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Hitting the books sets the stage for athletes

In the CIF-Southern Section, there is no on-field success without dedication in the classroom

Posted: August 7, 2009 10:00 p.m.
Updated: August 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.
With all the attention paid to high school sports, people sometimes forget that student-athletes are just that: students before athletes.

Before they take the field or the court, they have to take tests and quizzes.

In many ways, the relationship between athletics and academics is give-and-take.

“They need to perform well in the classroom to play on the field,” says David LeBarron, director of curriculum assessment for the William S. Hart Union High School District. “One is meant to support the other. They should go hand in hand.”

The California Interscholastic Federation requires Southern Section athletes to maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0 for eligibility.

They also must have passed 20 credits and demonstrate that they are “matriculating toward graduation,” according to the CIF-SS office.

“Eligibility is meant to be the minimum expectation,” LeBarron says. “For some students, athletics is a motivating factor for them to be in school. If it weren’t for the sports they play, they wouldn’t be there.”

On the other hand, there are programs like Hart High School baseball, which has exemplified academic performance.

The Indians had the second-highest GPA in their CIF classification during the 2008-09 school year.

The year before, they achieved the highest GPA, and they finished third in 2006-07.

“From day one, we tell (players) that we’re going to make sure that they’re maintaining high standards and we want them to achieve at the highest level,” says Hart head coach Jim Ozella. “We don’t want to come down on them. We’re just trying to assist them. The school has a lot of services it provides for its students.”

Ozella says that the program even encourages players to take advanced placement classes.

He admits it can be taxing late in the season, with several kids studying for AP tests the same day they have a playoff game.

But the end result is worth it.

“We’ve had a wide array of success for our student-athletes,” he says. “We have kids who are still playing all over the place, and we have kids who have tried to become doctors and businessmen.”

Moreover, Ozella said with the limited amount of scholarships offered by NCAA baseball programs, a high GPA and high SAT score opens the door for kids.

Many college athletic programs are highly interested in a kid’s grades and sometimes those grades are a window to somebody’s work ethic.

In some ways, sports teach students the qualities needed to shoot for more challenging and lucrative careers.

“You need to work hard, put your time in and develop your skills,” LeBarron says. “For our athletes at the high school level, it’s the same thing, only a different context. I would hope we’re developing athletes who have skills that help them be successful off the field.”

That’s a sticking point of West Ranch football’s new coaching staff, led by head coach Sean O’Brien.

“We try and teach them that the classroom and the field are the same,” he says, “and the lessons you learn in football, hard work and teamwork, will help you in life.”

O’Brien has seen his fair share of student-athletes over the years.

He served the head coach of Hart’s junior varsity football team from 1994 to 1998, and after taking a few years off to spend time with his family, he resumed his coaching career when West Ranch opened in 2004.

All the while, O’Brien served as an English teacher at the schools.

He was a part of two CIF championship teams in 1995 and 1998 while at Hart, and ever since moving to West Ranch O’Brien, has coached kids who haven’t experienced much athletic success.

Despite the contrast, he says that the athletes’ commitment to academics is largely the same.

“Whatever work ethic and attention to detail you want them to bring on the football field, they take that into the classroom and into their lives in general,” he says.

But the relationship between academics and athletics isn’t perfect, and O’Brien would like to see a modification to the CIF’s minimum GPA rule.

During the season, there is a physical education course that basically serves as extra time for coaches and players to practice and strategize.

The problem, O’Brien says, is that the class counts toward a student’s GPA.

That means the student could have a 1.7 in all their other classes, but the A they will almost certainly receive in the P.E. class boosts their GPA to the required 2.0 or above.

“Other than that,” O’Brien says, “it’s hard to argue that the GPA should be higher. What if a kid is trying his best (and still barely making eligibility)?”

LeBarron doesn’t see a problem with the required GPA, either.

“That’s different for some groups of students,” he says. “They work hard but all they get is Bs, but they’re maximizing their potential. Hopefully their skills are covering the scope of their success.”

One way to make sure that happens, O’Brien posits, is to hire teachers as coaches.

“Nothing against non-educators, but the coach is someone that the kids can see every day and can set an example,” he says.

In the end, academics is the primary concern of high school students, and a necessity for participation in extracurricular activities.
But sports – and other extracurriculars – account for a large part of the education process.

“You have band, choir, performance groups, and they’re doing the same thing in terms of developing communication and effort,” LeBarron says. “Their value is producing the same quality in the students in those seats. Athletics is just one piece of the bigger puzzle.”


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