Stephen R. Sylvanie / Special to the Sun
Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Desert Oasis High had 11 varsity baseball players interested in joining its American Legion team this summer. That’s just enough to field a squad for what would have surely been another miserable season.
Last summer, when the team also struggled with numbers, it won just two games. There is little room for error with a slim roster — traffic on the way to a game, vacation, illness or an extra-inning affair could signal having to forfeit.
So, coach Paul Buboltz reached out to friends at Sierra Vista High with an idea: Let’s combine forces and form one team, the Las Vegas Aces. Sierra Vista contributed seven players to the effort.
Some towns with Legion programs across the nation have only one team, taking top performers from the city’s handful of schools for an all-star team. In Las Vegas, however, most schools typically have an affiliate, using the two-month season to develop the program’s players for the following spring. Most high-enrollment schools also field teams in Legion’s lower competition levels.
The experiment with Desert Oasis and Sierra Vista, which ended last week when the Aces lost in the state tournament semifinals, is something the Clark County School District officials should take notice of. It’s something they should adopt for the high school season for all sports, especially when fielding teams at certain at-risk schools.
High school athletics are about more than winning and losing. It’s about enhancing the high school experience through friendships, learning how to be reliable to teammates, staying productive after school and having pride in something you are passionate about.
But, at certain Las Vegas schools, low enrollment numbers and other difficulties such as ineligibility have forced coaches to cancel lower-level teams. And, if they recruit the hallways in between classes to find enough interest to narrowly fill a roster, the team is typically overmatched and faced with a season of lopsided defeats because they don’t have depth.
It also hurts the teams they play.
In football, for example, freshman and junior varsity squads are permitted eight games. When schools can’t fill lower-level teams, the number of games for sustainable programs decreases. Then, when they play an overmatched team, grabbing a convincing lead by halftime, the second half is played under mercy rules of a running clock and players don’t receive enough field time to develop.
Sure, taking players from opposing high schools to form one team is an unorthodox idea — especially since lower-levels teams are designed to prepare players for later in their career by running the varsity team's plays and formations. But, if after-school activities are truly about getting children involved, it’s an idea that must be considered. It’s better than not playing altogether.
Just ask the baseball players at Desert Oasis and Sierra Vista. Legion isn't regulated by the District.
“It was one of the most enjoyable summers we have had in a long time,” said Buboltz, who was a longtime assistant at Sierra Vista before landing the Desert Oasis job last summer, making the task of combining teams easier.
“The kids really meshed well together. We would have had two average teams by ourselves, so the kids were really receptive to our idea. Anytime you try something new, there is a risk. But it turned out to a great experience for everyone.”
Athletic programs at schools such as Clark, Chaparral, Eldorado, Sunrise Mountain, Western and Valley have each fallen victim to the numbers game in recent years. Schools in more economically stable areas have been no better, fielding thin teams that are easily overmatched. It’s a broken system and one of the more significant problems of Las Vegas high school sports. Two years ago, I wrote about a swimming team with just five — yes, five — members.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Combining teams would strictly be for lower-level competition, home schools could still promote players for the postseason or fill-in duty, the district would be on the hook for bus transportation to neutral practice sites and other expenses such as uniforms, and only one combined-forces team would be allowed in each league.
Schools determined to field teams on all three levels would be required to have a certain number of players on the roster to guarantee the team survives injuries, players quitting midseason and suspensions.
Schools would have until one month before the first game to establish teams, meaning the district would have to hold off scheduling lower-level games — including transportation and arranging facilities — until the last minute.
Although combining teams would be a strain, it’s the best way to create a competitive balance and provide a memorable experience.
At powerhouse schools such as Coronado and Centennial, whose enrollments are about 3,000 students, finding bodies for lower-level teams isn’t a problem. They even have cuts.
Eldorado, which competes in the same league as Coronado, has 1,697 students. Somehow, four years ago, students were taken from Eldorado for the opening of Sunrise Mountain, which also struggles to field teams. Desert Pines, another school that took a hit when Sunrise Mountain opened, has 2,231 students.
About 15 years ago, Durango was an athletic power in southwest Las Vegas. Then, Sierra Vista opened in 2001 to help ease overcrowding at Durango with the Southern Highlands neighborhood attracting new families. When Sierra Vista became overcrowded, Desert Oasis opened in 2008, essentially gutting Sierra Vista.
Now, Durango has 2,208 students, Sierra Vista sits at 2,115 and Desert Oasis has 2,056. All three schools have to compete with Centennial’s 2,996 enrollment. You could easily combine the enrollments of the three schools, divide by two and eliminate one school — that’s an idea for another column.
For now, let’s concentrate on being more like the coaches at Desert Oasis and Sierra Vista baseball. They understand the value of getting children involved and how teaching them the game includes making sure there is a game to play.
My heart goes out to the children who won’t have a high school freshman or junior varsity team to play on, and players at the opposing schools whose first year of football will include canceled games and inadequate field time.