COLUMN: A welcome change for middle school athletics

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KHSAA to focus on safety

By John Herndon

Whenever I think I have seen it all, a trip to a middle school athletic event is usually about all I need to realize I have not.

And I never will.

In this job, I don't get to attend a lot of middle school games, regardless of the sport. It's more a matter of having only so many hours in a week than anything else. 

But over the years I have heard some great stories.

There was the one about a kid scoring 20 points in a basketball game one night and forgetting to bring his practice gear to school the next day. I have seen kids shoot at the wrong goal.

And I have witnessed kids who have physically matured faster than other simply dominate at the middle school level, then over the next few years disappear and never be heard from again.

On a personal note, I love attending an Anderson County Middle School game and seeing players point at me when they see the local media around. It's because they know they will be getting a little bit of press.

There's a reason it's called “middle school.” It is an in-between time. It's after elementary school, where things are usually spelled out clearly and tightly structured, but before the care-free high school years. They are years when kids are finding themselves in many ways, including athletics.

Unfortunately, over the years, those middle school athletics had become almost a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants proposition with very little supervision. That is thankfully coming to an end.

In case you missed it, the Kentucky Board of Education recently authorized the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to manage middle school sports statewide. According to a news release from the KHSAA, the “areas of focus will center on student safety, sports medicine, best practices and the general welfare of the students as well as controls on specific outside groups who conduct middle school athletic events.”

This is something that has been talked about for several years. In fact, I was working on a story back in the winter but never really had enough material to feel comfortable running it. I sat down with Anderson County Middle School football coach Brian Holloman about the situation.

At the time, Holloman noted that each school set its own policies. “We have no guidelines,” he said. “We try to follow the KHSAA, but we are not bound by that. There is no governing body for middle schools.”

Some sports, most notably football and wrestling, have already been trying to organize, providing some guidelines and sponsoring state championships.

Boys' and girls' basketball have state championship tournaments, but they are, in reality, affairs where anyone can enter. Their champions are, however, widely recognized as the state's best.

Clay Birdwhistell, who coached girls' basketball at Anderson Middle for seven years, saw the lack of guidelines first hand. Some schools, like Anderson County and members of its Salt River Conference, currently play a schedule that starts in August and runs through November. It is over before the high school season starts. Others play a traditional winter schedule while some play a modified schedule, starting in late September or early October and running through January.

Birdwhistell recalls, “One year, we played a team that had played 38 regular season games.”

The KHSAA allows high schools to play 26 before post-season.

Under the new guidelines, middle school coaches must meet some requirements similar to those a the high school level, including taking sports safety courses and enforcing heat-related guidelines.

It should be noted that Anderson County had already been doing this but was not required to do so.

The KHSAA will continue allowing seventh- and eighth-graders to continue to play at the high school level, but kids sixth-grade and down will no longer be eligible.

Some sports, most notably, football and soccer, do not allow middle school athletes to play at the high school level because of safety concerns.

The changes are for the good, no question. They will be going into effect during the 2014-15 school year.

The new rules will not be the same, which is as it should be. Middle school sports are just different from varsity sports. All of the rules that govern older kids might not be in the best interest of middle schoolers.

And, those three “in-between” years are years of growth and physical and emotional changes. Athletics are not immune to those differences.

Birdwhistell has seen that first hand. As an assistant coach, he will be working with an Anderson County High School basketball team that has five seniors and should be ranked in the state's Top 3, maybe even No. 1, in the pre-season polls. Four years ago, that same group had 15 players who ended their middle school careers with a state championship at Rupp Arena.

Some of that group decided to focus on other sports while some just decided that varsity athletics were not for them. It's just part of the game.

“Middle school sports are different,” Birdwhistell said. “It is a time when a kid should be able to try many things and find out what they want to do.”

Thankfully, some broad supervision is coming to that level.