If tweaked school policy passes, younger athletes could play up

Their eyes fixed on the goal line, coaches, activity directors, principals, players and parents have put together a proposed game plan to update and refine Anoka-Hennepin School District’s high school athletics policy.

Younger players’ participation on Anoka-Hennepin high school varsity football teams would only be “rarely allowed” due to high numbers of high school participants under the proposed new policy to be considered by the school board in September.File photo

Younger players’ participation on Anoka-Hennepin high school varsity football teams would only be “rarely allowed” due to high numbers of high school participants under the proposed new policy to be considered by the school board in September.File photo

The current policy does not allow younger athletes (those who are not yet in high school) to participate on high school varsity teams, no matter their athletic ability.

The problem is, there are younger athletes who, if allowed to participate on the high school varsity teams, could propel those teams into higher levels of competition.

Take, for example, cross country runner Bryna DelCastillo, who was a half-minute faster than anyone on the Coon Rapids High School varsity team last year. But Bryna couldn’t compete on the varsity team, because she was only an eighth-grader.

Although the Minnesota State High School League allows seventh- and eighth- grade athletes to compete in varsity events, Anoka-Hennepin has its own rule that says, with few exceptions, high school athletic teams should comprise high school students.

The rule was written because some felt it would be unfair for a younger athlete to take the place of a junior or senior who has spent years earning a spot on a high school varsity team.

If school board members approve a revised policy at their Sept. 23 board meeting, that rule will change, allowing “gifted” younger athletes to compete on varsity teams “in very limited circumstances.”

The proposed policy puts high school sports into three different categories based on the number of participants.

Category one includes football, volleyball, boys’ hockey, boys’ and girls’ basketball, baseball, dance team, boys’ golf and boys’ lacrosse.

The proposed policy states that for those sports “seventh- or eighth-grade participation is rarely allowed … because of high numbers of high school participants.”

In category two sports (boys’ and girls’ soccer, softball and girls’ golf) “limited seventh- and eighth-graders may participate at the lowest level of high school competition to guarantee viability of an activity.”

In other words, if there are not enough high school students on those teams, younger students can play.

However, if a high school athlete chooses to limit his or her level of play and has parent permission, a request can be submitted to the coach or activity director, the request could be granted and the team would have a spot open for a younger athlete.

Category three sports include wrestling, boys’ and girls’ swimming, boys’ and girls’ tennis, cross country, track, alpine and Nordic skiing, gymnastics, girls’ hockey, girls’ lacrosse and adapted athletics.

For those activities, seventh- and eighth-grade athletes may participate on the high school teams “if, and only if, no high school athlete is cut or denied from competing at the varsity level due to the presence of a seventh- or eighth-grade student.”

Again, as in category two sports, a high school athlete can give up his or her spot on the varsity team so that the younger athlete can compete at the varsity level, according to the proposed policy.

Anoka-Hennepin’s principals and activity directors, along with Associate Superintendent of High Schools Jeff McGonigal, put together the latest revision of the policy after gathering input from coaches, players, parents and professionals.

Professional input was provided by Dr. Diane Wiese-Bjornstal of the University of Minnesota’s school of kinesiology.

Her input urged McGonigal and his policy-tweaking team to consider several factors: the social, emotional and physical maturity of the younger athletes; healthy training practices inside and outside of school; the impact on the athlete’s academic success, attendance and discipline; the risk of injury; and the presence of outside pressure (from peers, family, youth organizations, etc.).

McGonigal said that the proposed policy was put together after careful review of neighboring school districts’ policies, consideration of concerns shared by players and their parents, and many conversations with coaches and activity directors, as well as Wiese-Bjornstal.

And if the policy is approved in September, McGonigal said that review and evaluation of the policy would continue as it is put in to play.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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