Team sports spike at Catholic schools


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SAN DIEGO — Not all learning happens inside the classroom.

Some of it takes place on the soccer field, on the basketball court, and on both sides of a volleyball net.

“Our mission as Catholic schools is to educate our children in mind, body and spirit; sports encompass all three,” said Mike O’Neal, coordinator of two of the three diocesan sports leagues for local Catholic elementary school students.

O’Neal, who is also a P.E. teacher at the School of the Madeleine, coordinates both the Catholic Sports League of San Diego and the Center City-South Bay League. In addition, there is a North County Parochial League, directed by Marc Clevenger.

Student-athletes throughout the diocese are wrapping up the winter sports season, which begins in January and ends between late February and mid-March, depending on the sport.

In both the Catholic Sports League of San Diego and the North County Parochial League, that means girls soccer and boys basketball, both for grades 5 through 8, and pee-wee soccer for kindergarten through fourth grade. The Center City-South Bay League is offering girls volleyball and boys basketball, both for grades 5 through 8, and pee-wee soccer for kindergarten through fourth grade.

The pee-wee division is subdivided by grade level. Fifth- and sixth-graders play on their school’s junior varsity team, and seventh- and eighth-graders on varsity.

O’Neal said it’s difficult to “put an exact number on how many kids participate.”

“If you look at just the (Catholic Sports League of San Diego) pee-wee soccer division, we have 86 teams this year,” he said, “and, with nine players playing on the field at a time for a team, that alone is almost a thousand participants.”

Kristin Klant, principal of Santa Sophia Academy in Spring Valley, said that about 55% of her school’s students are on a team. When the fall and spring seasons are taken into account, the percentage of participating students rises to 70% and encompasses football, softball, basketball, volleyball, soccer and track.

How does participating in team sports benefit students?

“It improves physical and emotional wellness,” said Klant. “Additionally, kids work on important character traits such as work ethic, teamwork and preparation that translates to success in the classroom.”

Clevenger, who spent 25 years as a P.E. teacher and athletic director at St. Michael’s School in Poway, described sports as “an integral part of a Catholic school education.”

He said, “I would even go so far as to say that parochial sports are one of the pillars of the Catholic school experience. … Memories made on the field and on the court last a lifetime.”

Diocesan school sports were suspended in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and remained unavailable into the following year.

Ron Smith, athletic director at Mater Dei Catholic Elementary in Chula Vista, recalled the COVID-related hiatus as “a challenging time.”

“Students’ energy did not decrease because of the pandemic, and all of the skills and excitement that sports and athletic competition bring was put on hold,” he said. “This culminated in anxieties, restlessness and disappointment.

“I could see how much the return of sports meant to the students because of the high level of excitement for athletics,” he continued. “We went from about 40% of our students participating in sports to about 60%. Our numbers are the highest they have ever been, and the excitement to be around sports has never been higher since my time starting.”

For the winter season, Mater Dei has 32 boys altogether on the junior varsity and varsity basketball teams, 48 girls playing junior varsity and varsity volleyball, and 91 children in pee-wee soccer.

Describing team sports as “one of the greatest mediums for socialization and mental health,” Smith said, “After our experience with the pandemic and intentionally separating, sports have given us a wonderful gift in creating connections, common visions, and supportive communities that uplift each other.”

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