Freshman athletics survive budget cuts, but just barely

Larry Campbell is a poster child in the campaign to save freshman athletics at Modesto's six public high schools.

A 5-foot-1, 99-pound freshman in 1961, Campbell had no hope of competing against his classmates at Downey High.

"I was smaller than most everyone, but I got the opportunity to play on the freshman teams," he said. "My family was poor, so sports was something I could do after school that wouldn't cost us money."

Campbell matured into an athlete the next two years, however, growing six inches. That allowed him to play varsity basketball and baseball.

"Kids who develop later are the ones who need freshman teams," Campbell said. "They can't compete right now, but all it takes is a growth spurt and you have a good athlete.

"High school is supposed to be about developing our kids, both in class and on a field."

All freshman athletics were to be chopped this year, said former Davis athletic director Brad Goudeau, before he and his peers made $75,000 in cuts from a district-wide athletic budget of $916,315. That budget had already been cut 20 percent from last year.

It means hundreds of freshmen will play football, volleyball, boys' and girls' basketball and baseball — sports typically offered at all six of the high schools in the Modesto City Schools district. Some schools offer freshman teams in softball, if there is adequate interest and funding.

There were 670 athletes on freshman teams last year, Modesto City Schools assistant superintendent Craig Rydquist said. The actual number of students is lower, since some play multiple sports.

About $100,000 was spent on freshman athletics last year, with stipends to coaches accounting for virtually all of it. The district has cut stipends 20 percent, Rydquist said, so this year's budget for freshman sports is about $80,000.

Stipends could range from $700 to $3,000 this year, based on years of service in the district. Many of the freshman stipends will be $900 to $2,000.

The cost to transport freshman teams is minor, Rydquist said. Most games are in Modesto, with athletes providing transportation, or going with junior varsity or varsity teams for road games.

While safe for now, Rydquist said, there is no guarantee freshman athletics will be offered next school year.

"We've made deep cuts, the kind that can't be made again next fall," said Goudeau, who will be the athletic director at Gregori High when it opens a year from now. "We eliminated a lot of our transportation costs, combined with making sure equipment lasts longer."

Campbell and Tom Eakin, president and CEO of Modesto-based MTC Distributing, believe they have a solution. It begins with a dusk-to-dawn softball fundraiser on Aug. 29, but could blossom into an alliance between high school athletics and corporate backers.

"I'm so tired of hearing why things can't be done and seeing programs cut rather than expanded," said Eakin, a 1968 Davis High grad. "We see the effects, particularly in education and crime rates, and it's a trend we need to reverse."

The Stanislaus Senior Softball Association is hoping to raise $17,000 with 14 hours of continuous softball at Beyer Park. If realized, $1,000 will be given to each of the county's 17 public high schools.

The money will supplement the budgets for boys and girls freshman teams, Eakin said. Small schools that lack freshman sports will use the money for junior varsity teams.

"That's not a long-term solution, but we must raise awareness," Eakin said. "The next step is public partnerships, similar to what we're doing in some of our classrooms."

MTC has a program that allows high school business students to learn from employees who run the company.

Eakin said he and others in Modesto are working to supplement the athletic budgets.

"These kids will someday work for me or will buy my products," Eakin said. "Our future is in their hands, so we want them to be successful."

Campbell's tale of maturing later in life is a familiar one to James Davis, the athletic director and varsity baseball coach at Johansen.

"Freshman sports focus on development, rather than the final score," Davis said. "We teach kids how to do things correctly, safely. They have the chance to learn the basics playing against their peers."

Otherwise, Davis says, you risk mismatches with young freshman having to compete against larger sophomores in practice and during games.

"The kids are like sponges, the more opportunities you provide, the more they soak up," said Dominic Duran, a freshman baseball and sophomore football coach at Johansen. "If a freshman is cut from the JV, where he is having to compete against a sophomore, he often loses interest in the sport and drifts away.

"I've seen gangly kids who can't walk and chew gum at the same time, but then they grow into their bodies and they contribute on varsity."

That goes for other sports, too, Goudeau said. As an athletic director, he oversaw the full menu of sports at Davis.

"We're seeing more girls interested in sports, and a freshman team lets them learn as they play," he said. "We have girls on travel teams, soccer, softball, volleyball, but those kids are a different level.

"Travel teams can cost several thousand dollars to play on, too, and a lot of kids can't afford that. I don't think you want a system where elite athletes, who have matured early in life, are the only ones playing high school sports."

For more on the fundraiser, call Don Weaver at 599-2161. For more on the public partnerships, contact Tom Eakin 523-6449 or