BRIDGEPORT -- Another year of school is about to start and for the first time in a long time, kids, especially at the middle school level, are about to jump into athletics with a mighty splash, instead of just dipping their toe into the water.
After a long absence, athletics were reincorporated into the middle school level. Flag football, basketball and co-ed volleyball all started last year and will continue, hopefully, to get even bigger and better this year, according to citywide athletic director Neil Kavey, who will be adding instructional softball and baseball this fall.
A soccer program also took place in the spring that was overseen by the city's Lighthouse Program.
"We had over 600 kids involved total," Kavey said. "Now, granted, some of those kids were duplicates, some played football and basketball, but we were delighted with the initial turnout, we really were. It exceeded our expectations."
The middle school program opened with a basketball league -- "our bread and butter" -- and there were around 24 teams, with 12 to 15 kids on a team, Kavey said. A total of 65 kids participated in the volleyball, which was mostly instructional.
"There were like 12 (football) teams with 12 players on a team," Kavey said. "It was a solid program and it seems like because of it, numbers (for high school football) are up at the three buildings.
"We started teaching volleyball and it was exciting to see by the end of the six weeks, the skill levels improve. At the end, the kids were actually volleying back and forth and at the beginning, that was impossible."
These programs were sorely needed throughout the school system. Sadly, kids that wanted to play a sport, like softball or volleyball, never got the chance until they reached high school. And even worse, until that time, those kids had never even picked up a glove, thrown a softball or tried to set or spike a volleyball, leaving them at a huge disadvantage when it came to just trying to compete, let alone trying to win against the other schools in the FCIAC.
"We get kids that are coming in the ninth grade that are learning skills that other towns' kids have been doing since fourth grade," Kavey said. "So while the freshman or JV softball teams at Harding are working on catching and throwing and actually stepping with the right foot when they throw, at Warde, they might be working on a bunt defense. It's a different animal entirely. A lot of what we do is going to have to be skill-focused."
Last school year, the focus on these programs was mostly on fundamentals and skill development, because before these kids can play to win, they have to know how to play. Bridgeport's high school sports are far behind other towns' sports programs because of the experience factor. Especially in towns that have established youth programs for sports like softball and baseball and lacrosse.
"The middle school stuff is absolutely critical," school superintendent Paul Vallas said recently. "Neil's got touch football, flag football going, so at least the kids can start to develop skills. We want to introduce a lot of the physical sports, like wrestling and things like that. The investment in middle grade sports is not just basketball and volleyball, we want to go beyond that. We want to do baseball, we want to do softball. There's been a big push, not just to restore the sports but to begin to expand the sports, because a really good athletic program begins in the middle grades."
Sports at the middle school level were shut down over a decade ago. And no one seems to know why. Thankfully, Kavey has worked hard to get many of the teachers and coaches to donate their time on the weekends to work with the kids and get them more involved in the sports programs.
"The stipend involved for doing this is minimal," Kavey said. "But I have to tell you, all the teachers and coaches have stepped up to the plate. The time that they put in ... and (Bridgeport director) Charlie Carroll and the Park and Recreation guys were great. They supplied the (basketball) uniforms and the officials, so it was a really nice marriage of two city organizations."
The program will start again with instructional softball and baseball on Saturdays at Central before jumping into basketball and volleyball in the winter and then football next spring.
"I'll be interested to see what kind of numbers we get for softball and baseball," Kavey said. "We've got high hopes."
And big dreams.
"We've restored the middle grade athletic programs," Vallas said. "We have all sorts of middle grade sports and activities now. Between the athletic teams and the clubs we have in the middle grades, it numbers in the hundreds."
And hopefully, this is just the beginning.