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When sports seasons had beginnings and endings

Jul 11, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

Prep athletes can be stretched pretty far these days. A generation ago it wasn't that way.

Football and volleyball were played in the fall, basketball and wrestling in the winter, track in the spring, and the bigger towns offered baseball in the summer. One season ended, and another began.

It was a simpler and, some might say, better time to be a teenage athlete.

The status quo changed dramatically just over a quarter century ago in Wyoming. Prior to 1986 the Wyoming High School Activities Association set specific start end finish times for high school athletics.

In '86, the limitations were lifted. Suddenly, athletes discovered that their lives and, possibly more importantly (to teenagers anyway), their summers belonged to someone else.

When I started coaching in Lusk in the fall of 1980, even the mid-season breaks were closely monitored by the WHSAA. In the three-week hiatus between football and basketball I held "open gym" for the entire basketball team without the two varsity coaches in the gym. As freshman coach I could legally hold voluntary sessions with the team.

By the end of my second year in Shoshoni in 1987, the summer leagues began in earnest. The basketball team camp at Mesa State in Grand Junction, Colo., was expensive, but it was the premier camp in the region and the Wrangler boys loved it.

The games we played in those first few years made a tremendous difference the following fall. But, as with all good things, others caught on, and the advantage disappeared. By 1990 we played 30 games each summer in organized camps and in meetings at various sites across the state. When everyone began doing it, it became just another season.

In the mid-sized schools it killed summer baseball.

Towns with small schools didn't play baseball, and the largest ones didn't notice the missing athletes. But those in the middle like Rawlins, Lander, Riverton, Cody and Worland felt the pinch.

Riverton was one of the last schools to jump into summer play as baseball ruled the summer months. That, too, has changed, but summer league basketball isn't necessarily the culprit.

It is interesting that the sports with the largest off-season programs are the ones with the largest parental problems. Volleyball and soccer are now played 12 months a year in many communities. They play age division soccer and volleyball so much in the off season that the regular season often becomes an afterthought.

As a former varsity basketball coach for nearly a decade, I remember enjoying the summer season in my last few years much more than the official season in the winter months. In the summer there weren't any crowds, not many parents paid attention, and playing and coaching were fun. No pressure, no formal schedule, just you and the kids playing a game against other coaches and players who would become good friends during down time off the court. In many ways, it was the essence of the sport, but it wasn't official.

Shoshoni chalked up wins over Douglas, Wheatland, Powell, Lander, and even Smokey Hill, Cherry Creek and Denver Mullins in summer league, but those wins really didn't count. We went 11-0 in the summer of '87 in the big-school division at Mesa State with wins over schools with 25 times our enrollment, but that didn't count either.

What did count was the state title the following spring in Casper.

Was the summer schedule responsible for that? Possibly, but there is no way to prove it.

With Gillette, Laramie, Natrona and Central playing up to 100 games a summer in basketball and volleyball, it turns the kids into unpaid professionals. Even Douglas took on this arduous schedule a few years ago.

There really can be too much of a good thing.

It's probably time for the WHSAA to step in again and limit the off-season play before every sport becomes a study in endurance rather than a learning experience.

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