Varsity Kansas

Are off-season restrictions favoring wealthier high school athletes or keeping kids safe?

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On May 10, Wichita East won its first City League girls soccer title since 2004. A few days later, the Aces’ coach, Dylan Gruntzel, was suspended for the rest of the season.

Gruntzel was found to have coached one of his players before the high school season started during the club season, which was a violation of the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) handbook. East reported the violation. KSHSAA accepted it.

The player had not started her freshman year at East, so Gruntzel said he didn’t think it would be a violation because she was not technically one of his players yet. And according to the KSHSAA handbook, “A student becomes a member of a school’s athletic squad, scholars bowl or debate team when he or she first participates in a practice session.”

In May, KSHSAA soccer director David Cherry said the association used its interpretation of the rule to validate the suspension.

“I see both sides of it,” Gruntzel said. “I think the best thing to do is to find a way to see if they (high schools and clubs) can work together at some point. What that answer is, I don’t know, but I think there’s a way to make it all work, whether it’s adjusting the rules or taking a look at what other states do.

“In Nebraska, a coach can work with his players as long as it’s not over a certain amount of kids. I think that’s something to look at, because if I’m coaching kids from other schools that I play against, it gives me a chance to make other coaches’ players better, but I can’t make my own better?”

New KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick said the association has to balance summer freedoms with player safety.

Faflick said a lot of factors go into building a successful team. Off-season opportunities is just one of them, and he said he understands some schools may have greater access to them. He said he has long been told KSHSAA can at times be too restrictive during the summer, so the association has loosened its grip in that regard.

“But now you seen the pendulum start to swing the other way, where you hear people say, ‘We need a break in the summer,’ ” Faflick said. “You used to hear, ‘We want total freedom, total freedom.’ Well, you give a little bit, and now let’s give some of it back, because it’s a huge balance.

“Kids have to be kids.”

KSHSAA is not responsible for what athletes choose to, or not to, do during the summer but must operate under the scenario in which an athlete cannot afford to train with a club or travel team during the off-season.

If the association were to allow high school coaches to train their players year-round, it could run into liability issues with overworking the kids. That opens the door for wealthier athletes to gain an advantage, Wichita West baseball coach Jeff Hoover said.

By KSHSAA rules, Hoover cannot coach any of his players for the following year outside of the baseball season, and during the school year but outside of baseball season, he can’t coach more than five on a non-high school team.

He cannot train his players with a bat, ball or glove from the first Tuesday in September until tryouts in February. If players can’t afford club baseball, they are left to train on their own if they find the time. Wealthier players can — and do — practice and play through the summer with their respective clubs.

Hoover said that’s a problem.

“To me, it just seems a little bit unfair when you have to have money to stay ready to play,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s any perfect way around it. I know they (KSHSAA) are concerned with kids doing too much and coaches being too hands-on with kids.

“The poor kids are the ones who suffer.”

Club sports are beneficial in more ways than just sharpening players’ skills for the high school season. Many players use club teams to gain momentum in recruiting while college coaches have time to look away from their own teams.

The perception is that high school sports are for fun; the club season is for gaining scholarships and, therefore, securing help in paying for a college education. Hoover said that in Kansas, student-athletes who don’t play a club season have to work much harder to turn college coaches’ heads.

In Oklahoma, high school players are allowed to play upward of 37 games for their high school team in a season, by way of a recent addition to the Oklahoma high school handbook. In Kansas, it is 20. Hoover asked, “Which kid are you going to recruit?”

“You pay for a scholarship one way or another,” he said. “You either pay through an academy or you just put that money up and hopefully you can afford it (college).”

Faflick said KSHSAA isn’t concerned with helping student-athletes gain athletic scholarships. That isn’t the purpose of the association, he said.

Bill Faflick, former City League athletic director, has taken over as executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

“The goal of our association and member schools is to get our students graduated,” Faflick said. “It doesn’t mean everybody is going to be a college athlete. ... As an educator, you worry about those kids that pursue eyes and put all of their eggs in one basket of getting an athletic scholarship whereas if they put that same effort into performing in academics, they have a much greater chance to get many more dollars.”

Gruntzel said as long as the seasons are kept separate, kids aren’t being overworked. And for athletes who don’t see eye-to-eye with Faflick or don’t have the same natural academic success that they do on a field or court, there have been cases in which athletes have been made to choose: high school or club.

In April 2017, six female soccer players in the Wichita area chose playing with a club.

Brandon Bleakley, a former club soccer coach, offered players exclusive club training and a potential spot with FC Wichita. If they took his offer, they sacrificed their high school eligibility. The six who accepted the invite returned to high school soccer the following season.

Bleakley said this is only the beginning of a trend popping up across the country.

With top players at risk of leaving the high school scene, the quality of high school sports could be in jeopardy. Gruntzel said that would be a terrible thing.

“High school soccer, and all high school sports, is something that needs to stay,” he said. “You’re not gonna get the same environment at the club level. ... If you hit that game-winning shot and go to school the next day, people are congratulating you. People that don’t even play soccer. People that don’t even know what soccer is. It’s the same thing in all sports.”

On the other side, college coaches are waiting in the soccer academies, and the better the club, often the higher the price tag — upward of $5,000 a year. Gruntzel said though other factors come into play, some of that slips into the high school ranks, too.

“If you want to win a state title, you got to have the money, at least to some degree,” he said. “Do I want to win a state championship at East High and try to be the first Wichita inner-city public school girls team to do that? Yes. But is that what it’s all about for me? No, but every coach is different.”

It becomes a three-party pull among high school and club coaches and KSHSAA. Gruntzel said there is no clear answer toward working together, but communication is a good first step.

“At the end of the day, it’s about making players successful, whether it’s sports or academics or whatever they choose,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”