By Dawn Bormann
Shawnee Mission expected middle school sports to be popular during the debut year.
But even the biggest supporters didn’t anticipate what happened.
“We had over 1,300 middle school students participate in a middle school athletic at some point during the school year,” said Matthew Johnson, director of student services and athletics.
It translates to about 33 percent of the middle school student population.
“The turnout was really overwhelming for most sports in most areas. And so much so that we were hiring additional coaches, buying additional equipment, buying additional uniforms where needed,” Johnson said.
It was the first middle school sports season in 28 years, he said.
Johnson said the district, which offered five sports, and made some tweaks during the year including adding a district championship trophy.
“Next year we’re adding a girls’ basketball and boys’ basketball post-season tournament,” he said. “The schools all wanted that.”
First National Bank partnered with the district and offered money to help the programs, backpacks, water bottles and free ice cream on fee payment days.
“They think the impact that something like this is happening in our middle schools is very important,” he said.
The district needs a few years to give a thorough summary of the changes, he said. But the anecdotal evidence points to several successes.
Everywhere he went, parents, teachers and students wanted to talk about middle school sports.
“Parents telling me about how their middle school child, who hardly would get up off the couch, is now talking about the team that they’re on,” he said. “And teachers telling me about students who were coming in early and staying late to get more help on their academics because they wanted to be eligible for the sports team. Teachers telling me about behavior in the classroom improving. ”
One principal told Johnson that the school was buzzing with excitement the day after a few wrestlers performed to a packed gym.
Johnson walked into a basketball game one day and was surprised to see four girls at half court singing the national anthem. The movement caught on. He attended another game and the jazz band performed. Other schools hosted halftime contests, a dance competition and cheering sections.
He likened one school’s enthusiasm to that of the cauldron at Sporting Kansas City games – with one exception.
“Students fans were just going nuts in their little corner of the gym cheering for the B team girls’ basketball team,” he said. “It was just so inspirational.”
Student groups also took advantage of concession stands to make extra money for other clubs and activities. Board President Deb Zila pointed out that the middle school students were clearly eager for something more.
“They are just yearning for something to cheer for,” Zila said.
Johnson said the excitement had a clear impact on him.
“Of all the things I’ve been involved in in education, he said, this has been really something that has touched my heart.”