8/23/07

Teachers strike cancels sports, forfeits loom

As Mary Ann Kennington watched her two boys play in countless football leagues growing up, she always looked forward to when they'd reach the varsity level. But after years of anticipation, it hasn't been what Kennington imagined it would be.

Strikes in the Harlem School District have tainted her sons' varsity seasons three times now - twice for Matt, a 2005 graduate, and now for Andrew, a junior on this year’s team. "It is frustrating because it's something you look forward to," Kennington said. "But I'm not surprised anymore. It seems like it happens every time a contract is up."

Kennington's older son, Matt, saw the start of his junior season threatened by a support staff strike in 2003. An agreement was reached on a Thursday, and Harlem played its season-opener against Rockford Guilford the following Saturday. The same thing happened during Matt's senior year, only then an agreement couldn't be reached in time, and Harlem forfeited its first game of the season to a Guilford team it later beat in the playoffs.

Now Harlem's season-opener is threatened again, and this time it's affecting Andrew, a running back and linebacker on coach Jim Morrow's team. Harlem is scheduled to host Belvidere North on Friday. If an agreement between Harlem's teachers union and the School District isn't reached in time for classes to be held Friday, Harlem will forfeit.

"Of course, the longer it goes, the tougher it becomes for the kids," said Bobby Sheets, Harlem's freshman football coach who has led the Huskies' informal practices. Harlem is not allowed to practice with their regular coaches, who are teachers; school equipment is not available; and there can be no contact.

"We're doing our best," Sheets said. "We've had good attendance. It is hard for the kids, but they really have been troopers."

Sheets also took over the varsity team during the 2004 strike when his son, Zack, was on the squad.

What makes it harder for this year’s team is that the opener against Belvidere North is a game they expected to win, and a forfeit could haunt them if they fall one win short of the playoffs in October.

"We've heard rumors that their whole team is juniors and they have to bring up a bunch of sophomores their first year," said Harlem senior running back Mike Johnson. "So we are looking forward to playing the new team in the conference and winning."

The 2004 Harlem team rebounded from its Week 1 forfeit and finished 7-4, but the missing game was always a cloud on the season.

"You only have so many games in high school, and that's obviously the most fun time to play is when you get to varsity," said Jake Ruef, a senior on the 2004 football team. "When you forfeit a game, that's a big loss."

The strike is affecting other sports, but football is the one with the biggest time constraint. Harlem’s football game has to be played Friday or Saturday, while other sports are more flexible and can reschedule if necessary.

"We held three-a-days last week, so we're in pretty good shape," said Harlem volleyball coach Lani Mitchell.

"It is frustrating, because we have a really great group at all our levels who have been working hard," Mitchell said. "Telling them on Monday that we couldn't be with them anymore was hard."

Harlem's first conference volleyball and soccer games are Tuesday against Belvidere North, and most of the other sports begin conference action next week also.

The boys and girls golf teams are the only ones that had scheduled conference action this week, but weather postponed the matches.

"The team is getting a little more frustrated as the days go by," Harlem golf coach Jared Day said. "After going through this three years ago, it's kind of bizarre this time."

(rrstar.com)

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