Bob Lisher has experienced the benefits of coaching in a four-class high school system, so when Lawrence school board members voted this week to make the transition from a three-year high school system to a four-year system — subsequently allowing all ninth-grade students to participate in high school athletics for the first time — the Free State football coach wasn’t exactly complaining.
Quite the opposite, actually.
“In my opinion, I would have liked to have seen it a little sooner,” Lisher said Wednesday, two days after the board’s decision. “I went from Lawrence High to Blue Valley North (in 1994), which was a four-year high school, and there, I saw the advantage of having freshmen not only in athletics, but also in the building.”
Yes, news this week that Lawrence would be shaking up its current school system (as of now, students in grades 10 through 12 attend high school, students in grades seven through nine attend junior high, and students in kindergarten through sixth grade attend elementary school) was met with seemingly widespread excitement by city high school coaches, who figure to represent some of the biggest benefactors in the change in class breakdown.
In contrast to the city’s previous system — in which freshmen athletes in sports offered at the junior high level could not compete for high school teams until their junior high seasons had been completed, typically preventing them from being included on JV and varsity rosters — the new system will allow all freshmen athletes to begin practicing at the high school level beginning this fall, a year before freshmen are officially moved into high school buildings.
The potential athletic benefits of the decision appear to be numerous, from providing various programs with a boost in overall numbers to giving coaches an extra year to work with athletes who were previously relegated to junior high teams.
“By adding freshman to our program, that just provides us some very needed depth right away,” Lawrence High girls basketball coach Nick Wood said. “On top of that, it’s also exciting that I’m going to be able to know those kids for four years instead of just three. So I can get to know them, they can get used to me, and we can start developing them as freshmen instead of trying to play catch-up with them as sophomores.”
According to Lawrence High athletic director Ron Commons, Lawrence was the last city in the state to transition to a four-class high school system, a fact that led to grumbles that sophomore athletes in the city often arrived at the high school level a year behind athletes at other state high schools who were part of prep programs from the start of the ninth-grade school years.
“Absolutely,” said Lisher, asked whether the change figures to make local high school programs stronger. “Just the fact that we get them in there and get them in the weight room and get them stronger. They’ve come in kind of behind (in the past), because freshmen at other schools have done those things. This gives us an opportunity to get our guys in there and get them a little stronger.”
While not all prep sports teams will be affected by the change — various programs, including city baseball and wrestling teams, have been free to incorporate freshmen into their lineups since those sports aren’t offered at the junior high level — those that are will be undergoing a potentially fruitful transition.
Sports that figure to see a significant impact will be football, volleyball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls basketball and boys and girls track and field — sports that were offered at the junior high level and subsequently prevented ninth-grade athletes from working with high school programs for the majority of the high school season.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary could come in football and boys and girls basketball — sports in which participation numbers are traditionally high and familiarity with a program and playbook often proves beneficial in the long-run.
“My greatest goal, to be perfectly honest, is I want those freshmen to have a great experience the first time they’re associated with Lawrence High School,” LHS football coach Dirk Wedd said. “That’s my biggest concern. I don’t want them to be an afterthought. I want to give them every opportunity to have that experience.”
As is to be expected in a shift of this magnitude, there are still kinks to be worked out.
Coaches and athletic directors at the two schools are unsure how some of the details of the change will be sorted out between now and next fall — things like scheduling, facilities and the distribution of equipment.
“Scheduling is one of the issues that we’re dealing with first, (as well as) how many coaches are going to be able to move up and (be) added here at the high school level,” Commons said. “I’m not sure how much money’s going to be available to buy any new uniforms or equipment to make that move.”
In addition, transportation — freshmen will have to be transported to their future high schools for a year before the actual movement of ninth-grade classes into LHS and Free State occurs during the fall of the 2011-2012 school year — is another issue that will have to be ironed out.
Still, the potential benefits for city sports teams seem to outweigh the negatives, and as the reality of the board’s decision began to spread throughout the two city high schools this week, there didn’t appear to be many who didn’t support the upcoming transition.
“I was looking forward to this happening — having an opportunity like this to be a part of the high school,” Commons said. “And I’m looking forward to putting this all together and making it work.”