Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Countless high school students participate in sports. The vast majority of them are playing on non-varsity teams. These student-athletes certainly want to play at the highest level and that would be on a varsity team. The reality is there are only so many spots available and you need to be knowledgeable, skilled and prepared to earn one of them.

So how does an athlete get to the place where the goal of varsity competition comes to fruition? It means participating on lower level sports teams — junior varsity, freshman and the like.

It is at this level student-athletes develop what they need to not only one day be varsity players, but just plain old good team members, period.

They learn to be good teammates. They learn rules and discipline. They learn the fundamentals. They learn leadership skills. They learn sportsmanship.

Basically, you are taught how to function in a setting that requires all of the players to put goals of the the team as the priority. They are taught what it takes to achieve those goals. They are taught this means putting the team ahead of themselves.

That dynamic is vital in the creation of well rounded, honest competitors.

When I was in high school (a lifetime ago), freshmen weren't allowed to compete at the varsity level. In some sports, such as football, the reason was for safety.

It was believed 14-year-old freshman boys were outmatched against 17- and 18-year-old men.

I tend to think this is still true. So they played on a freshman or junior varsity team to hone their skills and learn how to play the game. This was the rule for all sports.

I realize in some sports such as track, cross-country, swimming and tennis, especially among girls, there are talented athletes who can and do excel at the varsity level but they are rare, so the younger athletes need an avenue to become better players.

I always have emphasized the successes of our lower level teams.

I acknowledged their accomplishment just as much as the varsity teams. One year, all four of our track teams at St. Joseph High School won the league championships — varsity boys, varsity girls, junior varsity boys and junior varsity girls. I made certain this was mentioned in the newspaper as such an accomplishment had never before happened in the Los Padres League.

A good friend of mine, Ken Reeves, the current cross country coach at Foothill Technology High School, once had over 200 kids out for his cross country teams while at Nordhoff High School in Ojai.

There are only 14 varsity slots available. So why did so many participate? Because Ken made every one of them feel valuable.

Ken videotaped all of them throughout the season. He taught them that they were competing against the clock and what they did mattered. His banquets lasted over four hours (no one complained) because all the athletes on his lower level teams received just as much attention and accolades as his varsity squads.

Since his Nordhoff teams won 11 state championships and 17 CIF-SS Championships, I'd say his emphasis on non-varsity athletes was vital to that success. After all, the varsity kids were going to graduate and needed to be replaced, huh? Oh, and Foothill Tech has already won its first state cross country title.

But most importantly, playing on the lower level teams allows kids to have fun. Friendships are developed and a sense of belonging ensues. Their parents come to watch them play and cheer them on no matter at what level they compete. Their joy at rooting for their children has nothing to do with what team they are playing on; it has everything to do with just enjoying seeing their kids play.

So I encourage all of our school athletic programs to not dismiss those lower level teams. Acknowledge their great achievements. They compete and play with the purest of intentions — the love of the game.

Greg Sarkisian has coached high school athletics on the Central Coast for around 30 years. At St. Joseph, Sarkisian's track and field athletes won 24 individual CIF championships under his tutelage. He also taught mathematics for 38 years at the high school level and for 27 years at Allan Hancock College.