Parents, coaches ask panel to commit to middle school basketball

Mar. 18—When the school district contracted with Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association last summer, athletics for grades 6-8 at the county's nine elementary schools merged into middle school feeder teams for the two high schools.

The exception was basketball. Each school continues to maintain boys and girls teams, a practice Director of Schools William Stepp decided last Tuesday will continue into the 2024-25 school year.

"If we're going to go all in, we need to go all in," said Stacy Spriggs. "I think we're cutting kids short."

Spriggs, a mother and coach, was one of a number of supporters who spoke to the Cumberland County Board of Education hours after Stepp's decision. The group addressed the board during the athletics committee portion of the monthly committee sessions.

The board decided in June 2023 to affiliate with TMSAA. Students from North Cumberland, Stone, Homestead, Crab Orchard and Pine View are grouped into feeder teams for SMHS, with CCHS served by feeder teams made up of students from South Cumberland, Martin, Brown and Pleasant Hill.

The decision to keep elementary basketball was based on giving students opportunities to play in the one sport that was self-sustaining due to an overwhelming number of players at each school. But many of those speaking mentioned that other community opportunities are available for students not planning to pursue the sport in high school.

"My son chose to play basketball," said Chris Mosley, who coaches at North Cumberland. "Why does he not get the same opportunity to compete at a higher level as somebody that chose volleyball, baseball, football — everything else that's middle school? I don't understand. We should be on a level playing field."

A survey sent to the system's coaches indicated 55% are in favor of including the elementary schools in the middle school program, said Scott Maddox, who serves as countywide athletic director. Forty-five percent are opposed.

Stone Memorial girls basketball coach Mike Buck urged the board to "fix this and make it right."

"There are a lot of kids in this county that are good at basketball," he said. "They are getting pushed aside. They're getting dumped on because we don't want to not hurt anybody's feelings."

Buck said it's frustrating to him as a coach.

"The system we have set up for them is a waste of time," he said. "It hurts kids. It hurts kids who are good at basketball. It slows their progress down. When they get to us, they have no idea what competitive basketball is. None."

He and several others who spoke to the board pointed out that scores are often lopsided, with some as much as 75-4. Buck said games with such differences do not benefit any of the players involved.

"The only people who win in that situation are the referees," he said. "There's no value in that at all."

Buck recounted the number of times Stone Memorial has been to the state tournament, and how it brings together the community — including students who don't make the cut in basketball in middle school.

"We're at a moment in time where we can truly do the right thing by everybody involved," he said. "There are going to be a few feelings that get hurt, but guess what? I know kids. They get over it really quickly."

Ivy Mayberry coached the Homestead Lady Bulldogs to the TMSAA state championship playoffs inn their first year of eligibility. She ticked off the powerhouses the team knocked off in the regular season, including White County and Upperman. Prescott, state champs in 2A, defeated the Lady Bulldogs on their home court during the regular season.

"Could we have actually won our division had we had a couple of girls that were stuck in other schools playing? Absolutely," she said. "Nobody would've touched us. Nobody."

Mayberry said she believes the team could have walked away with the state championship, had the present system set them up for success. Under it, she said the team is required to play in-county rivals.

"I was constrained to stay here," she said "Our eighth-grade night game? It was 76-2. I want one of y'all to find a parent, a player, a teacher that would sit through one of those games and say that was fun. It ain't. I've got girls here. They'll tell you that ain't fun. That gets kids hurt, and it's embarrassing for the other kids. My kids feel sorry for those kids."

Mayberry said she's forced to take her starting lineup out of the game in such instances, and it hurts them because they need the practice for bigger games.

"It's not fair," she said. "You're doing nobody any favors."

Instead of eliminating basketball from the elementary schools, Mayberry recommended starting play for grades 2-3 in September, with grades 4-5 playing in October-November. That way, she said, they're finished before middle school and high school start their seasons.

"Let us go two teams," Mayberry said. "Let it happen now. We've got to start preparing. We've got a lot to do. But let us do it, and let us move forward."

Other middle school basketball supporters who spoke during last Tuesday's committee meeting were Jimmy Spriggs, Matt Trevino, Courtney McShan and Jason Futrell.

"I appreciate all the comments," Stepp said. "I respect all the professionals in the room for sure. I'll take this back to my team."