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Anoka-Hennepin junior high athletes get taste of varsity

11/05/2013, 6:48pm CST
By David La Vaque, Star Tribune

After restricting seventh- and eighth-graders from varsity athletics, Anoka-Hennepin schools started a pilot allowing them in three sports.

Anoka's Sydney Paulson warmed up before the start of the Class AA girls' cross country championship. (Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune photo)


The addition of three eighth-graders helped the Anoka girls’ cross-country team reach the state meet. A change to a long-standing district policy made their contributions possible.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved a one-year pilot allowing selected seventh- and eighth-graders to compete at the varsity level. Until this year, the state’s largest district was the only one requiring almost all varsity teams to be composed solely of high school students.

Complaints about that rule, challenged several times in the past two decades, grew louder in recent years. Last fall, the family of a Coon Rapids girls’ cross-country runner unsuccessfully appealed to the school board to amend the rule. The father of an Anoka girls’ cross-country runner filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education charging the district with age discrimination.

The pilot policy allowed a total of 10 athletes to compete for the district’s five schools this fall. They competed in boys’ and girls’ cross-country, girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming.

“The logic of the old policy was well-intentioned,” associate superintendent Jeff McGonigal said. “A high school athlete only has four years to compete on varsity, and we don’t want them losing opportunities. But some teams might lose out on a state tournament opportunity when one or two athletes could send eight or nine to state.”

For Anoka, a trio of eighth-graders — Noelle Josephson, Taylor Krone and Sydney Paulson — joined the team midseason and helped push the Tornadoes to their first state meet appearance since 1988.

Under the pilot policy, seventh- and eighth-graders are selected by coaches as candidates based on early-season performances. To gauge a youngster’s academic and social readiness, the coach and activities director talk with the athlete and their parents.

From there, a committee of five district administrators, representing all five high schools, and two school board members must unanimously approve the requests. McGonigal said the committee approved every selected candidate this fall.

“They just wanted to know how I would do in the high school environment and if running varsity would affect my grades,” said Paulson, who was her team’s fourth-highest finisher at the state meet.

Her father, Brandon, a 1996 Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler from Anoka, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education last fall charging the district with age discrimination. In addition, the family of Bryna DelCastillo, then an eighth-grader running cross-country at Coon Rapids, petitioned the school board to amend the rule. The board denied the request but a varsity runner declined her spot to allow DelCastillo to run at the section meet.

“It’s been really great to have the opportunity to compete with my older teammates,” Sydney Paulson said. “It has really encouraged me to do better in all my races. It makes me really happy it worked out because it will help people in future generations.”

In the past, an eighth-grader could compete for a district high school team but only below varsity to fill out a roster. Using cross-country as an example, McGonigal said the committee looked at times from last season’s section meet to determine if a seventh- or eighth-grader would “make a difference versus taking a spot” from an older runner.

Blaine activities director Shannon Gerrety, previously the longtime Bengals football coach, used to evaluate whether sophomores were ready for varsity action with a 1-on-1 chat in his office that lasted about 10 minutes. The extra steps of screening seventh- and eighth-graders are necessary, he said, to ensure they “are mature enough for varsity competition, they have the drive to compete and they aren’t feeling forced by anyone.”

McGonigal said the pilot policy will be reviewed after the school year to determine whether to continue it.

Gerrety said the committee “batted a thousand this fall” with the athletes selected. Blaine runners and siblings Sarah Olson (seventh grade) and Ben Olson (eighth grade) were the Bengals’ only all-conference runners.

“The night of the meeting where we approved the pilot policy, I came back to school for a volleyball game and the cross-country team was working the concession stand,” Gerrety said. “I told them and they all jumped up and down and cheered. I thought, ‘We’ve done the right thing.’ ”


David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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