Area Notebook: Athletics vital to WHS
Willmar School District voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of bond referendum questions exceeding $52 million. The referendum seeks to address challenges related to aging buildings and a lack of classroom space. The voters als...
Willmar School District voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of bond referendum questions exceeding $52 million.
The referendum seeks to address challenges related to aging buildings and a lack of classroom space. The voters also will note that a sizable portion of the referendum addresses gym space or the possible construction of an athletic fieldhouse.
Even the most cynical voter may concede that a district that hasn’t built a kindergarten-through-fourth grade building since 1953 and hasn’t built new middle school science classrooms since 1967 is in need of an upgrade.
But new gyms? A fieldhouse?
To many people mulling over their ballot, that part of the vote might be seen as a luxury that is neither vital to the district’s educational mission nor worthy of the population’s pocketbook.
For which Willmar cross country and track and field coach Jerry Popp has ready a 20-minute piece of his mind.
“It’s a joke,” Popp said of the early spring crowding in the school facing athletes and coaches. “I told (Willmar Activities Director Ryan Blahosky) that he should video this and show it to parents so they know what we’re trying to do here.”
It was early April and the weather conditions were too nasty to take student-athletes outdoors. In one part of the high school gym, baseball players were trying to get ready for their upcoming season. In another portion, track and field team throwers were getting in some work. In other parts of the school, about 100 other sprinters and runners were working out in the hallways, preparing for their season.
Estimates show, Popp said, that Willmar’s high school gym is operating at 99 percent of capacity, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., from September through March.
“It’s a miracle we haven’t had kids get hurt,” he said. “The kids are involved, that’s what you want. But, at the same time, if you can get that level of commitment from the kids, the community should be able to do the same.”
Popp only has to point back 10 years, to what might be the pinnacle of athletic achievement in the district’s history, for a resounding rebuttal to anyone who believes that high school athletics are mere amusement and not a potent tool vital to determining the direction of a young student’s adult life.
Kaafi Adeys was the top finisher on Willmar’s 2005 and 2006 Class AA state championship cross country teams, placing fourth overall in 2005 and fifth in 2006.
Adeys admits not being the best student in junior high, not really interested in school. Then, he joined the soccer team the fall of his freshman year, and the track team later that spring. The fall of his sophomore season, he joined the cross country team.
“Sports helped me big time,” said Adeys, who will be 26 in June and lives in Willmar. “Before I went out for track, I wasn’t really serious about school. When you go out for sports, you have to meet certain GPA requirements so you have to take things serious. It helped me with school and just becoming a better person. You put in a lot of work and that really makes you realize what’s important.”
Popp said a few runners he’s coached have had school discipline problems before getting involved in athletics. Several have gone on to college and administrative jobs. Adeys attended college and then returned to the area to work for ARCH Language Network, based in St. Paul, as an interpreter.
“None of that would have happened if those boys hadn’t gotten involved in something,” Popp said. “I know their stories because they were cross country runners, but in every sport, they’re in there.”
The “dumb jock” stereotype today is as ridiculous and antiquated as basketball’s peach basket and football’s drop kick.
Numerous studies over the years have shown that prep students who also participate in athletics have higher grade-point averages, have better study and organizational habits, are more likely to be involved in other school activities, and they are more likely to be ready for college or the workforce, Popp said.
In job or school interviews, one of the first questions asked is what activities did an applicant participate in, he said.
On an average day this spring, several students would show up at the school at 6 a.m., work out, go to class, then practice after school. After that, it was maybe a job and homework.
“That’s commitment,” Popp said. “You can’t tell me that lessons they are learning aren’t huge lessons in everything else they do. That’s the passion that we need to make sure people understand. These kids are really accomplishing a lot, and they’re doing it with minimal facilities.”
Because of the facilities shortage, Adeys said he and his teammates played more basketball to stay in shape during the winter rather than specific running work. A fieldhouse “would have made a big impact.”
“The community has really grown, especially the Somoli kids,” Adeys said. “There are tons of newcomers. If they had a place like that where they could go in the winter time and stay out of trouble, it would really help the community, as well.
“After the success we had, a lot of kids looked up to us,” he said. “Instead of getting into trouble, they wanted to do well. Almost every kid was running at one point. Now, it’s different. A lot of kids are hanging out and, you know … .”
Popp is an unabashed referendum supporter and has made the rounds to get the word out about its benefits. It would further establish Willmar as a regional center, since educational opportunities are a major factor for families looking to move to a new community. And he points to other cities, like Alexandria, which have gained from recent updates to school facilities.
“They realized it’s a big drawing card for people coming into their communities,” Popp said. “It’s certainly not the only component but it’s a component. If you’re not including that component, you’re missing the boat. I just hope (voters) focus on the fact that this is a good thing for kids and it’s a good thing for our community.”