This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 Harker Quarterly.
With hundreds of grade 5-8 students competing on dozens of teams and using facilities at three campuses, the lower and middle school sports program has become a force to be reckoned with. The program is a finely tuned machine that helps produce well-rounded Harker students, many of whom will move on to the upper school. It balances competitiveness, hard work and learning, all while emphasizing the love for the game.
Theresa “Smitty” Smith has the task of managing 55 lower and middle school teams in 16 sports, as well as coaching the upper school varsity girls volleyball team – for which she recently eclipsed 300 career wins. But it is all in a day’s work, she says. “There are a bazillion kids in the program, there are tons of teams. It’s a huge undertaking. But we have a really good program and I’m proud of that.”
Gazing around the middle school gym just outside of Smith’s office, one can see the source of her pride in the many championship banners.
Since 2008, the middle and lower schools have won 56 league titles. Smith gives the credit for the program’s success to her amazing coaches. “Any extra help that I need, all hands are on board. It’s a great unit of people to work with,” Smith said. “All are willing to jump in and take initiative, and it makes my job easier.” There are plenty of hands to help, too, as Smith has more than 40 devoted coaches and assistants, with about a 50-50 split between walk-on coaches and Harker employees.
One of those coaches is Raul Rios, who has been working with Harker athletes for a decade. During the fall and winter, Rios can be found with the middle school athletes; in the spring he works with the upper school students. “I coach because I love sports and working with kids,” said Rios, who also heads up the shipping and receiving department at Harker. “It’s very rewarding seeing somebody using something you taught them and succeeding with it.”
Dan Pringle is another loyal coach, who first began coaching at Harker in 2000. Pringle is involved with four different middle school sports and also assists the upper school’s girls varsity basketball team. One might think that kind of schedule would take its toll on a coach, but not Pringle. “Every year coaching at Harker, there has been a special memory of a team, player or season that brings a smile to my face and shows me how lucky I am to be coaching at such a great school,” stated Pringle.
The sound of dozens of basketballs beating against the pavement as three girls teams practiced on the blacktop was almost deafening, but Charlotte Blanc, grade 8, loudly stated, “Coach Pringle is the best basketball coach I’ve ever had. He’s really serious and he’s really funny. He pushes you to work really hard.”
Hard Work On and Off the Field
Hard work is a common theme in conversations with Harker athletes, and is clearly something they do not shy away from. When asked for a favorite Harker sports memory, Ryan Tobin, grade 7, said, “We were playing soccer against Menlo last year and it was back and forth all game. The whole team worked their hardest and never gave up and we eventually won.”
So what makes Harker athletes wantto work and try so hard? “Our students are unique, because at a very young age they are motivated to be successful in the classroom,” said Brighid Wood, coach and assistant to the middle school athletic directors. “We have been able
to extend that focus onto the eld and have seen some amazing results.”
Dhruv Saoji, grade 6, thinks the influence sometimes moves in the opposite direction. “Sports help you focus. It lets you clear your mind and then you have a fresh mind when you go back to academics.” Whether it is academics influencing sports or sports influencing academics, Harker students seem to enjoy bringing the same intensity into both arenas.
The work ethic displayed by Harker students produces an amazing effect in that the student athletes actually grow and evolve in their sports, and as people. “My favorite part of coaching is getting to see the progression in the kids,” said first year Harker coach Brittney Moseley. “Just seeing how much they’ve grown on and off the field is beneficial and shows that I’ve done my job.” Wood added. “As [the students] grow in our system, we’ve seen some great strides on and off of the field. I feel like the success is found in development of character alongside ability, and that is always our goal.”
The Element of Fun
But the middle school athletic program isn’t only about work ethic and personal growth, it is also about the athletes enjoying themselves. According to Smith, one of the philosophies of the program is “the element of fun.” When asked why he plays sports, Saoji answered just as one would expect a sixth grader to: “It’s time to have fun!” Though a little older, Blanc answered the question similarly: “It’s always so much fun. Even if your teammates aren’t your friends regularly at school, you connect as a team.”
“Last year we won the championship and all had an amazing time,” said basketball player Ashley Barth, grade 6. “We bonded as a team and became really close friends!”
Pringle hopes his coaching style encompasses all these qualities. “I want all my student athletes to gain confidence and self esteem while learning how to work as a team, and build lifelong relationships while having fun.”
Preparing for High School
The results of the middle school sports experience are evident at the upper school campus. Jared Anderson, grade 9, is one of the stars of the boys varsity soccer team this year and a product of the Harker sports program. “The middle school sports program prepared me for high school sports because it led me to understand the competitiveness of high school sports without too much pressure being placed on me,” Anderson noted.
Joelle Anderson, grade 11, who has been lighting up the scoreboard this year for the girls varsity basketball team, partially credits her success to her Harker middle school coaches. “They help you develop your skills. Those skills come in to effect when you play at a higher level,” she said.
In addition to the sport-specific preparation the Harker athletes receive in middle school, the variety of sporting opportunities also serves students well at the next level.
This year, Rachel Cheng, grade 11, earned a West Bay Athletic League first team honor in volleyball, but she might not have discovered her talent if not for the breadth of sports offered at the middle school. “I delved into a number of sports when I was in middle school,” she said. “I ran cross country, track and eld, played soccer and played volleyball,” recalled Cheng. “I experimented with all these different kinds of sports, so I could easily nd which ones I was good at, and which ones were my passion.”
Giving young student athletes choices and opportunities is all part of the pathway that Harker’s sports community has built over the years. Academics have always been prevalent at Harker, but appealing to students with a high interest in athletics has become a focus in recent years. “When we initially started the upper school one grade at a time, a lot of our students and parents were hesitant to go [there].
Our better athletes went to the Mittys and Bellarmines and St. Francises,” remembered Smith. “Within the last ve years, the retention rate on those top athletes has exploded.” This retention rate has shown great results as the upper school just came off one of its best fall seasons in Harker history, with five teams making the postseason. This success may not have been possible without the groundwork that Smith and her coaches create in their athletes at the lower and middle school levels.
On any given day, on any given Harker campus, a sixth grader could be scoring his first-ever basket, or an eighth grader kicking her nal goal before heading to the upper school. But whether their teams are playing in a championship or working on drills, the Harker playing eld is always filled with joy.
“You can’t make everyone happy, but I think we make a lot of people happy,” stated Smith with a slight grin.