Proposal to FHSAA seeks to block middle school athletes from playing varsity sports

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An item on the Florida High School Athletic Association’s agenda for its board of directors meeting Tuesday has the potential to shake things up for high school programs who use middle school athletes on their varsity teams.

A proposal by Merritt Island athletic director Jeff McLean seeks to bar that practice beginning with the start of the 2023 school year. If middle school athletes compete on high school teams, it should only be on junior varsity, the agenda proposal says.

“High Schools are defined as being grades 9-12. By allowing students under grade 9 to compete in sub-varsity allows smaller schools the opportunity to help field those teams,” McLean’s action item reads. “We classify schools for state series based on enrollment in graded 9-12, but schools with 7th and 8th graders have the advantage of having up to 40-50% more students to field teams compared to schools with only 9-12 in the same classification.”

While most public high schools operate as traditional ninth through 12th grade programs, three in the area — Baldwin, Hilliard and Keystone Heights — combine middle schools. Private schools routinely use middle school athletes to contribute on varsity rosters.

Will that option go away?

For some smaller programs, that could mean the difference in fielding a varsity team and not fielding one. It could also mean pushing teams up in classification if schools were forced to include sixth, seventh and eighth graders in total enrollment numbers for athletic purposes.

Smaller schools say that girls sports programs would be the most impacted should the proposal advance.

“It keeps some of our teams afloat,” said St. Johns Country Day athletic director Traci Livingston. “Schools of our size, we don’t have thousands of kids to choose from. It would put a big damper on our programs. We’d really have to look at some of our teams and see what would happen [with a change]. I don’t understand the reasoning. I really hope it doesn’t pass.”

University Christian athletic director Justin Sirmon said that teams like cross country, track and field, soccer and softball benefit the most from being able to add middle school athletes to varsity rosters.

UC’s softball team reached the Class 2A state championship game this season with three middle schoolers on its roster. Without those three, the Christians would have had just eight players. Freshman pitcher Sophia Kardatzke has started for UC since her sixth grade season.

“I think the decision should lie with families, with parents, they should be able to make that choice if they want their kids to play at the varsity level, not the state,” Sirmon said. “A lot of schools and folks I’ve talked to don’t have a big pool [of athletes] to pull from. Playing middle schoolers, it’s not really a competitive advantage, you’ve got to have certain numbers [to field a team].”

The proposal is scheduled as an action item to vote on during Tuesday’s meeting, although there’s been little discussion on the topic among the FHSAA’s various advisory committees leading up to it.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.