When Todd Daugherty found out the Lake Washington School District was moving its ninth graders to area high schools, he had his concerns.
A longtime teacher, football coach and a father of two daughters, Daugherty said his initial reaction to the change was tepid both as a parent and teacher.
But after watching his youngest daughter thrive in her new environment and coaching the school’s first freshmen football team at the school during the fall, Daugherty is a believer.
“Everyone has been really welcoming and I’ve enjoyed working with the older kids,” said Daugherty, who now teaches at Eastlake as well. “It’s been great.”
According to Eastlake athletic director Pat Bangasser, the move has brought not only increased numbers to the school’s team and individual sports, but a renewed sense of community among the entire school community.
Fall sports saw a 51 percent increase in participation as the total jumped from just more than 300 last year to 490 students in 2012. Winter sports participation has almost doubled and Bangasser said forecasts for spring sports are positive as well and the school will field multiple fastpitch softball teams for the first time in five years.
“Now that they are on-site and can see their friends out there, it is easier,” Bangasser said.
Ninth graders could participate in the past with the prep team in sports that were not offered at the junior high level, like golf and cross country. But commuting between the schools only to gain partial status as a member of the Eastlake athletic community was always mostly utilized by only the most dedicated athletes. When the freshmen came on campus this year, the collective mindset and desire to participate shifted drastically.
Troy Anderson led the Wolves to the 4A state cross country meet during the fall with the help of a handful of freshman. One of those was Nathan Pixler, who began running cross country as a seventh grader and was excited to be joined by classmates for a banner season.
“It was really fun in junior high,” he said. “But I was definitely ready to move on and do some actual training. It was a nice transition.”
His coach said in past years, the program would average 10 freshmen for the cross country season. This year he had around 25.
“We don’t have a freshmen team, they are all working out together and running the same races,” Anderson said. “It’s an awesome opportunity for the freshmen making that jump.”
Bangasser echoed that sentiment and said one of the benefits for the kids is opening their eyes to the dedication required on a prep team. Unlike the more casual middle school environment, high school coaches expect unwavering attendance and demand a higher level of accountability. He hopes bringing freshmen into the fold at the same time as their KingCo rivals will also serve them well down the road as they eventually become members of the JV and varsity teams.
Scheduling conflicts have been one of the few hiccups in the process thus far, with four football teams and three girls soccer teams jockeying for field time during the fall. But that has done little to dampen the excitement of this year’s freshmen class, their elder peers or athletic administration at the school.
“It really helped build a base of friends and I think that is really important going into high school,” Pixler said. “I felt welcome immediately and we built a great bond with each other.”
Brad Stolz is the athletic director for the Lake Washington School District and the principal at Benjamin Rush Elementary. He said the response has been positive throughout the district from students, coaches and parents and the middle school intramural and interscholastic programs will also be overhauled to mesh with what is offered at the high school level.
“We’ve learned some things along the way,” Stolz said. “Generally, it’s been very positive.”
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