Middle school athletic director earns top award

Mar. 11—The Kansas Interscholastic Athletic Administration Association has named Abilene Middle School Athletic Director Derek Berns Middle School Athletic Director of the Year.

Unlike at the high school level where four Athletic Director of the Year awards are presented, only one is awarded at the middle school level.

Berns said he had no idea someone nominated him until Will Burton, athletic director at Abilene High School, came by AMS and informed him of the award.

"The award that Mr. Berns has received by the KIAAA is the highest award a middle school athletic/activity director in the state of Kansas can receive," said Burton, who nominated Berns for the award. "In the time Mr. Berns has been the athletic/activities director at Abilene Middle School he has expanded activity offerings for students to participate in (including) scholars bowl and cheer, sought funding to create a weight room for student and staff use, promoted alignment of middle school with high school athletics where possible, implemented student leadership teams, and created the A3, Abilene Athletics Academy, to help support younger students prior to entering middle school athletics."

These undertakings are aimed at increasing student opportunities and experiences.

Berns said honor of the award is shared with the coaches, the parents and everyone who helps with the sports program do with the youth. And it shows the power of teamwork.

"I am very appreciative of the award," Berns said. "I think the thing that I was most proud of is that it's really a representation of the things that we tried to do here with athletics at the middle school. One of our big things that we try to push is we try to be innovative and we try to be thoughtful about always having a growth mindset with our athletic department."

Rather than just presenting a program youth can find in any school, Berns said at AHS they look beyond the expected. For example, AMS was the first school in the North Central Kansas League to add a girl's wrestling program.

"Some of the other schools were a little bit more apprehensive to add it or try it out," he said. "We kind of stepped to the forefront there and were willing to add it and give it a shot because we thought that that would give our kids another opportunity. We felt like it was a need for our ... district and it would give us ... a competitive edge."

Abilene Middle School was also one of the first in the league to add cheerleading as an activity. After they did, several others followed suit.

Berns attention to the athletic program encompasses more than just the students. In looking at the totality of the program he said one consistent problem was attendance at the parent meetings. Rather than just passing blame, Berns looked at what he could do to meet the parents where they are and encourage more engagement.

"I used to do one (meeting) before every sport (season) and our attendance wasn't where I wanted it to be," he said. "I adopted a new model. Now we do what's called Meet the Coaches Nights. That allows parents to come in; it's a shorter period of time and it gets them the information that they need."

Berns has been the athletic director since 2018, he is a 2002 AHS graduate and returned to Abilene in 2015 as a physical education teacher. In doing so he followed a passion for athletics and activities.

At the middle school level, the biggest challenge in maintaining a vibrant athletics and activities program is anticipating what is needed in the coming years.

"It used to be you could show up to middle school and get started, at that age, with sports and activities," he said. "We're in a different world. This is another way that we got to be innovative.

The idea is to create youth programs that close gaps between the age groups. With that in mind, in partnership with the Abilene Recreation Department, they developed the Athletics Academy for students in third through sixth grade. In this program, children can participate in basketball and volleyball, learning the game and honing their skills before joining a middle school team.

"The next step is also developing teams at every single level so when they come to us, they're skilled and they're ready, and we can compete at any level," he said.

Although Berns earned the highest state award a middle school athletic director can receive, he said it's not going to change his mind set.

"I'm humbled by the award but it's not going to make me stop wanting to grow and get better and do the best we can," he said.

Berns will be formally recognized at the KIAAA Annual Awards Banquet at 6 p.m. March 23 at the Manhattan Convention Center. Anyone interested in attending can coordinate with Berns to make reservations. Tickets for the banquet are $35 and can be paid through a PayPal account.