How long has it been since a Charleston County high school won a state championship in football?
So long that the last school to do it — Middleton High School in 1982 — does not even exist any more.
Charleston County School District coaches have long pointed to the lack of a district-run middle school football program as one reason for the district’s 12 high school teams’ struggles to compete on a statewide level. Currently, youth football for seventh- and eighth-graders is run by local recreation departments.
But after a presentation made by CCSD athletic director Dave Spurlock last week, the school district may begin sponsoring middle school football in the county as soon as the 2015 season next fall.
“It’s further along that it has been in two years,” Spurlock said.
Spurlock made a presentation to the CCSD’s Strategic Education Committee last week, telling the committee that it would require $300,000 to start a football league for the district’s 14 middle schools. That would pay for teams comprised of about 40 seventh- and eighth-graders at each school. Other sports could be phased in over several years depending on funding, Spurlock told the committee.
The next step is for the proposal to go before the Charleston County School Board.
“If approved, we could begin football for 2015 this fall,” Spurlock said.
High school coaches say that having formal ties to middle school programs — the head coaches would be CCSD employees, and the players would all attend the same middle school — will strengthen their own programs.
“Your feeder system has to be strong,” says Wando coach Jimmy Noonan, who just finished his sixth season with the Warriors after coaching previously at Spring Valley, a Class AAAA school in Columbia. “The earlier age that the players can pick up the system, the stronger the execution when they are older. That’s where the feeder system comes into play. From the Midlands on up, they play middle school football subsidized by the school district, and that’s key.”
One example is the way that youth football is run in Spartanburg County’s District 5, the school district that includes perennial state power Byrnes High School.
In that district, a group called the District 5 Sports and Activities Council runs youth sports in the district, which includes Byrnes and two middle schools.
“We consolidated all the rec leagues in the area years ago,” said Bill Cureton, the director of youth football for District 5. “We made it into one sports council that handles recreation for the entire school district. It got us all on the same page, doing the same things in football, basketball and baseball feeding into the high school program. We lean real heavily on the district athletic director and athletic department to help us with our programs.”
From first to sixth grade, District 5 fields flag football and tackle teams that play only other teams within the district.
“From first grade on, we are running Little League versions of Byrnes’ plays,” Cureton said. “We’re doing speed and agility stuff the way the high school team will do it. Kids get to feel as young as first grade that they are little Rebels.”
In seventh and eighth grade, District 5 kids are playing for one of two middle schools, with coaches that work for the district and are again running the Byrnes system. No players are cut in the District 5 system, and from first through sixth grade there are minimum playing requirements for each player.
“I didn’t have any part in inventing this system,” Cureton said. “But I’ve been involved for four years, and I think it’s a tremendous way to run a rec league. It’s viewed by everyone as fair, and the kids get so much more out of it.”
Spurlock said there are other reasons for CCSD to formalize middle school athletics.
“We’ve found that kids that have been captured in middle school sports teams have a 10 to 15 percent higher graduation rate from high school,” he said. “And studies have found kids have better attendance and better behaviors simply because people are there monitoring them. And we feel like there’s a certain amount of safety that we can provide. It will be under the umbrella of the high school, and I will hold my guys extremely accountable for safety.”
Keeping a wary eye on CCSD’s progress toward middle school football are the directors of local recreation departments. In Mount Pleasant, for example, some 800 kids played football in the town’s recreation department last year, including 200 at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels.
Mount Pleasant Rec divides up the “varsity” teams of seventh- and eighth-graders by school, so that, for example, most of the kids playing for Moultrie Middle School attend that school. But the team has no formal ties to the school, and the coaches are volunteers. Mount Pleasant has three middle schools that feed into Wando.
“If you are looking at 40 kids per school, that’s 120 kids who will come out of our program,” said Ken Ayoub, director of the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department. “We’re in the process of figuring out what we can do in addition to that, what we can still offer to kids who won’t be a part of those teams.
“Whether we will continue with our current set-up or try to come up with something different, we will have it figured out before the season begins. CCSD is going to do what they feel like they need to do, but it does raise a concern for us.”
Ayoub points out that the recreation department league also serves students at private schools who will not necessarily move on to Wando.
“What will happen to them?” he asked. “They can’t go play for Wando or for the public schools, so we’ll have to figure out something.”
Ayoub also has begun considering what will happen if all middle school sports are eventually run by CCSD.
“For the sake of the children involved, I hope it works,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work for some of them, we will be there. They are welcome back.”