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Is Fourth Grade Too Early For Ultracompetitive Sports?

McClatchy Tribune News Service Sports Tribune News Service

Is Fourth Grade Too Early For Ultracompetitive Sports?

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By Mike Kaszuba, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

The first time Edina’s fourth-grade traveling basketball team — a collection of 9- and 10-year-old boys featuring Caylor, Gage, Tyler, and Torin — was allowed to use a full-court press, they did it with a vengeance.

On a Saturday afternoon in Burnsville, Minn., Edina led 12-2 at halftime and dismantled Cottage Grove, winning 27-8. Quickly, Paul Schmidt gathered his team and looked ahead to the next game, which would soon start. “When we go in the ‘Diamond’ down low, it’s an inverted ‘Diamond’ that we’re running, which is not what we really want. You guys know what ‘inverted’ means?” he asked.

In the world of fourth-grade travel basketball, the growing up comes fast. And all the things that many love about youth sports — and the intensity that many others loathe — are on full display. It all means that in Minnesota, where youth hockey has long held a reputation for competitiveness, youth basketball might be closing the gap.

Registering boys and girls to play ultracompetitive basketball at a younger age is getting increasingly popular: When the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS) began hosting a state tournament for boys’ fourth-grade traveling teams a decade ago, 20 teams took part. Last year, 115 teams competed. Now teams with third-graders — and even second-graders — are popping up.

So where does it all end? “I won’t say it’s hockey-like, but it’s close,” said Todd Breyfogle, shaking his head. “Too many parents over here think their kid is going be the next Minnesota Gopher.”

Though Breyfogle was reluctant, he signed up his son, Easton, to play on Edina’s team. Breyfogle, a former college baseball player, was torn emotionally — he moaned when the team scheduled a weekend tournament two days after Christmas, causing him to spend more than 14 hours on a Saturday in a northeast Minneapolis gym. But by mid-January he was sitting courtside, urging the team on. “Come on, drive it,” Breyfogle yelled.

Edina was hardly the first city to go younger when it decided two years ago to begin playing fourth-grade travel basketball. “We were one of just a handful” that had not yet lowered the age, said Paul Manley, Edina’s boys’ travel director. “We were trying to catch up. [We thought], ‘We need to do that otherwise we’re going to be behind the 8-ball.’?”

Edina has done more than simply catch up. This year’s Cake Eater Classic in late January, Edina’s own boys’ travel basketball tournament for grades four through eight, drew 234 teams from across Minnesota. The fee this year to be on one of Edina’s three fourth-grade boys’ travel teams was $500.

Schmidt’s team — the highest-rated of Edina’s three squads — will play at least 40 games this winter. And in a move that is not unusual in youth sports, Edina paid outside evaluators to assess the 44 fourth-graders who tried out in the early fall. In the end, 15 players were cut.

Parents pushing trend

Schmidt’s team started slowly this year, and sat with a 4-9 record in early January. Two days after Christmas, the team lost an 8 a.m. Saturday game by seven points. Caylor had to get up at 6:15.

“So, [this was] a little bit early,” Schmidt told the team afterward. “Some guys are awake. Some guys are not.” But by late January, the team was regularly winning.

“It’s just really fun, especially if you’re on a really good team,” Schmidt’s 10-year-old son, Lleyton, said between games at a weekend tournament. Was he tired? “Like, sort of,” he replied.

Rich Penick, a longtime associate director at MYAS, said it is not the Lleytons of the world who are creating the demand for elite basketball at a younger and younger age. “[It’s] the parents that are driving it,” he said. Penick said MYAS only added a fourth-grade state tournament after so many youth basketball groups wanted it, and “they had so many parents pushing it.”

Deborah Edwards, the executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Minnesota, said she can only shake her head over what is happening. “Youth sports is so scheduled — it’s overscheduled. I think these traveling basketball teams just add to the overscheduling of the kids.”

In Woodbury, Derek Sharrer said fourth-grade travel basketball is not for everyone, and that parents are often taken aback by the time commitment, travel and expense. Some 9-year-olds, added Sharrer, the basketball director for the East Ridge Athletic Association, are simply too young for its harsh realities. “We try to limit [cuts from the team] as much as possible. [We] focus less on it being a ‘cut,’ and more on it being a transition to playing at a lower level,” he said.

End game: Scholarship?

In Edina, the passion among parents comes in all shapes and sizes.

Giovanna Ingram, who described herself jokingly as an “over-the-top” parent, is paying $75 an hour to have her son, Vinnie, get extra training from a former pro basketball player. “He is No. 23 — Michael Jordan,” she said, pointing out her son at a practice, and alluding to the iconic former NBA player. Ingram was also direct in saying what her goal was. “The end game would be, [probably a college] athletic scholarship would be nice,” she said. Division I or II, she added.

But she quickly added: “The end all is to keep him out of trouble, [keep] him healthy — maybe get a scholarship in the end.”

Another parent, Mike Munson, regularly sat on the bench during games with an electronic tablet, using a computer application to track and analyze the team’s shots. “It shows shot selection, where we make shots, where we don’t,” he said. He e-mails the results to an assistant coach after each game. “It’s something they can use when they have practice.”

His son, 9-year-old Tyler, wears No. 3. “He loves it,” Munson said. “I ask him, [after] every practice or game, is he having fun? He always says he has a blast.”

Munson played high school basketball in Litchfield during the mid-1980s, and described himself as an average player, but said he never played so competitively at such a young age as Tyler. “We played, like, one hour on a Saturday when I was this age [with] friends,” he said. Travel basketball, said Munson, “didn’t start for me until seventh grade.” Munson, however, downplayed the cost of it all, adding that “in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. It’s no different than if we were skiing.”

Munson spoke as he watched Edina’s team play a scrimmage on a Wednesday afternoon at Target Center, the home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Before the game, the arena’s lights went dark and, as Tyler and his teammates each were introduced, a spotlight followed them as they ran to center court. Leslie Curry, whose son, Gage, wore No. 5, said afterward that she had tears watching her son run onto the court.

Corporate sponsorships

There is a heavy commitment for parents. Doug Lundahl — his son, Jake, wears No. 21 — talked of paying $110 for basketball shoes, $125 for a uniform, and $120 for an Under Armour gym bag with Jake’s name on it. While Schmidt’s team wore warm-up shirts with the name of its corporate sponsor, Lawn-N-Order, a local lawn care company, another Edina team took things up a notch by having Cargill, the multinational company based in Minnesota, as its corporate sponsor. “You’ve got to be extremely scheduled and structured,” said Lundahl, a medical sale representative, of the time involved.

And then there are the games themselves. “They’ve had so many close games,” said Lundahl, standing and watching a practice. “As a parent, you age real fast.”

Twice in the previous two years, the police have been called to Edina’s Cake Eater Classic to calm down unruly parents. At one point, in a fifth-grade finals game, one team refused to take the court until police arrived to keep an eye on the crowd of parents. But Edina officials were quick to point out one important fact: Neither episode involved teams from Edina.

So far, Mic O’Brien said things have worked out.

“We certainly had some reservations about getting into fourth-grade travel,” said O’Brien, the president of Edina’s youth basketball association. “[But] it was happening anyway.”

So is third-grade travel basketball next? “I’m afraid so,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s — it’s probably coming. [But] we won’t be leading that.”

© 2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Clappstar via Flickr

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