementary level and complaints of teams faring much better than others in the county.

"I hate when we play South, because South is good," Bowman said. "But South has not done anything illegal. They have not done anything that every school in Cumberland County can't do. They put in the time. They put in the effort. Everybody can do that. I want to beat South, but I don't want to beat them by tying their hands behind their back. I want to beat them because we got better than them."

Threet added in his comments that there were many times South Cumberland teams lost games dramatically.

"There were some games at South we were lucky to get out of single digits. We'd go to other schools and get beat 60 to less than 10. Nothing was ever said about that. We got pounded. We took it. We didn't say a word," Threet said.

Schlafer thanked the committee for their work, noting he had first proposed joining TMSAA in 2002.

"I am thrilled that you folks want to move in this direction," he said. "I had thought it was a dead issue. We've evolved, obviously, and this makes great sense for us in many ways."

Schlafer was concerned about how students who had already been allowed to stay back in the sixth grade would be affected with the change at this date. If schools moved forward with TMSAA in the coming school year, those students could not play on the middle school teams.

Director of Schools Donald Andrews said, "This is a work in progress. We feel strongly we should implement this year and work through the process next year that, by the end of the second or third year, we will have a middle school athletic program that we feel like will be competitive and academically, socially sound across the board for all of our sports."

No action was taken on the proposal by the committee, though Andrews said the board would be asked in the future to approve a budget amendment to provide the $2,700 to pay for schools to join the association.

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