Hometown Report

Hometown Report: Elk Grove Unified School District brings back freshman athletics

Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson

Months after the Elk Grove Unified School District celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, bad news crashed the party in the form of a guillotine-size budget cut. Freshman sports were eliminated, severing athletic opportunities in what can be a critical development year.

On Wednesday, the Elk Grove Board of Education voted 4-3 to reinstate freshman sports effective this fall after hearing arguments made by parents.

Varsity coaches and parents celebrated. Athletic directors expressed mixed emotions. While it was a victory for future ninth-graders, athletic directors realized they now face a chaotic spring to find and hire qualified coaches.

“This is great news, a cartwheel sort of good news,” said Franklin football coach Mike Johnson, who has spoken passionately of the benefits of freshman sports. “It’s been a terrible thing for young kids in our district to not have freshman teams, boys or girls. It hurts to cut kids, and it’s just not right. We’re an academic district and an athletic district, and it all works together.

“If you lose kids early because you cut them, before they develop and mature, they don’t re-enter sports. You lose them. And it can be a very difficult, intimidating transition from eighth grade to high school, but sports really helps. All of a sudden, you have buddies, you’re engaged in sports, and you’re hooked once you step on campus.”

National studies show students who are involved in sports perform better in class. Self-esteem is often tied to sports, coaches say.

Said Elk Grove football coach Chris Nixon: “Freshman sports give kids a chance to develop at their own pace, and kids get to experience the positive lessons of commitment, team building and the character that sports provide. It’s a great investment.”

So why such a narrow 4-3 triumph when the positives are clear?

“Some (on the Board of Education) thought it was too soon, that we need more time to hire good people, good coaches, not just the first person who throws his hands up and wants to coach,” Pleasant Grove athletic director Jeff Caton said. “There’s no argument to not have freshman sports, but we don’t want to feel rushed, pushed up against the wall, in trying to put it all together. We want a quality product on the field, not just a product.”

And the parent role is always a factor, Caton said.

“Parents were vocal in wanting freshman sports for their kids right away, but will they later complain that a coach doesn’t know what he’s doing, maybe because it was a rushed hire?” Caton said.

Caton said freshman coaching candidates not only must be qualified but also complete a clearance process. Coaches have to be fingerprint screened, undergo CPR and first-aid training, take concussion courses and fill out mounds of paperwork.

“And here’s the kicker,” Caton said, already sounding rushed, “for any teams that run summer programs, coaches have to have that clearance complete before those workouts. We’re talking a matter of weeks.”

What isn’t clear is how the district plans to fund freshman athletics after they were deemed expendable just four years ago?

“Freshman sports are a very good thing, and it’s a bit difficult getting all the fall sports (on such short notice), but we will deal with it and find a way,” Sheldon Principal Paula Duncan said.

One concern is the sizable gap in participation and competitive balance within the EGUSD athletic programs. Cosumnes Oaks, Elk Grove, Franklin and Pleasant Grove expect an avalanche of interest for freshman football (Pleasant Grove had a 98-man junior varsity roster last season, many of them freshmen who played very little). But what about Florin, Laguna Creek and Valley, schools that dropped freshman football because of low numbers before the district dropped freshman sports four years ago?

“That’s a real concern,” Caton said. “Parents of incoming freshmen might send their kids to other schools with open enrollment, and that’s damaging, too.”

High school football can invigorate a campus, not to mention raise money to help fund all athletic programs. And on a general competitive scale, EGUSD coaches – and parents – understand regional powerhouses such as Folsom, Del Oro, Granite Bay, Oak Ridge, Rocklin and Jesuit, among others, benefit from freshman teams. Schools with freshman programs, it can be argued, hold an advantage in football because of the playing experience gained.

Johnson agreed, but he brought the reinstatement news back to the most immediate rewards.

“Freshman (sports) is not about wins and losses,” Johnson said. “But having freshman football back gives kids an opportunity to learn how to put on a helmet, learn how to block, learn how to play. It’s all about education.”