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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
HENDERSON — Kaytlan Kemp and Savannah Lacer are two of the top players for the girls basketball team at Henderson County High School, a school they do not attend.
That's not all that uncommon in Kentucky high school athletics, which allows middle school students to play at the high school level.
Kemp and Lacer are students at South Middle School, one of two middle schools in the Henderson County system. Kemp, an eighth-grader, has started every game this season for the high school team, which is among the top programs in the state with 14 regional championships and four state Final Four appearances. Lacer, a seventh-grader, has made a handful of starts but is usually one of the first players off the bench for the Lady Colonels.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association allows seventh- and eighth-grade students who attend a feeder school under the same local Board of Education as the KHSAA member school play on the high school team at any level. There are exceptions. The KHSAA does not allow middle school students to play varsity football and soccer, which are considered contact sports.
Kentucky's system is rare. Most states do not allow middle schoolers to compete at all at the high school level. Neighboring states Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and West Virginia fall into that category. Some states, such as Ohio, allow eighth-graders to play high school sports only if the student is too old to play at the middle school level. In that case, the student will still have only four years of eligibility.
States such as Louisiana, Minnesota and Nebraska allow seventh- and eighth-graders to play high school sports if the middle school and the high school are under the supervision of the same administrator, which would be more common with smaller schools.
The only states that, like Kentucky, allow seventh- and eighth-grade students to play high school sports without restrictions are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi and North Dakota. A handful of other states allow eighth-graders to compete under certain conditions.
"We are one of the few (states) that has no criteria on the size of the school," KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said. "Most other states are just 9 through 12 but in a lot of those states they have had long-time existing middle school competition where we didn't."
While the KHSAA allows middle schoolers to play up, it's local school boards that have the final say in Kentucky.
"The school boards now have the authority to say that you can't. If it gets to be a big problem locally, they can cut it off," Tackett said, noting that larger school districts with multiple high schools are less likely to allow middle schoolers to participate. "In bigger districts that have more than one school, it can cause a problem. They are more likely to restrict it."
This isn't Kemp's first year of high school varsity sports. Playing on the freshman softball team at HCHS last spring as a seventh-grader, Kemp was brought up to the varsity team in midseason.
"We had no plans for her to play varsity softball as a seventh grader. She was just on the freshman team with her normal group that she's always played with," her father, Kris Kemp, said. The freshman team is primarily middle school players anyway. "She played well enough and they felt like they needed some help in her skill set so they moved her up (to the varsity)."
With only one senior and a pair of juniors on this year's varsity basketball team, Kemp and Lacer were asked to move up to the high school team. Because the high school team was so young, it made it easier for both to adjust.
The Kemps had considered allowing Kaytlan play junior varsity and freshman basketball last year as a seventh-grader. "They talked about bringing her up to play JV and freshman basketball last year as a seventh grader. She would have been one of the really younger kids on the team last year. That did give us some reservations just from the social aspect. In softball it didn't bother us because initially she was just with the freshman team which was mostly middle schoolers. There was just one freshman. The freshmen and the varsity didn't travel together. In basketball, the JV and the varsity travel together so you get the overnights and the bus rides and the social aspect."
It's the social part, rather than the skill level, that causes some opposition to allowing middle school students to participate in high school.
"Some of the problems come from the younger kids being around the older ones," KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said.
That was initially a concern for both the Kemps and the Lacers. "As a mother, I was worried about her being with older girls," Stacie Lacer, Savannah's mother, said. "They've all been really supportive. They understand that (Savannah and Kaytlan) are younger, and they have taken them under their wings."
Not long ago, students younger than Lacer were allowed to participate in varsity sports. Until the 2014-15 school year, elementary school students were allowed to play varsity sports in Kentucky. Now students below the seventh-grade are not permitted to participate on any level of high school athletics.
"When we first started girls basketball, a lot of schools didn't have enough to play. When education reform came along in the early 90s, there was a big push to tamp down interscholastic athletics at the middle school level. That combination meant if you thought you had any talent or ability, you needed to play up," Tackett said. "Now it's just kind of accepted that we are 7 through 12."
History of success
Kentucky has a long list of athletes who have played and succeeded in high school sports while in middle school.
Former NBA player O.J. Mayo was a first-team all-state selection as an eighth-grader when he led Rose Hill Christian Academy to the 2003 state tournament. Mayo transferred to Ohio to start his freshman season and then later moved back to his native West Virginia to finish his high school career.
Whitney Creech of Jenkins, who is the state's all-time leading scorer with 5,527 points, played eight seasons on her high school team beginning as a fifth-grader. Creech is now a sophomore on the women's team at Western Kentucky University.
Ty Rogers, who hit "the shot" in Western Kentucky's win over Drake in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, started a few games as a seventh-grader and was an all-district player as an eighth-grader on his way to scoring 3,300 points in his career at Lyon County High School.
Closer to home, middle schoolers have regularly made an impact on the local scene. Jaci Bickett, currently a senior at Henderson County High School, won the first of her three state pole vault championships as an eighth-grader. Kale Gaither, who is the leading scorer on Henderson County's boys basketball team this season as a freshman, started for Union County as an eighth-grader.
Henderson County's girls basketball program has had a long history of utilizing middle school players during Jeff Haile's 32 seasons as head coach. Among the more significant contributors for the Lady Colonels were Nicole Hay, who played in 25 games as an eighth-grader in 1989-90; Whitney Waddell, who started 11 games for the 2000-01 Final Four team as an eighth-grader; Ellie Fruit, who played in 19 games as an eighth-grader for the 2008-09 Final Four team. More recently, Kacie Wallace, MiKayla Gilbert, Samantha Carter, Alisha Owens and Breanna Chester all made significant contributions as eighth graders for the Lady Colonels.
A rare opportunity
Familiarity with Haile made the decision easier for the Kemps to allow their daughter to play up this year. Kaytlan's mother Sara played for Haile from 1992 through 1996 and was a member of the 1994 Final Four team.
"We knew what she was going to be learning and getting out of it at the next level. I knew he would push her to be better. I trust what he's going to do with her," Sara Kemp said.
Kemp and Lacer had already been above their age level in middle school. Kemp played on the seventh- and eighth-grade teams at South Middle as a sixth-grader and seventh-grader. As a sixth-grader, Lacer started on the seventh-grade team and was a reserve for the eighth-grade team last year.
The parents wondered if the girls would be sacrificing playing time by moving up early to the high school level.
Chad Lacer, Savannah's father, thought it would be worth the risk. "Me as a dad, I said, 'Go for it, even if you didn't get to play much. Just in practice, going against the older girls, would be a plus.' We also wondered if it might bring her back because she wouldn't get to play as much as if she had stayed at South starting on the seventh and eighth-grade team playing 50 or 60 games. We never dreamed she'd get this much playing time before the season started."
Despite his fatherly advance, the Lacers allowed their daughter to make the decision on whether to play with the high school team or spend another season with the middle school group.
"We left it up to her. We said, 'We don't care. It's up to you. It's your decision,'" Chad said.
Both families believe the move will ultimately benefit their daughters' playing careers. "It's an opportunity that not everybody is given. (Kaytlan) just happened to fall into the right place at the right time," Kris Kemp said.
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