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Middle school sports program thrives in Berkeley County

December 12, 2004|By CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

On a breakaway shot, David Applebaum of the Martinsburg South Middle School Trojans added two more points to the score of a basketball game with a layup.

"He should've dunked that! He can dunk," a student in the crowd exclaimed.

"Are they allowed to dunk?" a friend sitting near him asked in response.

A year and a half after members of the Berkeley County Board of Education voted 3-2 in favor of having middle school sports, the second season of basketball is under way.

During the first boys home game at South Middle one recent night, cheers and chants of "DE-FENSE" could be heard from across the parking lot. Inside, the raucous crowd applauded, stomped their feet, threw up their arms in disgust or exhilaration and expressed a few tame words for the game's referees.

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Parents said playing sports in middle school is a positive influence.

"It shows them the importance of teamwork. And they learn discipline," Jon Applebaum, David's father, said after the game.

Jonathan "Alvy" Alvarez's mother said her son eventually wants to play basketball for the University of Maryland. Playing in middle school will help him prepare for the next level on the journey - playing in high school.

"He's really getting into it and he's learning a lot," she said.

'Thrill of competition'

Teams play four six-minute quarters on a small court.

On this particular night, South Middle was playing Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) Middle School, a team they ended up defeating by a score of 56-17.

Wes Milburn, whose son, Bryan, plays for Harpers Ferry, was one of the more vocal people sitting on the Harpers Ferry side of the bleachers.

"Box out!"

"Take it on in!"

"You all right? C'mon," Milburn said to his son when he downed a cup of water from a cooler.

When Bryan appeared to hit a three-pointer, fans of Harpers Ferry were happy, but then quickly grew angry when the score increased by only two points. They yelled that it was a three-pointer, but a referee walked over to the scorer's table and held up two fingers.

"This is terrible," someone grumbled.

South Middle's cheerleaders then added to the cacophony with what seemed to be their most popular cheer: "Let's go Trojans, let's go!"

Milburn said the crowd likely was lively because the game was being played between teams from two different counties - making it an instant rivalry.

His son has played middle school sports for three years at Harpers Ferry, he said.

"He likes the thrill of the competition," Milburn said. "I think he just likes ... getting out there and being able to do it."

Learning the game

There's only one set of bleachers in the small gym at South Middle, with supporters of each team sitting behind their players.

Students made up most of the people sitting on the top row of the South Middle side. They swapped candy, cheered with the cheerleaders and erupted into an ecstatic roar when the game ended on a buzzer-beating two-pointer.

Although the players are in middle school, they do not lack heart. Or effort.

One boy was fouled, causing him to slam into the padding beneath the basket. Another, with 10 seconds left in the game, used one arm to keep the ball from sailing out of bounds - and barely stopped himself from careening into folding metal chairs lined up courtside. The boys fell to the floor, took charges and wrestled for the ball.

Of course, being middle-schoolers means they also shot air balls, traveled with the ball and missed several free throws.

One boy stifled a laugh when an errant ball bounced off a teammate's head during the halftime shootaround. The boy on the wrong end of that mishap kept rubbing his forehead and smiling, shaking off any embarrassment or pain.

Board of Education member Pat Murphy, who voted in favor of starting a middle school sports program, has said that he personally has seen the benefits of having sports in middle schools.

Murphy teaches at Charles Town (W.Va.) Middle School in Jefferson County, which already had a middle school sports program in place.

"I see good in it because of the spirit and the energy it directs," Murphy said last year when board members narrowly approved the plan. "I like the atmosphere that it creates in the school."

Also, he said students who may not excel academically can become a "star" because of athletic abilities.

Basketball success

Berkeley County Schools Deputy Superintendent Frank Aliveto said there are no immediate plans to add more sports to middle schools, but said the basketball program is considered a success.

After last year's season - when more than 300 students participated - school personnel met to make some "nuts and bolts" adjustments, such who should bring water to the games (the home team).

Each of Berkeley County's five teams - the Spring Mills Middle Patriots, the Martinsburg North Middle Blue Devils, the Musselman Middle Applemen, the Hedgesville Middle Eagles and the Trojans - plays 20 games a season. Among the games is a county-only tournament scheduled for February, Aliveto said.

Although the Board of Education paid for startup costs, teams now are self-sufficient. Using proceeds from concession sales and ticket sales, the startup money is expected to be repaid by the end of the year, Aliveto said.

Aliveto, who played junior varsity basketball in his younger days, but was cut from the varsity team, said he's impressed by the sportsmanship of middle school players.

They do not receive awards or jacket letters. There's no bravado, no "I'm special stuff," said Aliveto, who watched part of South Middle's home opener.

"It seemed to be so pure," he said. "They were playing for the love of playing for their school."

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