Slashing sophomore sports would cut to the core of their programs, city high school coaches say.
And if pay-to-play keeps those sophomore programs afloat, the coaches reluctantly would accept that alternative.
In anticipation of cuts in state education funding, Lawrence's school board is leaning toward a pay-to-play plan for sports and extracurricular activities and also a pay-to-ride bus system. City high school coaches have been abuzz since talks surfaced last month of potential program cuts and the pay-to-play proposal, in which student-athletes would be required to foot a $60 bill to play one sport.
"Football is a numbers game and anytime you talk about cutting sophomore football or pay-to-play, it's going to hurt our numbers," said Dirk Wedd, LHS head football coach the past three years after serving as an assistant for nine years. "In the long run, it'll hurt the program."
Lawrence High and Free State High offer sophomore programs for football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball.
Mike Hill, Free State head baseball coach and assistant football coach, recently served on a budget subcommittee in which members analyzed potential cuts for extracurricular activities.
"We did not recommend cutting sophomore sports," said Hill, who has approximately 50 players total on his varsity, junior varsity and sophomore teams. "We were nitpicking at certain areas that could be downsized. We looked at intramurals at high school and the junior high level. We did not call for the abolishment of sophomore athletics."
The pay-to-play proposal bothers Hill and other city coaches.
"I don't want to see kids have to pay to play athletics," Hill said. "If the alternative is no athletics, then we'd be advocates for pay-to-play."
Playing high school sports already is costly, Hill said, especially in baseball. Participants are required to supply their own bat and glove, which amounts to approximately $350.
"There has to be a way to protect those who don't have the ability to pay for that," Hill said.
From the school budget, Hill is allotted $1,500 for his baseball program. That doesn't cover transportation and umpire fees, Hill said. The money goes toward equipment and uniforms.
Hill has held fund-raisers to help support the program. Baseball players sell advertisements that are placed on the outfield fence at the FSHS field.
"The last thing I want to do is raise money," Hill said. "I'm not very good at it and I don't like to beg. But as a coach you feel you have to provide kids the best program you can, so you try to raise funds."
LHS athletic director Ron Commons wasn't stunned to hear pay-to-play discussions surface.
"It doesn't surprise me that it has come about," Commons said. "I think it's a great alternative to make sure we don't have to cut programs even though pay-to-play might cause a few student-athletes to not be able to participate because of financial reasons.
"If you have a three-sport athlete that rides the bus, all of the sudden you're paying to ride the bus to school and then paying for a fall sport, winter sport and spring sport."
Wedd also was wary of pay-to-play talks.
"The biggest concern I would have is for a young man to come to me and say he wants to play football and not have money," Wedd said. "You can't turn your back on a kid like that."
Sophomore sports positive
From a physical and developmental standpoint, sophomore sports are the lifeblood for varsity teams.
"In any sport, the fun of competing is to play a game," Wedd said. "Nobody just wants to practice. Fifteen-year-old kids would practice against 18-year-old kids with no reward at the end of the week. They're going to get pounded on and then they don't get to play a game. We'd lose x number of kids who won't come out as juniors because of the experience they had as sophomores. That'd be a big detriment to the program."
With Lawrence High having enrollment of 1,352 students and Free State High at 1,149, chances for sophomores to play varsity team sports are limited.
"We play football in the toughest league (Sunflower) in the state of Kansas," fifth-year FSHS football coach Bob Lisher said. "Generally you have two or three sophomores on average that are physically ready to play against seniors that have been lifting weights for three years. For the most part, sophomores need time to get extra coaching, get fundamentally sound to build strength to compete. If you delete that, that's a death sentence to your program. You don't have the ability to get them physically and mentally ready to play.
"People don't realize that it's a program. It's not a three-month season. In order to compete in the league, you have to dedicate yourselves in the weight room year round. Football coaching is pretty much a year-round job. It used to be a season and you're done."
FSHS boys basketball coach Jack Schreiner had three players from his sophomore program Aubrey Gilbert, Damian Harden and Sam Strickler-Hut work their way to the varsity level by their senior year.
"I'm a firm believer what's best for our kids is we need to keep our sophomore programs," said Schreiner, Free State's coach since the school opened in 1997. "Some develop at different speeds."
Activities and academics
Coaches realize the district's budget crises encompasses more than sports and other extracurricular activities. Sports complement academics, coaches say.
"There's not a coach who would argue not to protect the classroom," Hill said. "There are studies on studies that demonstrate how important athletics and any extracurricular activities are. Grade-point averages are higher and drop-out rates are lower."
Lisher would like the athletic programs to remain intact.
"We feel academics are important and the focus of the school, but we feel athletic programs are important, too," Lisher said. "Athletics teach life lessons that you can't learn anywhere else."