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The New York Times thinks it's identified a cancer in Hoosier Hysteria

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John Branch of the New York Times visited tiny Medora, Ind., to find a high school boys’ basketball program he calls the anti-Hoosiers, as in the bizarro world where the Medora High Hornets are doing this for all the small schools that never sunk this far. It all makes sense, except that Branch doesn’t spend enough time on the more boring, important reason why a small Indiana high school struggles so much in the supposed Hoosier birthright: it’s a small school in a small district.

Players for Medora High School have taken the court wearing work boots because their families cannot afford basketball shoes. Most smoke cigarettes. Some talk openly of drug use. All but a few come from broken homes.

Of the roughly 400 schools in a state that reveres boys high school basketball, none lost more last season than the 0-22 Medora Hornets, under the first-year coach Marty Young, the youngest head coach in the state.

Now 23, Young is not expecting many, if any, on-court victories during the season that starts on Saturday, either. But he counts wins and losses differently from most.

“If they’re in the gym these two hours, then I know they’re not in trouble,” Young said.

Poverty rates are high here, college graduates few. Drug use is rampant, several said, and many residents live in ramshackle trailer homes strewn about the hills that surround the checkerboard streets of the town. In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team.

Except it does not win.

The lone basketball championship banner hanging in the gym dates to 1949. There has not been a winning season in decades. Counter to those sepia-toned images that outsiders have of small-town Indiana, the boys here rarely dream anymore of starring for the local team.

That is the unexpected predicament confronting Young, the kind of Indiana boy who grew up sleeping with a basketball. Indiana, after all, is the home of “Hoosiers,” the 1986 movie loosely based on the small-town 1954 Milan High team that beat all the bigger schools to win the state championship. Medora, about 65 miles west of Milan, could be this generation’s anti-Hoosiers.

“It used to be such a big deal,” said Maria Powell, born and raised in Medora and now the mother of one of the basketball players. She recalled postgame parties with classmates at a pizza place called The Covered Bridge — long since closed — when she was in high school. “Basketball was just what you lived for.”

Medora, with 16 members in the senior class, is the fifth-smallest public high school in Indiana. It is slowly shrinking, like the town of about 500 itself. Two of three large feed mills are gone. An automotive plastics factory employed several hundred until it closed in 1988. A brick plant on the edge of town died in 1992.

Now, if Branch has watched “Hoosiers,” he knows that one of Norman Dale’s bigger shocks in coming to small-town Hickory, Ind., is that only seven boys, counting the manager, come out for the basketball team. Also, he might have noted that there is an undercurrent to the whole movie about the future for schools like Hickory — consolidation and being erased from existence in the name of educational progress. (Recall, if you will, Ollie reading definitions of progress in Coach Dale’s history class.) In that context, Medora is Hoosiers II: The Downer Sequel.

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Medora High: the inspiration for Matthew Perry in “Hoosiers 2.”

Medora survived the first round of consolidation in the 1950s and 1960s, during which time the number of members in the Indiana High School Athletic Association dropped from a peak of 820 in 1942 to about half that by the dawn of the 1970s. Nationwide, the number of school districts dropped from 119,000 in 1939 to 16,000 in 1975 — a drop of 13 percent a year, every year, for 36 years.

Now Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is trying to undertake Consolidation II: Educational Boogaloo. While a bill failed last year, Daniels again is expected to push that any district with fewer than 500 students be consolidated with a nearby district, while those between 500 and 1,000 students not meeting certain academic standards also be consolidated.

It’s part of the Republican Daniels’ so-far-unsuccessful effort to follow a report issued in 2007 by a commission, chaired by a former Democratic governor and a Republican-appointed Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice. Its recommendations talked about reducing government spending by reducing small but politically powerful jurisdictions like townships and school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. Hence, why they’ve been unsuccessful. (Though Daniels was able to get Indiana to adopt highly unpopular Daylight Saving Time and still get re-elected.)

Not all tiny school districts are created unsuccessful. Dewey Township schools in LaPorte County, in northern Indiana, with 161 students the state’s smallest district, has a basketball team that hovers close to .500 and offers programs like biomedical science. Of course, its student poverty rate of 7 percent is less than half of Medora’s 17 percent, and it also spends nearly $13,000 per student compared with Medora’s $7,500, which is well above the $5,500-$6,000 per student nearby, larger districts to Medora would spend. Dewey Township is an exception, though. Most tiny school districts are like Medora: a double-digit poverty rate, higher-than-usual per-student spending, and an isolated, rural location with a declining population.

Medora’s poverty rate is not much higher than the other schools in Jackson County, Ind., John Mellencamp’s home base. It’s just that with 278 students, every troubled student in Medora makes the school district that much more troubled. And with Medora spending more per student than any other Jackson County school, buttressing Daniels’ argument that districts like it would be better off combined with larger districts for more efficient spending. Small districts aren’t planning to operate wildcat schools, as Onward, Ind., famously did in the early 1950s, its citizens surrounding the school to prevent authorities from consolidating it, but they aren’t terribly happy about the idea of this second wave of consolidation.

But forget about academic or fiscal arguments for a moment. We’re talking basketball! And in those terms, it’s also getting harder for the tiniest districts to compete.

Indiana split its basketball into four classes starting with the 1997-1998, presumably to give the Medoras of the world a chance to get some trophies for their cases. (It so happened that Medora won its last sectional — the first round of the all-comers postseason tournament, in 1997, the final year of single-class basketball.) However, the IHSAA’s membership is starting to shoot upward again because of charter schools from the big cities and small private schools from everywhere (particularly established schools who stayed away from the single-class IHSAA for fear of being stomped), thus providing the tiny schools competition of equal student size by not equal athletic ability.

And particularly in these charter schools in urban districts, the players might have some of the same pathologies at work as they do in Medora, maybe worse. Except that they’re 6-foot-7 and can jump out of the gym. The idea Daniels has is not that small schools are bad — small school districts are. Milan, once home to the 1954 Miracle that inspired the movie “Hoosiers,” and which was not consolidated with other districts in the late 1950s and 1960s because of that success, now clocks about three wins per season.

So while it’s true that Medora’s economic problems and small size have turned Hoosier Hysteria into Hoosier Meh, the issue is a little more complicated than underwhelming kids being drawn from a community of ramshackle meth huts. The problem isn’t just that Medora’s basketball team has issues. The bigger problem is whether a tiny district like Medora is capable of fielding anything of quality when it comes to its schools, just by dint of its size. If Medora can’t prove itself, it won’t be long for this world, now matter how good or bad the basketball team is.

Written by rkcookjr

November 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm

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