AD: Success lives in Mifflin County sports

BURNHAM – Matt Shoemaker remembers the community coming together to support the Huskies as Mifflin County High School was formed.

He remembers the first district champion, the first state place winner – and the difficulties that faced some of the school’s teams during the transition from two Class AAA programs to a single Class AAAA school.

And, the athletic director told the Lewistown Rotary Club Tuesday, he believes the athletic programs will continue to succeed despite struggles seen in the first two years Mifflin County competed as part of one of the best athletic conferences in the state.

“I remember that first ‘Meet the Huskies’ night when we had it over at Mitchell Field – all that purple, black and silver,” Shoemaker said. “Just the community being there and supporting the kids was a huge part of the whole process.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, when the Huskies were an independent program that played mostly smaller schools from its former conference, the Mountain League, the school collected one District 6 championship – field hockey – and Tyson Searer won bronze in state wrestling.

A year later, despite facing some of the state’s best in the Mid-Penn’s Commonwealth Division, the school added four district titles and eight seniors were awarded athletic scholarships to Division I or Division II schools – and another was drafted by a Major League Baseball team. This past year, the softball team became the first to win a title in the conference, and five student athletes received all-state honors – one in two different sports.

“We were definitely able to see what the competition was like that first year,” Shoemaker said of the Mid-Penn. This year, he said, “We probably should have won a few more than we did, but we competed better.”

As the next two-year cycle begins, he said, the Mid-Penn is still the best place for the school. There are few options, he said, because there are few Class AAAA schools in District 6 (four; five in girls basktball) or nearby District 9 (one). Two other contiguous districts are also barren of large schools – District 4 has just one, and District 5 has none. That leaves District 7 (the WPIAL), far to the west, and District 3, where the Mid-Penn is situated.

“I enjoy the relationships we have in the Mid-Penn,” he said. “I think it’s pretty early to determine what we can do. I think you can see that the competition’s helped us in our postseason. We just need to get that mindset that it’s going to be tough, but it’s making us better.”

Shoemaker said he may push for a division change for the sports that have had the hardest time adapting, listing soccer, swimming and volleyball as potential candidates. He noted that a junior high volleyball program starting this year is aimed at developing interest in that sport before the high school level.

And, he said, the establishment of a rivalry with State College should benefit the sports programs as well.

To that end, the conference agreed to move the State College football game to the end of the season, and the teams now have something to play for – a wood bucket, the brainchild of a Chief Logan graduate who has ties to both communities. It has seven sides to represent the Seven Mountains that separate the two.

And, Shoemaker said, University Orthopedics, which provides trainers to both schools, is sponsoring a cup that will be awarded to the team that wins more seasons between the two schools – with a point awarded to the school that has the better record each in the fall, winter and spring.

Shoemaker told the Rotary he would like to see an artificial turf field in the district at least for field hockey, but he knows the cost – likely more than half a million dollars – will have to be raised privately.

And he said there have been fewer cuts on athletic rosters than expected, which he calls a good sign for students who want to play a sport. But he also admits national trends that take kids away from sports are a concern.

“The one thing I see nationally is the trend toward these traveling teams. They start getting kids when they’re 8, 9 years old and travel all over the state,” he said. “You’re starting with a few, and it just gets fewer and fewer. I grew up here, and we had church league at the YMCA. Everybody – every boy that didn’t wrestle – played church league basketball. You had a big base for (the future). Some of our youth programs are starting to be for the elite instead of for the masses.”