Understanding the problems facing Perry High School in competitive sports does not require any special skills of discernment.
Casting blame is the easy way out, but refusing to accept responsibility is only going to ensure that the intensity of the struggles for victory will continue.
At some point, as unsavory as some will find it, it becomes impossible to overlook those in uniform themselves. The coaches can have the team shot 1,000 free throws in practice, but if the Bluejays are only going to convert on 43.1 percent at the line (63rd of 64 3A teams), shoot only 31.2 percent from the field (63rd) and turn the ball over 38.8 times per game (63rd) they will again lose by an average of 42.2 points per game.
The baseball team can take batting practice until their arms fall off, but a .311 strikeout rate (64th), a .204 team average (63rd) and only 71 team walks (64th), combined with only 99 strikeouts from your own staff, are going to make victory very difficult.
It is tempting to point out the myriad of statistical categories in which Perry ranks among the worst in the six main team sports, and most of those numbers are publicly available. At some point, those in uniform must decide to put in the greatest effort they can. Instead, I have heard coaches regularly complain about missed practices, late appearances at practice and a lackadaisical approach to the team and its purpose.
Sadly, this is often fed by parents, who are quick to praise Johnny for “competing” and “giving an effort.” Maybe Johnny did, but so did Jack on the other team, and his side keeps beating ours.
The value of participation in youth sports cannot be overemphasized. Successful varsity programs are fueled by youth leagues in which teams play the same offense, same defense, run the same plays, have the same mindset and the like (adjusted for age, of course) as the high school teams. Once those players arrive as freshmen, they know what to expect and how to execute, making the transition easier.
There is not a coach at the varsity level nor an administrator at Perry who would not dearly love to see such a system working in the community. There is no reason it cannot.
This will be three decades on the prep scene for this writer, and the changes I have witnessed are many, and most but not all have been negative.
For sure, all sports are far safer to play than they were. The medical knowledge and its adaptation to sports has been a marvel to behold. Football is far, far less dangerous than it was, and the situation is continuing to improve.
Systemic changes to softball have dramatically reduced injuries, from moving the rubber back three feet to the proliferation of infield masks. Baseball is also a healthier sport, although the pitch-count mandates have had a negative impact on the competitiveness of all but a handful of schools.
Instruction continues to improve as well, with coaches bringing deeper backgrounds in their sports to their coaching methods and techniques.
Equipment is, of course, much better. The list goes on.
The obverse is largely societal: Parents who think Johnny or Jane should “specialize.” I have news for you: I covered all four years of Jeff Clement’s prep career. He left Marshalltown with national records for home runs (73) and walks (216), won the Johnny Bench award at USC and was picked third overall by the Seattle Mariners. He played in fewer than 120 major league games.
Unless your kid is that kid: a Clement, an athlete of the highest caliber, then your kid should not specialize. Quit dreaming, mom and dad, about that possible scholarship, and listen instead to the hundreds and hundreds of college and professional coaches in all sports, all of whom have the same message for high school athletes: Play as many different sports as you can. We want well-rounded athletes, exposed to different physical challenges and coaching styles.
I began covering Perry sports in February of 2005. I can, without hesititation, name the three most talented male and female athletes I have seen at PHS since then. All, without exception, were multi-sport participants.
Perry will operate this school year with a Basic Educational Data System (BEDS) number of 428. This is the number of students who were in grades 9-11 last October, and it is used, among other things, for athletic classifications for the following school year. Perry’s number makes the school the 67th largest in Iowa.
As a pure average, Perry has a class size of 140. Toss in the incoming freshman, and the high school will have somewhere around 560 or more students. Of those, the total number who will participate in at least one sport will certainly be fewer than 100, perhaps a lot fewer.
If half of that 560 is boys, then it means the less-than-40-player football team (grades 9-12) is going to try and compete with a roster on which fewer than one in five boys is playing. The statewide average has fallen to 18 percent since 2013, which is sad and bordering on unsustainable.
Parents need to encourage their kids to join a sports team and have fun playing. Losing, of course, is never fun, but being part of the posse that starts to turn the tide carries plenty of reward and well deserved pride. Someone (and lots of someones) has to be willing to take the first step. It is easy to quit, and quitting has plagued the Perry sports scene for far too long, feeding the current struggles.
Every season, coaches approach this writer and bemoan the athletes who could help their team but who are not out for the sport. Instead, they are doing nothing. Apparently, some of the young people are content to watch their friends put up the good fight while happy not to have to exert any effort themselves, and far too often this is reinforced at home.
Not everyone is a great athlete. That is both understandable and acceptable. No one honestly believes Perry can suddenly become a sports powerhouse, but there is no reason the Bluejays and Jayettes cannot at least be competitive once again.
It starts there. It starts with all of us.