St. Joseph-Ogden High School doesn’t want to be mediocre.
To Athletic Director Justin Franzen that means making sure student athletes are not spread too thin.
“We want to sustain and build our athletic and activity programs each year to be the best they can be,” Franzen said.
This fall SJO offers football, volleyball, cross county and soccer as board-approved sports. Golf and girls’ tennis are not board-approved sports, meaning they receive no funding from the school and participants fund their uniforms, transportation and any fees associated with using practice facilities.
Franzen said there are several reasons for that including the fact that the school doesn’t want to lose participation in any of their board-approved sports.
“When there are other activities or clubs that want to be added, we have to take a hard look at how that would shift our current athletic or activity situation,” Franzen said.
Superintendent Brian Brooks said the district looks at student interest, whether they think the interest can be maintained in future years and if the sports negatively affect sports they already offer. Brooks said the district also looks at whether they can be truly competitive at a varsity level, if they have the appropriate facilities for a sport, if they can find qualified coaches, and if the budget and transportation schedule can handle an addition.
Brooks said finding qualified coaches is very difficult in every sport. A competitive varsity sport needs a five to six day per week commitment between practices and games, Brooks said.
“There aren’t a lot of people out there who are both qualified to be a head varsity coach, and can commit that kind of time,” Brooks said.
Jeff Kern volunteers as the head golf coach and Kevin Martlage volunteers as tennis coach.
“We appreciate everything they do,” Franzen said.
“Our coaches for both golf and tennis have done this on a volunteer basis, and their generosity has allowed those kids to have some invaluable life experiences,” Brooks added.
There are currently 26 girls on the SJO tennis team and seven girls on the SJO cross country team. There are 11 SJO golf team members, 38 soccer players and 49 on the football roster. There are 13 members on the boys’ cross country team and 15 members of the volleyball team.
Brooks said comparing the members of athletic teams is not really a fair comparison for either group.
“The current cross country numbers have zero effect on whether or not we would consider offering tennis as a sport at SJO,” Brooks said. “Our cross country program is one of the most elite cross country programs in the state of Illinois. They have decades of success at the state level, including five state championships between the boys and the girls, and even though our overall numbers are currently down some, they are still one of the top tier teams across the state this year. Their program is ran the way a high-level high school varsity program should be run, and one that we are very proud of.”
Brooks said many of the students playing tennis have very little background in tennis.
“They have played as a way to learn a new sport, which is great The way we have been able to offer it has provided kids with an opportunity to experience a new sport, which is outstanding,” he said. “But we aren’t in a position to be a true varsity program right now. We might be at some point, but there would need to be youth programs and opportunities where kids are learning and playing the game of tennis competitively well before they get to high school.”
Brooks said it would be almost impossible to have a successful high school program in any sport without kids learning and playing that sport competitively for multiple years prior to entering high school.
The district has paid the $100 post-season entry fee to the IHSA for both non-sanctioned approved sports so each team can enter the post-season as a team instead of individuals.
In recent years, the district has asked schools that are comparable in size and within 120 miles of the district what fall sports they offer. The survey showed that one school out of 40 offered football, soccer, cheer, volleyball, cross-country, golf and girls tennis and did not have to co-op with another school.
Franzen said SJO is not interested in co-oping with another school.
“We are SJO, and that means a huge deal to all of us,” Franzen said. “Our kids from Ogden, Royal, Sellers, Saint Joseph, and all of the rural areas that are within our school district are our kids. We want to keep it that way and not ever have to co-op with any other school because of this.”
Franzen said right now there is a high number of golfers and girls tennis athletes but he did not anticipate that always being the case.
“If we go to the school board and ask to have one or both of these sports become a Board approved sport, there will be a huge risk of these sports dwindling in future years,” Franzen said. “We like to do things the right way, and in our minds, our coaches and student athletes all know that wearing the SJO uniform in any sport means a tremendous deal, and we want to keep it that way.”
For tennis, a team would need six players. Golf would need four at a minimum in order to have a team score.
Another concern is transportation. Currently, the district has more than 20 extracurricular bus trips it needs drivers for in September and October.
“We simply need more drivers,” Franzen said.
Adding another board-approved sport would mean even more extracurricular bus trips for which the district has no drivers, Franzen said.
“We simply would have no transportation for multiple sports to and from their games,” Franzen said. “We do not have enough bus drivers right now for our board-approved sports. Adding any board-approved sport right now to any season, is not something we can do.”
Since both tennis and golf would have to practice out of town at facilities in either Rantoul or Champaign that would mean even more bus trips that would be needed.
“We would not be able to do this if both sports became Board approved sports,” Franzen said. “We were able to do this during the 20-21 COVID year, but that was only because football, volleyball, cheer, and soccer were shut down by the State of Illinois.”
Franzen said the cost of maintaining all sports has went up in recent years with transportation, official pay, uniforms and supply costs all increasing.
“Our number one goal is to take care of all of our board-approved sports and activities, and again, we do not want to just be mediocre at these things,” Franzen said. “We want to be the best we can possibly be.”