A League of Their Own in Illinois

May 20, 2014

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

Imagine the scene: thousands of spectators roaring their approval as hundreds of cross country runners hit the finish line. A couple thousand others cascade applause on the wrestling mats as referees raise the hands of 19 champions. 

Now, here’s the kicker, imagine this is taking place during postseason play for junior high/middle school student-athletes.

Again, that’s postseason, and junior high/middle school.

“I guess when you see a kid cross the finish line in first place and 5,000 people are cheering, or watch a student run a race, throw the shot, or pole vault in front of that many at our track & field series, the proof is in the pudding,” said Steve Endsley, executive director of the Illinois Elementary School Association. 

“The environment, the feedback we get; it’s the greatest thing in the world to some who experience our tournaments. But, I temper that in saying this is not the Olympics, the pros, or even high school. Success at our level doesn’t guarantee future success. We want you to do your best, we want to prepare you to do your best, but understand this is junior high.”

If understanding that is difficult for some athletes and parents involved in IESA athletics, it’s also a foreign language to state high school associations across the country. The IESA is the only organization in America which exclusively governs interscholastic activities for grade levels 7-8.

Most states include junior high/middle schools in their rules and regulations, but few, if any, conduct tournaments.

“We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s accepted. Schools know that at the end of the regular season, they enter Regional play. The payoff is we have state series, a culminating activity, and it’s a good thing that’s going on,” Endsley said.

From the organization’s first postseason event in 1930 during which boys basketball tournaments took place in a lightweight (boys less than 100 pounds) and a heavyweight division, the IESA has grown to sponsoring more than 20 boys and girls activities. 

Measures have been taken in recent years to alleviate travel concerns at the end of the season. The IESA has added classifications in some sports, while keeping the number of teams which advance to the Finals the same. So, for instance, where 16 teams might have gone to two different sites in the past, now four different sites host eight schools.

Admittedly, Endsley adds that the tournament series might add to some competitiveness, but since all schools enter the tournament, there might be less emphasis on winning during the regular season, and thus, heightened participation for those of all skill levels.

“If you don’t want the win-at-all-cost mentality, then step up to the plate at your member school and handle it that way,” Endsley said.

The refrain from association leaders around the country is that success in conveying the values and ideals of school sports is totally dependent on those in charge at the local level. Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, the IESA put more of that load squarely on the individual schools by making it a local decision as to whether students could participate with the school team and a club team in the same sport during the same season.

“From an association standpoint, it seemed like only people we were penalizing when had the limitations were the honest schools which self-reported,” Endsley said. “It was difficult to penalize those schools while everyone else knew the school down the street didn’t report. 

“In a perfect world, the participation rule would be in place. But, it’s not a perfect world. Club sports schedule in accordance with high school seasons, but disregard our level when it comes to non-school activity. It’s year-round. So it’s practically impossible to equitably enforce it from a state level.”

There are more than 800 member schools in the IESA, which is an affiliate member of the National Federation of State High School Associations, but a separate entity from the Illinois High School Association.

Endsley estimates the IESA comprises 50-60 percent of eligible schools in Illinois, bolstered by unique membership options which differ from the IHSA and many state associations.

“We offer a la carte membership. A school can offer activities and maybe not participate in our state series. It’s only in those activities in which schools participate in the IESA state series that they must abide by our rules and regulations. Schools want some control. I think a la carte way is the way to go.

“If they join the IESA for one sport, they receive all mailings and information, so maybe one sport gets them in, but they may later add activities. If they are not a member, they don’t know about us.”

Yet, while separate bodies, the IESA and IHSA work hand-in-hand in many respects since nearly 100 percent of the IESA’s students will matriculate into IHSA schools. 

“We attend the IHSA activity advisory meetings so we can keep a finger on the pulse of topics they are discussing and items they are considering. From the student standpoint, we will take our champions and introduce them in ceremonies at the IHSA Finals when our calendars line up,” Endsley said. “They get tickets, halftime introductions, pictures in the program, and it’s well-received recognition.”

Such activities are possible because the IESA seasons are different than the IHSA’s in some sports, or end sooner. For instance, the IESA plays baseball and softball in the fall, so its champions are recognized at the IHSA Finals in the spring. 

“These activities create exposure and help build interests and aspirations for our schools,” Endsley said. “It’s nice P.R. for both associations.”

Whether different seasons or same seasons, the multitude of events throughout Illinois provides ample opportunity for the state’s contest officials as well. That’s another area in which the IESA and IHSA work together. 

“We don’t license officials in the IESA, but we require our schools to use IHSA officials,” Endsley said. “We get great cooperation from the IHSA, it’s a good situation for our schools, and it’s a really good thing for officials. There are always plenty of games, and new officials gain valuable experience.”

Now in the midst of its ninth decade, the IESA continues to expand, adding boys and girls bowling and golf to its roster of activities in 2011. 

The Association sponsors athletics for 7th- and 8th-graders, but 5th- and 6th-graders enrolled in a member school may participate with 7th-and 8th-grade teams within that building without a waiver. If such students are in an elementary school which feeds a member school, waivers are necessary.

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.