Addressing the future of athletics in the Erie School District.
A SHORT TIME ago, Erie School District Superintendent Jay Badams called and asked me to be part of a steering committee to look into the future of athletics in the district, and for a variety of reasons, I was delighted.
Just for starters, I was excited that the superintendent was interested enough to address this issue that borders between disgraceful and almost laughable. I could never understand why alums, parents of current students, athletes, and people that are just plain concerned about high school sports in the City have not been displaying outrage the past 20 years about the situation.
So to make myself perfectly clear, I responded immediately to Badams' request with a resounding "yes," as I have been an advocate of this type of action for many years. I was honored and delighted to be asked, and I would've also been extremely hypocritical not to accept.
The first – and maybe only meeting (I'm not sure about this) – was held recently and lasted a little more than two hours. I was incredibly impressed with the group of about 15 people that was assembled, the group definitely united in the common goal of making sports teams in the district better, as well as attempting to come up with a solution of how to get more young people involved in athletics.
Many years of experience were represented in this group, and the wisdom – and passion – was evident with the many ideas that were floated around during the session.
Oftentimes with a group this large, two hours isn't nearly long enough, but everyone had their say and listened intently to the other members, even if they disagreed. There's no doubt everyone shared a common feeling that the negativity regarding athletics in the Erie School District had reached epic proportions.
I do not want to slight anyone in attendance, but four people that shared extremely pertinent information (from my viewpoint) were: former City Athletic Director Gus Picardo, current AD John Dahlstrand, the AD at East and Central Tech (yes, that's now one position) Greg Holland, and Kenny Brasington, who has great insight, as he has been on both sides of the ball (pun intended) as a head football coach and a high school principal in the ESD.
The old saying "that's easier said than done" could pertain here, as there are many outside influences that have to be considered when dealing with public schools, including the PIAA (and that's a story – or a series of stories – that would be best left for another time). However, there were numerous problems identified and many solutions offered.
I know these problems need to be addressed, but it's only possible to deal with a few at a time. Also, some of these items are nearly impossible to deal with for a variety of reasons, including the ever-popular "lack of funds."
I have personally selected my top two negatives and fully believe the solutions are extremely doable – and can get done without any expense. That's correct! And I do mean without the outlay of any cash whatsoever. That would be a beautiful thing nowadays.
The only problem is that it will take some guts from the Erie School Board, and that is always extremely iffy when talking about a political bombshell situation or two. A gutsy move from politicians and the correct thing to do aren't exactly synonymous.
NUMERO UNO – This is inevitable: Consolidation.
There is not enough talent to go around for three schools, and actually there really isn't enough to have two very successful programs in the city. Ideally, there should be sports in just one school, but that is never going to happen, so athletics in two schools is the best solution at the moment.
Actually, there are at least five teams in the district that didn't have enough athletes to fill out rosters.
I believe there should be an east-side school and a west-side school, and the only logical solution would be to take athletics out of Central Tech and have teams at East High School and Strong Vincent High School, SV and East both retaining the current names and keeping the tradition of the schools past.
It would be hard for the alumni of Central Tech to accept, but feelings need to be put aside when running a business – and education is a huge business. Check the taxpayer dollars being spent on public education.
The Academy Alumni had to witness their school close, and then the Tech faithful lost their school when it was changed to Central and then Central Tech. I felt bad when my grade school (St. Andrew's) was shut down, but I knew it was the correct move and I didn't run out and start a campaign to keep it open.
It had to be done, and I accepted it.
There is only one problem in eliminating athletics from a high school: The fact that it's a political bombshell – and I'm not sure the Erie School Board has the intestinal fortitude to make the move, as proven a few years back.
Everything was in place several years ago to move athletics out of Central High School, but the Board buckled under pressure from some Central students and parents and some alums. Hopefully, they have toughened up in the past few years and realize the situation they are in charge of has become the laughingstock of the area.
The one argument that will be heard is there will be less teams and consequently less athletes participating. This is entirely incorrect, as more students will come out to be part of a winning program instead of being associated with losing teams that are getting crushed.
There are exceptions to the trend (boys basketball is solid), but not enough to negate this move.
This must be done!
NUMERO DOS – I hate to admit when I'm wrong, but I was sort of wrong on this one: The C-average rule.
When it was first instituted, I thought it was a great idea, and it was, for a while. However, times have changed, and it's now time for this rule to also be changed.
I don't know if the Erie School District had done a study to see if this rule has worked – shame on them if they didn't – but, without having any data to work with, I believe this move has outlived its usefulness. Now that the number of potential athletes participating in high school athletics has dwindled dramatically, the ESD has to try and reach out to all potential athletes.
Over the past 30 years, I have seen many athletes coming out of eighth grade just disappear off the charts. When I inquired as to where they went, I was told they didn't feel they were capable of maintaining a C-average and subsequently dropped out of playing sports.
Needless to say, the other option was running the streets rather than be in a structured setting after school. This needs to be repaired.
As I said before, I hate to admit being wrong, but I was wrong!
Fortunately, this can be dealt with extremely easily. With one vote by the Erie School Board, this rule can be changed to coincide with the PIAA eligibility rule that is not as stringent as the ESD.
Unfortunately, this will also call for a gutsy vote by the board. Will they be tough enough to make the right decision? Time will tell.
Also, I would like to point out that school board member John Harkins was at this steering committee get-together and appeared concerned and ready to address the serious issues.
In my heart, I believe he cares and will make the correct decisions.
RECENTLY, I ran into former General McLane and Penn State star Drew Astorino, and it reminded me that he is definitely one of the finest all-around athletes to ever perform in the area, the ex-lancer star leading GM to state championships in both football and basketball – in the same school year. An almost unheard of happening, ever, in the state of Pennsylvania.
While flying under the radar as one of Erie's best, he also was virtually unnoticed coming out of high school after his senior football season despite the incredible year he had.
While a guest on my Sports Blitz show, the proud General McLane grad explained how he had accepted a scholarship offer to Kent State but had it rescinded when he told the Ohio school he was going to look around.
To make a long story short, despite his incredible credentials at GM, he was left with one offer – a potential scholarship to Iowa. However, on the day he was going to call the Hawkeyes, Joe Paterno called him at home and informed him the Nittany Lions had a scholarship to offer.
Astorino was thrilled and immediately told the coaching legend he would gladly join the PSU program. Basically the Edinboro-native went from an afterthought (he received the last scholarship PSU had to offer) to a three-year starter. This may've been a surprise to Penn State fans elsewhere, but not to the area fans, who knew Astorino as a great athlete with great character and desire.
One of the humblest and classiest young men I met in my 40 years of covering sports, he is a role model that coaches from every high school – and grade school – in the area should introduce to their student athletes.
Personally, I think he would be a great coach, but then there's no doubt he's going to be successful at any venture he pursues.
When I introduced him on the radio, I said, "I want to welcome Drew Astorino who led General McLane to state championships in football and basketball." He explained, "I helped General McLane, with many great teammates, win two state championships."
Astorino, whose brother Matt is a starter on one of Gannon's best football teams ever (see a trend here?), is a Territory Manager (North Atlantic Pet Sales) for Boehringer Ingelheim.
James R. LeCorchick can be contacted at JRLSportsReport@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @JRLSports.