MISSOULA — Fourteen years ago, when my family rolled into Missoula knowing nary a soul, my wife and I wondered how our high-school-aged son would adjust.
It was August and Mitch Speltz had no idea where he would start his sophomore year. Fortunately he made a couple fast friends through sports and picked Missoula Big Sky — a comfortable decision for a kid trying to adjust.
We were thankful for open enrollment and the compassion shown by Big Sky officials. Had we simply sent him to Sentinel because we were in its district as Lolo residents, things might have been different.
So it is that I've struggled with this open enrollment boil that festers for Missoula Class AA sports enthusiasts. It's a dilemma that Missoulian sports writer Jordan Hansen has addressed in a story on the front page of Sunday's newspaper.
Open enrollment served my son well. But for 14 years I've watched it mangle Class AA crosstown sports rivalries. It's hard to accept if you're passionate about a level playing field.
It's not my intention to pick on anyone here. Big Sky, Hellgate and Sentinel have all benefited, athletically, from open enrollment.
Choosing a high school based on some appealing aspect is perfectly fine for incoming ninth graders. Maybe your son or daughter wants to play for a certain team, or be part of an academic program, or play in the band at a certain school. I'm all in.
But when established sports standouts are allowed to transfer from one Missoula Class AA high school to another — or from a smaller out-of-town high school to a Missoula AA school — it devastates programs, sometimes for years. It also teaches teenagers it's OK to quit on your teammates, coaches and school.
It seems to be way too easy right now to just wave goodbye and play for someone else.
Advocates of transferring will tell you it's in a kid's best interest to have that option as he/she pursues an athletic scholarship. Perhaps it helps to play for a better coach or team, but my sense is college recruiters are smart enough to spot diamonds in the rough like Chase Reynolds, who prepped in Drummond on his way to becoming an NFL running back.
The good news is that Missoula County Public Schools officials are working to draft a more appropriate transfer policy. Some sports-obsessed parent will probably still find a way to buck the system — even if it means moving across town — but it's a step in the right direction.
To all the disgruntled Missoula parents and athletes whose teams have been negatively affected by in-town transfers, just know that all of us in the Missoulian sports department feel your pain. Losing a football or basketball game by 40 points or a softball game by 15 runs is not fun to watch or cover.
If you find your son or daughter on the short end of an imperfect system, my advice is to embrace the underdog role. There's a reason why we celebrate the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" as the greatest moment in the history of United States sports. It's because the U.S. Olympic hockey team's win over the mighty USSR was also the greatest upset in United States sports history.
Maybe we need to do a better job of teaching our kids that high school sports are supposed to be about fun and fair play. Better yet, remind them they're in high school to get a good education, first and foremost.
Here's a point to ponder as your Fourth of July weekend rolls on:
Tough competitors tend to analyze themselves to a fault. Some of it has to do with pride.
Don't think for a minute Missoula's Class AA super teams are oblivious to the fact blowout wins over transfer-depleted crosstown rivals are hollow wins. Don't think for a minute the coaches of those super teams — many of whom are the best in town and are simply doing the best they can with the cards they're dealt — have neglected to ponder whether they could have still won titles in years when transfer ringers helped.
It's human nature. Great athletes and coaches want to believe their success was truly earned. Believing is harder when the playing field is not level.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at email@example.com.
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