Tuesday, January 3, 2006

A Small School's Dilemma

In last Thursday's Lancaster Times-Clinton Courier, new sports editor Tom Flanagan penned a column criticizing North Central Charter School for scheduling a boys basketball game against perennial Division III powerhouse Bromfield. His conclusion:

I thought the host school handled the situation in the most dignified and classy manner possible. My problem is with the visiting school and the decision to schedule such a game in the first place.

The school is new and so is the athletic program, so the learning curve must be factored in, and we must assume that the administration meant no harm to its student-athletes and will learn from its error in judgment.

However, several new athletic programs have surfaced in area high schools as of late and have not put the emotional and perhaps more importantly, the physical well-being of its students at risk.

For example, when area schools start a lacrosse program, they almost always compete at the junior varsity level for a year, or two, or three before swimming with the sharks.

I certainly would never campaign for a school to forbid students from competing in sports, but there has to be realistic expectations put in place.

There is a valuable life lesson that can be taken from learning how to deal with adversity, disappointment and losing, but there's also no reason to put a group of young kids in a situation where the result almost certainly will lead to embarrassment or injury.

I know what you're probably asking, and the answer is 69-17.

Flanagan is missing part of the story. In fact, I think he's missed the mark nearly altogether with his point.

North Central is a new program. This is their first year with a varsity level team, but they did play at a junior varsity level last year, as Flanagan suggested a young lacrosse program might. In fact, they continue to bring programs along slowly, as they are fielding a junior varsity girls team this year, in hopes of moving to the varsity level in the future.

How do I know this? Because like SLA, North Central Charter School is a member of the Worcester County Athletic Conference. A conference of schools with similar athletic philosophies, histories, and of similar sizes. The conference has three schools (Abby Kelley Foster Charter School and Bethany Christian School) that are in either their first or second year of MIAA athletics, one school (University Park) in their third season, and the Parker School, a fifth year team.

Only SLA and St. Mary's have anything that would resemble an athletic history (both schools have fielded teams that made the district final four, though not recently), and both of those schools have under 100 students.

As a member of the conference, North Central plays home and home with the other six schools. That's 12 games against the six smallest schools in Division III. That seems like pretty good judgement to me. I'm not sure what else North Central needs to do. Should they not schedule non-conference games? Just play 12 contests because their team isn't very good?

Filling out a schedule as a first year team is difficult. You have no history, no track record to go on. You play whoever will give you a game. Some teams are more than willing to schedule you because the may need one more win to make the playoffs, or gain a high seed, other teams will refuse to play you because you won't be competitive, or because they have nothing to gain.

When we scheduled our first season at SLA the boys ended up with Division I Shepherd Hill, Division II St. Bernard's, and Division III powerhouses St. Mary's (at the time, not any longer)and Nipmuc. That's the best we could do. There were nights when that team got pounded, but the freshmen on that team ended up leading the Crusaders to their only final four appearance as Seniors. So was it worth it? I'll bet the players on that team would say it absolutely was.

Were there unrealistic expectations? No. We knew that we were going to get pounded, but we also knew that as we established a track record we could carve out a place in our own right, and that would allow us to solidify a schedule, develop rivalries etc.

I'd guess that North Central would have preferred to play teams other than Bromfield and Whitinsville this season, but perhaps it was all they could find. They already have 12 games lined up against the smallest schools in the district. When you're starting from scratch, you can only schedule up.
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