By Holly Crocco
The Mahopac School Board is currently revising its policy regarding seventh- and eighth-graders playing junior varsity and varsity level sports. While the State Education Department allows any seventh-grader to play up through the varsity level under the Athletic Placement Process, school districts may place further restrictions on their individual policies.
The new policy being considered allows students in seventh and eighth grade to “play up,” at the JV and/or varsity level, in the individual sports of bowling, cross-country, golf, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, spring/winter track and wrestling. Eighth-graders may compete at the JV and varsity level in the team sports of baseball, basketball, cheerleading, flag football, field hockey, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball and volleyball.
To “play up,” a student-athlete must be requested to try out for the higher level by a high school varsity coach, with the approval of the district’s athletic director. During tryouts, a seventh- or eighth-grader must score within the top 25 percent of the scoring rubric to make the cut for the JV or varsity team.
“Only varsity coaches could request that a student participate through the APP process, so it would be at the coach’s discretion,” said Superintendent Christine Tona during the school board’s Nov. 16 work session meeting. “It would not be at the parents’ request or anyone else’s request.”
Athletic Director Stephen Luciana explained that the purpose of the policy is to allow standout student-athletes to play at a level that fits their skill. He said that if a seventh- or eighth-grader finishes tryouts in the top 25 percent of all the athletes competing, “that’s pretty exceptional for a sport.”
Once on the team, it is expected that the younger student will play at least 50 percent of the time on the JV or varsity team.
In any given sport, no more than 25 percent of the JV or varsity roster shall be filled by seventh- or eighth-grade students.
Further, no high school student who has participated previously at the JV or varsity level in a sport will be cut from the team to accommodate a middle-school student. Essentially, this means that any ninth- through 12th-grader trying out for a team for the first time can be “beaten” by seventh- or eighth-grader.
“If I played JV basketball as a ninth-grader, then in 10th grade we have three or four eighth-graders go through the APP process and they cut me and keep those eighth-graders, that is not allowed,” explained Luciana. “They have to keep me as a 10th-grader because I was on the team as a ninth-grader.”
There are three variations of the new policy being considered, which vary from only allowing middle-schoolers to play at the JV level, allowing them to play at either the JV or varsity level, or allowing them to play up only in individual sports. Some of the sports only have a varsity team (no JV).
School board member David Furfaro said he has no problem with a student “playing up,” but that it shouldn’t be at the expense of a high-schooler losing his or her opportunity to play, as well.
“I think we need to protect the high school athlete, even the ninth-grader,” he said. “So, for me, I don’t really want to displace any of those high school athletes, at all.”
Furfaro said that, plenty of times, there is enough room on the team for those younger athletes to be added. However, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t want to see an older athlete ousted. “I just want to protect the high school kid,” he said. “I believe a high school kid deserves an experience.”
Luciana agreed with that sentiment, but noted that, in addition to taking into consideration the best interests of individual student-athletes, his job is to also develop the program as a whole.
He said the world of club sports, in which kids play privately or recreationally at the elementary level, has taken off in recent years, and those kids are training much more than they ever used to.
“So, we have students that are at a certain ability, where it surpasses probably what some maybe ninth- or 10th-graders are at, and it’s our job, or my job – and I do believe it – to put the best players on the team,” said Luciana.
Further, he contrasted: “You’re not going to tell an eight-grade student that’s extremely smart with academics that we don’t want to put you in high academic courses.”
In addition, Luciana said modified sports at the middle school level are not what they used to be, so the district could be looking at safety risks if players that are too advanced or too physical to play modified are stuck at that level.
“What’s the point in playing modified if you’re winning 12, 13 to nothing in soccer, or 70 to 20 in basketball, because we’re forced to keep the better players down?” he posed. “It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help our program. It doesn’t help the teams we’re playing.”
Further, the athletic director and board members said they want to make sure students are being selected strictly based on their abilities. “To me, when kids are making a team, it’s based off merit,” said Luciana. “I don’t want politics playing into anything. We don’t look at last names when we’re going through tryouts.”
School board member Tanner McCracken pointed out that if, based on rubric scoring, a middle school student does score in the top 25 percent of all those trying out, then they truly deserve to be on the team.
For example, if 20 students try out for a team and a seventh- or eighth-grader has to be in the top 25 percent, that means the team can accept up to five of those younger students. Mathematically, that means those five would be the best on the team.
“If there is – and I’d love to see that in my lifetime – but five middle-schoolers that would then be the best five of the tryout group of a 20-person roster opening, then that’s exceptional,” he said. “But I don’t think that would happen.”
“The eighth-grader should be better than the worst ninth-grader,” added Luciana. This is also why the policy states that the younger athletes should get at least 50 percent playing time – since they should be among the best anyway. This way they aren’t being pulled up only to sit on the bench.
School board member Michael Martin said he is not in support of the policy.
“Just because a seventh- or eighth-grader is exception, it means they’re exceptional, but it’s still not their turn,” he said. “Let the high-schoolers play. Let’s let them have the high school experience. They deserve that… If we were talking about academics and you had a student academically who wasn’t doing good, we don’t throw them out.”
Luciana asked for the board’s faith in him and the coaches, that they will execute the policy so that the best interests of student-athletes, as well as the program as a whole, are met.
“This is something I feel strongly about,” he said. “I think this is something that’s good for all of our student-athletes. It gives them the best opportunity to be at the level they deserve to be at, and I hope you trust me that I can do this the right way.”
The policy is expected to be voted on at this month’s school board meeting.