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South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
Before they were Elkhart Central Blue Blazers or Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers, many athletes learned the basics as part of the Elkhart Community Schools' feeder program of elementary and middle schools.
Schools competing in an elementary league are Beardsley, Bristol, Cleveland, Eastwood, Hawthorne, Mary Beck, Mary Daly, Mary Feeser, Monger, Osolo, Pinewood, Riverview, Roosevelt STEAM and Woodland, as well as parochial school St. Vincent's.
Fifth- and sixth-graders (and sometimes fourth-graders) get a taste of boys soccer, girls volleyball, boys cross country, girls cross country and coed lacrosse in the fall; boys basketball and girls basketball in the winter; and girls soccer and boys flag football in the spring
Seasons are short and contests are generally held at 4 p.m. on weekdays.
Lacrosse, which is taught in elementary and middle school physical education classes with an eye on possible future high school teams, is a second-year program with games played at Feeser.
Soccer is played at Nibco fields. Other sports meet at elementary sites.
Football was moved to the spring to give middle school and high school coaches, who are busy during the fall, time to get involved. Whenever possible, high school coaches in all sports help elementary coaches teach the basics.
Elementary track has become a summer program.
When necessary, young athletes are bused to games (not practices).
"The biggest thing now is participation," elementary athletic director Jeff Komins said. "We also backed off the number of sports to give more time for practice."
Komins said 228 kids participated in "soft" lacrosse (softer ball and smaller stick than traditional lacrosse) and 173 in cross country.
Based on 2015-16 figures, there were 356 participants citywide in boys soccer, 416 in girls volleyball, 367 in boys basketball, 405 in flag football and 291 in girls soccer.
At the middle school level, seventh- and eighth-graders at North Side, Pierre Moran and West Side compete in the Big 11 Conference.
For the second year, rather than teams from the three schools only, there were Elkhart East and Elkhart West football squads for seventh and eighth grade.
The idea was to bring up the number of participants as well as the competitiveness of the squads. Elkhart West eighth-graders won the overall conference title in the fall. A year ago, the same group was the regular season seventh-grade champions before losing in a playoff game.
Players were assigned to the team associated with their future high school. Elkhart East is Central and Elkhart West Memorial. All practices and home games take place at either Central or Memorial.
There is a unique challenge at North Side where about half of the students are headed for one high school or the other.
"The kids wear their uniforms on game days," North Side activities director Betsy Tepe said. "Some were in red and some were in blue.
"They come together in football and play against each other in basketball. But there hasn't been any real problems."
Each Elkhart middle school also had teams for seventh-grade volleyball, eighth-grade volleyball, boys cross country, girls cross country, boys soccer and girls soccer.
In the winter, there are seventh-grade and eighth-grade teams at each school for boys basketball and girls basketball with a combined team for wrestling and Elkhart East and Elkhart West squads for boys swimming and girls swimming. Wrestlers practice and compete at ECHS or EMHS.
Spring brings with it seventh-grade and eighth-grade teams for boys track and girls track and the debut of middle school lacrosse in some form.
The goal of middle school sports is simple.
"We want to get kids ready for high school sports," West Side athletic director Steve Greenlee said. "We want them to be fundamentally sound and have a better understanding of the sports."
Steve Krah is a veteran sportswriter from Elkhart. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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