Participation in varsity-level activities once again came to light during Monday’s Anoka-Hennepin School Board meeting as members of the Coon Rapids girls’ cross country team showed up in support of eighth-grader Bryna DelCasatillo being allowed to run varsity-level races, among others in the district.
The first-year team member has fast enough times to run with her varsity teammates, but because of a district policy has been relegated to run the junior varsity races.
The team was looking for some immediate leniency for the Section 5AA meet, which took place Oct. 25 at Anoka High School to determine who moves on to the state meet.
As of Wednesday morning, Anoka-Hennepin School District Communications Director Mary Olson reiterated the seriousness they take this issue. The board asked for additional information from staff following the Sept. 24 meeting and considered input from parents and staff during an Oct. 8 work session.
“We have modified the policy from time to time to community and staff input,” she said. “We have focused on maintaining the viability of individual sports and the safety of students.”
Each time they have reinforced the core belief that high school level competition be reserved for high school athletes. “Middle school students will eventually have that opportunity when they enter high school,” she said.
The policy has been debated in the district over the last 20 years and the current stance was put into place four years ago.
“We believe in having data drive our decisions,” Olson said, asking the district to pull together data on the impact of the policy from atheltic participation throughout the school year. “We will use the data to determine if the current policy best meets the needs of the athletes.”
DelCastillo and her family moved into the school district from Alexandria to Andover this summer after her father, Doc DelCastillo, accepted a head coaching position for the Hamline University men’s hockey program.
DelCastillo’s mother, Sue, spoke on her daughter’s behalf, as did Cardinals senior captain Paige D’Heilly.
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) allows students as young as seventh grade to compete at the varsity level, while Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, bars seventh- and eighth-graders from varsity competition unless there are no ninth- through 12th-graders on the roster.
The issue isn’t contained to one sport as swimming programs have also been negatively affected by the policy.
Anoka, Blaine and Coon Rapids cross country teams, Anoka wrestling, Anoka, Champlin Park and Andover swim teams appeared at the Sept. 24 board meeting to show support for repeal of the policy.
At least two other district cross country teams, Anoka and Blaine, have run into similar situations.
Anoka state champion and Olympic wrestler Brandon Paulson spoke out on the issue as his daughter, Sydney, a seventh-grader, has also been barred from running with the Anoka varsity cross country team.
In an email, Paulson said he has filed an age discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the district.
He received a response from the department that the complaint was moved to federal mediation and if a resolution wasn’t achieved in 60 days, the case would be handed over to the Department of Education for Civil Rights for continued litigation.
Paulson described how he coached fellow state champion and Olympic wrestler Jake Dietchler on the high school wrestling team from seventh grade through graduation as a senior. “[Jake] might have been the best high school athlete to come out of the school district as he was the youngest Olympic wrestler in 30 years when he made the team two weeks after high school graduation,” Paulson wrote.
Dietchler wrestled two years after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but retired due to concussions, “Eight years before his prime, he could have participated in three or four more Olympics,” Paulson said. “What if they told him he couldn’t have participated in the past Olympic trials because he had three or four more left in him?”
The district needs more participation and this policy hinders that, he wrote.
“This doesn’t make any sense as we are only asking to allow age-eligible athletes to compete for varsity spots in sports that don’t cut athletes,” Paulson said.
He pointed out two specific Anoka High School examples as senior swimmer Kaitey Springer needs the help of a seventh grader on a relay team to reach a state-meet qualifying time. Another cross country runner, eighth-grader Iasabella Brezinka won the Northwest Suburban Conference junior varsity meet in 2011, but couldn’t compete with the varsity program.
Blaine seventh-grader Ben Olson holds the current state mile record for ages 10-and-under boys, but cannot break into the varsity team.