Budget Cut Strips Alameda’s High School Sports Programs

DanielSotelo.jpgBy Daniel Sotelo

Over the years, Encinal High School has enjoyed a very successful baseball program, epitomized by two current Major League Baseball players, Dontrelle Willis and Jimmy Rollins. Both made national news recently, with Willis being traded from the Florida Marlins to the Detroit Tigers, and Rollins, who has evolved into one of the league’s premier shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies, being named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
Two weeks ago, Encinal and Alameda high school students walked out of class and protested a proposed $4.4 million in district-wide budget cuts.
Along with cutting from Advanced Placement and elementary music classes, the Alameda Unified School District has proposed cutting $265,000 from the district’s $365,000 in athletics funding, leaving only $100,000 for both high schools to use for their sports programs.
With such devastating cuts to athletics, another Rollins or Willis may never again step onto Encinal’s Willie Stargell Field, named for another of the school’s star baseball players. But with the help of those who see the possibilities and potential lessons learned through sports, various organizations and Encinal graduates have raised at least $50,000 to offset the cuts. Among supporters and donors are KNBR, a Bay Area sports radio station, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and Willis.
Despite being a much newer school than cross-town rival Alameda High, Encinal has seen more success in its baseball program. Under head coach Jim Saunders, the Jets have accumulated three North Coast Section Championships, several Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League Championships and have had numerous All-American baseball players, including Willis and Rollins. With Encinal as a perennial league powerhouse in the ACCAL, many students transfer to the school to play baseball. The proposed cuts would also mean that inter-district transfer students would no longer be allowed to attend Encinal.
Willis is known for his high, exaggerated leg kick when he throws – a style that has been compared to Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal. He developed his leg kick while playing games of “strike out” as a child, trying to hide the ball as best he could to keep batters on their toes. Willis played baseball at Encinal for four years, all on varsity. He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2003, when he also went to the All-Star Game and pitched in the World Series, where the Marlins defeated the New York Yankees. Willis also made the All-Star Team in 2005 _ all major achievements in a very short career _ and he will have a chance to improve upon this success in the 2008 season with the Detroit Tigers.
Jimmy Rollins has evolved into one of Major League Baseball’s premier shortstops. Even as a freshman at Encinal, his “hard work, determination and his refusal to lose” made him a standout, Saunders said.
Rollins won back-to-back NCS championships at Encinal in 1995 and 1996. In one, he hit the championship-winning homerun in the final game at the Oakland Coliseum. The teams with Rollins and Willis saw nine players drafted and 27 players go on to play college baseball.
“It was an amazing eight-year run,” Saunders said.
However, with proposed budget cuts for all of Alameda schools, next year could be one with out any sports programs. The school board is proposing to cut all sports, among other programs, to create quick fixes for the district’s budget crisis. This is as bad as taking away students’ books.
The cuts, which Saunders calls an “absolute travesty,” would not only eliminate sports, but opportunities for many students to stay out of trouble and go to college. The sports programs at Encinal and other schools give students something to do after school, keeping them from getting involved in the wrong things. There are thousands of students who would not be able to go to college if it were not for sports and the potential they hold for scholarships. For some students, sports are the only means and motivation to go on to higher education.
In addition, students need to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to be eligible to play. In some cases, this is the only motivation for students to keep their grades up.
Having sports taken out of Alameda high schools will also mean taking away an important part of the high school experience. Athletes don’t need the stardom of a Willis or a Rollins to benefit from the life lessons obtained by playing sports.
Cutting athletics means cutting students’ dreams, passions and the legacies previous graduating classes have built over the years.
Daniel Sotelo is an Encinal High senior and co-sports editor of the Echo student newspaper.