This article originally appeared in the spring 2012 Harker Quarterly.
Harker’s athletic department is making a concerted effort to make available the best sport-specific training possible to lower and middle school athletes. The integrated program will enhance player skills, introduce them to varsity coaches and training techniques and should result in higher caliber teams for Harker.
The integration has become possible with the careful expansion of the athletic staff. Dan Molin, athletic director, joined Harker in 2005 and recognized the benefit of harnessing Harker’s potential for an integrated athletic program. “We’d like our younger athletes to see themselves contributing someday to the upper school program,” he said. “They see the wonderful student and coach role models in the upper school and want to emulate them.”
The integration, gradually introduced where appropriate over the last few years, provides a smooth transition for student athletes as they progress towards and enter the upper school. “The main goals are to have similar skills taught at the lower and middle school programs as are taught in the upper school programs,” Molin said. “When those students come to the upper school, there is a seamless transition regarding those skills.”
Molin is a certified athletic administrator, a member of the American Volleyball Coaches Association and a lifetime member of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. At Harker he has led numerous athletic improvement projects, helped turn the football program around and coached the first boys athletic team to a Harker league championship.
One of his first steps was bringing a higher level of training to the varsity teams, and to that end, in 2007 Jaron Olson joined the department. Olson is a certified athletic trainer and a National Academy of Sports Medicine performance enhancement specialist.
The integration program took a long stride forward when Ron Forbes joined the athletic department in 2010. Forbes has national chops as a leader in developing winning athletic programs. He comes to Harker from Stanford University, where he was director of sports performance.
“Ron has been an outstanding addition to our athletic department,” said Molin. “He continually sets the bar to a higher standard.” In the last 15-plus years, Forbes has trained more than 60 athletes later drafted by the National Football League. He helped the University of Florida Gators to seven consecutive bowl games and helped Stanford secure its spot as one of the top teams in the NCAA’s PAC 10 division. His organizational ability and deep knowledge of sports programming give the athletic department the administrative depth to coordinate the additional program elements effectively.
Summer Sports Camps
Three programs – swimming, tennis and soccer – have long had summer camps that put athletes of all ages together, providing a de facto integrated program for each.
Swimming, a natural summer activity, benefitted from the opening of the Singh Aquatic Center at the upper school campus in 2008. This year a special competitive element, Junior Swim Team, was added for intermediate swimmers to practice competitive strokes and build endurance and fitness as part of a summer team.
The summer tennis program, directed by Harker’s tennis coach, Craig Pasqua (United States Professional Tennis Association certified), has been naturally integrated with the upper school tennis team as Pasqua trains young students during the summer, then sees them as they continue to compete and reach high school.
Competitive tennis players ages 6-18 train in the summer at Pasqua’s Harker Oakwood Tennis Training System (HOTTS), with team practices and interclub matches, in addition to instruction on advanced techniques, strategy, footwork and sports psychology. When students reach the upper school, they are fully acquainted with Pasqua’s methods and he with their strengths and weaknesses.
Harker also has long had a strong summer soccer program, drawing players from other schools and clubs, and enhancing the upper school’s soccer team, run by varsity coach Shaun Tsakiris. “My aim every year has been to create more and more of a buzz on campus about the sport,” says Tsakiris, a member of the 1997 U.S. National Team and winner of UCLA’s MVP Award in 2000. (For more on Tsakiris, see page 11.)
Across the sports, integration has three elements. The first is a series of weekend training sessions during the season open to boys and girls in grades 4-8, run by varsity coaches. The middle school’s varsity A teams also practice with upper school teams. “I felt that it was extremely important for our lower and middle school athletes to see how we do things at the varsity level, see where we train and who we are as a coaching staff,” Tsakiris said. The soccer teams held an inaugural combined practice session in January, while girls basketball weekend training sessions for lower and middle school students started in early February. In addition, upper school track coaches will help with middle school track meets, and Molin, as boys varsity volleyball coach, plans to run training sessions with the grade 8 boys volleyball team.
The training sessions have enjoyed great attendance, with the basketball sessions attracting as many as 28 lower school and middle school athletes, said Molin.
Alfredo Alves, girls varsity basketball coach, noted the age groups mesh well. “At the workouts we have all four high school coaches and some varsity girls each week,” he said. “The varsity girls know everything we do and how we run things, so the coaches have full trust in the high school kids to teach the younger kids, and I feel like that is a key component to the workouts.”
“We were able to get the girls basketball clinics and boys soccer training sessions up and running for the third sports season of our lower and middle school calendar,” said Theresa “Smitty” Smith, the athletic director for grades 4-8. “Last season coach Butch Keller invited members of the lower and middle school boys basketball teams to sit on the bench at his upper school varsity basketball games.”
In addition, Smith said, “Wrestling coach Karriem Stinson runs middle school wrestling prior to upper school wrestling practice with a slight overlap so middle schoolers are integrated with upper schoolers. In the fall, we ran a grade 7 and 8 flag football tournament at the Saratoga campus, and the upper school football players helped out with everything from chain gang to scoring to clean up.”
There are other overlaps being added as schedules and personnel sync up. “In the fall,” Smith said, “upper school softball coach Raul Rios also coached the middle school softball team, and this spring we will have members of the upper school girls volleyball coaching staff, Alisa Vinkour and Diana Melendez, coach our middle school girls volleyball teams.”
Also this spring upper school water polo coaches Ted Ujifusa (boys) and Amelia Lamb (girls) will be coaching the middle school water polo teams.
One of the jewels of the program is the new Harker Football School, taking place on Davis Field, March through May. The coed school is open to students from any school, grades 6-8, looking to improve their skills.
Forbes, who directs the football school, noted that the school has made the commitment to develop stronger players. “Success in producing football players who can compete on the highest level is the direct result of a consistent commitment to developing athletes who are sound in the fundamental skills of their respective positions,” he said. The athletic department is applying that maxim to as many sports as it can by presenting advanced techniques to younger players.
The second integration element is the plethora of sports camps Harker is running this summer. Along with tennis, swimming and soccer are now volleyball, football, basketball and water polo camps all run by Harker varsity coaches (see page 8 for details or visit www.harker.org).
In addition, Harker’s Summer Sports Conditioning (formerly Eagle Iron), a drop-in program that lasts most of the summer, meets daily and is managed by Olsen, Forbes and Smith.
The third element is the outreach upper school athletes do to the middle and lower school campuses, visiting to read or to help deliver core value messages along with school administrators. In addition, at the end of November, about 40 upper school athletes joined middle school students for lunch to get them excited about high school sports.
The advantages of the system are straightforward, said Molin. First, athletes will grow into their sports faster, gaining confidence and the ability to become better players – all good for the students’ personal growth. Second, the system will help Harker sports programs as coaches are better able to build on strengths and eliminate weaknesses of athletes, as well as better plan team play as skills build and are refined.
“We want there to be familiarity with the upper school program when students enter,” said Molin. “And naturally this will make our teams more competitive.”
Zach Jones contributed to this article.