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.
Denny White brought quite a bit to the Marysville and St. Clair communities.
In 1961, as a junior in high school, White was part of the first team to bring a football state title to Marysville.
Fifty years later, as an assistant coach, he played a vital role in bringing St. Clair its first MHSAA Finals title in baseball.
During the years in between, and decade after, White brought his knowledge of and passion for those sports to hundreds of student athletes.
But most recently, he brought the two communities together.
This past Friday night, the rival schools played for the Denny White Trophy, an award created to honor the late coach and connect the two communities where he was most revered.
“I’m so happy with all the support that has been around the project,” said Brady Beedon, a family friend who helped to create the trophy and was in the booth calling Friday night’s game for Get Stuck On Sports. “It’s the least we could’ve done for a man who helped so many athletes. His legacy deserves to be preserved.”
In a fitting tribute to White, who died Jan. 22 of this year following a long battle with cancer, the two teams played a hard-fought game at East China Stadium, with White’s alma mater Marysville coming away with a 25-20 victory.
Both teams featured players who had been coached by White at some point in one or both of the sports, as his time on the bench lasted through the fall of 2022.
That season, he coached the JV B football team at Marysville. Most recently before that, he had been the varsity baseball coach at St. Clair from 2015-21.
“Not much can unify rivals, but Coach White’s influence goes beyond that rivalry,” Marysville football coach Derrick Meier said at a press conference unveiling the trophy. “He’s affected thousands of local athletes. … It is awesome that someone had such an influence across the board with all local athletes (in multiple) sports. I contacted him my first year coaching varsity, and he was not willing to leave where he was at. I called him three subsequent years; he graciously declined. The last year he did accept, we added a JV B team, his wisdom and knowledge went well beyond just coaching on the field. We’re all lucky for his influence.
“Heroes get remembered. Coach White will be remembered.”
White was a 1963 graduate of Marysville, who then attended Ferris State and Central Michigan. His coaching journey did not begin in the area where he grew up, however, as he coached baseball and football at Newaygo High School before coming to St. Clair.
He spent 35 years in the Saints athletic program, coaching baseball and multiple levels of football.
Much of his time was spent as the pitching coach for St. Clair for coaches Richie Mallewitz and Bill McElreath. That included the 2011 season, when his pitching staff included current major leaguer Jacob Cronenworth, who now plays second base for the San Diego Padres.
Also on that staff were Joel Seddon, who was drafted twice – once out of high school and again after college – and would go on to be the closer at South Carolina; and Jared Tobey, who pitched at Wayne State and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, playing four years in their minor league system.
While White coached nearly 1,000 baseball games in his career, he was involved with more than just high school sports. He also coached a 13-year-old Little League team to a state title and the semifinals of the Great Lakes Regional in 2015.
No matter the level, White poured all he had into coaching, and that included his final season on the sidelines at Marysville, just months prior to his passing.
“Every single kid that he touched with that team, you could just tell, gravitated toward him immediately,” said Travis Disser, who coached with White that final year at Marysville. “His lessons and his light-hearted humor are just something that you can’t replace, or ever hope to. I was lucky enough to learn pitching from Coach White when I was a younger kid, as well. He was the exact same Denny White as he was all those years ago, as he was last year during his battle with cancer. Coach White was a warrior in every sense of the term. His lessons, both on the field and off the field from him, are something that I’ll never, ever forget.”
The idea to create the trophy honoring White came about not long after his death, as Beedon worked with Meier, former St. Clair athletic director Denny Borse and St. Clair assistant football coach T.J. Schindler to create and design the trophy.
The final product is a two-tiered trophy topped with a pair White’s hats – one from St. Clair, the other from Marysville – that have been bronzed. It includes the years in which he won his state titles at his respective schools, and a passage about his life. There is also room to list the yearly winners, as it is planned to represent the rivalry and shared respect for White in the two communities for years to come.
“Whether it was Little League kids over the last 20 years, or some of the football players and baseball players that he coached over the decades that he coached, all of them when they get together have great stories and fondness for all the memories that (White and his fellow coaches) helped them create,” said Sandy Rutledge, the current St. Clair athletic director and a longtime friend and colleague of White. “I think it’s awesome that now as we play for this trophy every year, it will give our coaches a chance to kind of explain who Coach was. The next generation, maybe they didn’t even know him, will know that he is a legend, and he’ll always be remembered.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) From left: St. Clair’s Larry Wawryzniak, Liam Nesbitt and Peyton Ellis, Denny White’s wife Karen White, and Marysville’s Bryce Smith, Carter Saccucci and Caz Carty stand with the first-year traveling trophy celebrating Denny White’s coaching career. (Middle) White was a mainstay in the area’s sports community for more than six decades. (Below) The trophy celebrates his contributions to both schools and will list the winners of their annual football game. (Trophy photos courtesy of Brady Beedon. Headshot courtesy of the White family.)