This winter marks the first time in 19 years that tiny St. Michael’s Academy isn’t fielding a sports team in a local Class B league.
The principal of the school says shrinking enrollment is the reason for dropping the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association sports programs, which at St. Michael’s were boys and girls basketball and cross country, baseball and softball.
But some parents, former students and coaches question the decision, arguing that St. Michael’s is using lower enrollment as an excuse to end WIAA-sponsored athletic programs that its conservative leaders found unpalatable. They believe, however, that dropping sports will do nothing more than cement outsiders’ perceptions of the school.
“When I was in fifth grade, I was going door to door in my neighborhood selling chocolate Easter bunnies as a school fundraiser,” said David Edwards, a former student at St. Michael’s and the most vocal opponent of the school’s decision. “I knocked on one door and was greeted by a man in his 50s. When he heard my sales pitch, he answered, ‘St. Michael’s? Isn’t that the school where they make you eat fish heads and spank you if you don’t do what they say?’ ”
According to its own website, St. Michael’s Academy is a traditional Catholic K-12 school staffed by the religious order of the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen. The school offers “a unique educational alternative.”
Mount St. Michael was originally owned by Jesuits and eventually became a seminary. The Jesuits sold it in 1977 to a congregation of breakaway Catholics who rejected the reforms that started in the previous decade with the Second Vatican Council. They use an older, Latin version of the Mass and adhere strictly to doctrines in place before that council.
Edwards said the sports program has been controversial inside the congregation.
“Ever since the sports program started, there has been a backlash from some parishioners who believe that St. Michael’s is condoning immodesty by allowing teenage girls to run around in shorts and tank tops,” he said.
The school recently lost experienced teachers who supported the sports programs and did a “fantastic job of preparing students for higher education,” Edwards said. He believes the new teachers are less inclined to cater to students who think beyond the school’s religious beliefs.
“Several parents have told me that this mindset was combined with a growing concern that St. Michael’s wasn’t turning out enough young people who were interested in becoming nuns and priests,” Edwards said.
In a letter to parents of St. Michael’s students sent during the summer, Sister Marie Vianney, principal for grades 7-12, said the change occurred because high school enrollment dropped about 25 percent in one year. The school’s enrollment, as listed by the WIAA for the 2012-14 count, was 36.63 (the average number of students in combined grades 9, 10 and 11). There were 17 schools in the WIAA with lower enrollment numbers, including Inchelium, which competed against St. Michael’s.
“As things in life fluctuate, things grow and shrink,” Vianney said in a recent phone message. “Our student body has shrunk and our faculty has shrunk. And the WIAA is a big institution, and it functions like a big institution, and we’re just too little.”
Vianney said in her summer letter that she wondered “if God may be telling us that we need to give sports a bit of a rest” and that participation in sports “would take too much of a toll on both students and faculty.”
Vianney’s announcement ended a streak that began when St. Michael’s joined the Panorama League for boys basketball in 1994. Girls basketball followed four years later.
“I think they should tell people the real reason this is going on,” said Joe Lopez, a 1989 graduate, former assistant basketball coach and one of the school’s best athletes in the pre-Panorama League era. “(Enrollment) has a little bit to do with it, but there are other pieces to the puzzle they aren’t telling people.”
The school created subtle rules to make athletics less desirable, said a recent graduate who wished to remain anonymous because he feared backlash. He said iPods were banned during long road trips because the music couldn’t be monitored. CDs were acceptable for a while, but all music was eventually banned, he said.
Detractors believe dropping enrollment was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that developed because of school officials’ actions in relation to the sports program. “It’s the agenda-driven, religious side of it,” said George Warner, a 1993 graduate and former assistant girls basketball coach. “If you don’t follow their rules, they’ll cut you. … At St. Michael’s, there’s a constant power struggle when someone doesn’t fit their mold.”
Terry Edwards, David’s father and a former boys basketball and girls softball coach, said sports programs generated good students rather than creating troublemakers.
“My experience, coaching boys, always stressed academics first, because most will never play beyond (high school),” he said. “We were academic state champions twice. My three sons, I coached them all, and all have become gainfully employed and successful. I was most proud of those two times we were state academic champions.”
Cusick athletic director Nick Pease said Northeast 1B teams benefited from learning about the culture at St. Michael’s during road trips.
“I’m a firm believer in competition,” Pease said. “Anytime you miss out on an opportunity to compete and show your best, you miss out.”
Al Durazo, a former coach at St. Michael’s who had nine of his 10 children play sports there, said he liked the diversity that sports offered.
“It led to meeting different people, talking to different people,” Durazo said.
But Pease said road games worried some St. Michael’s officials because of the music played during sporting events and the “revealing nature” of uniforms and cheerleaders’ outfits.
The recent graduate, who wants to remain anonymous, said, “Especially during basketball, with warm-up music like rap … . I could tell the teachers didn’t like it when we started singing along, because that meant we knew the songs.”
Pease said losing St. Michael’s created an imbalance in the Northeast 1B’s divisions, forced the league to change its postseason schedule and could mean fewer state allocations down the road.
Terry Edwards said, “I’m sure the league probably wasn’t pleased.”
In her letter announcing the withdrawal from the league, Vianney said the school planned to reinstate physical education in the high school, offer more open gym nights and coordinate intramural events.
“It’s certainly not the death of sports,” Vianney said in her recent phone message. “It’s not that we don’t want to have sports. It’s just kind of the recognition that right now we can’t do it, it’s just beyond us. That’s sad. I think our people that have children enrolled here completely understand.”
Former St. Michael’s athletic director Steve Bollinger and 1995 athlete and graduate Dave Baarstad tended to agree with Vianney.
“Clearly, they went in a different direction than I would have,” said Bollinger, the Warriors’ A.D. from 2003-08 who is now principal at Naturita (Colo.) Elementary School. “But we were always struggling with numbers.”
Baarstad, who played on the first St. Michael’s basketball team in the Panorama League, said, “It’s hard for me to say there’d be any other force at work, anything else in play.” He currently lives in Solana Beach, Calif.
There are other reasons, said Durazo, who coached girls basketball and was an assistant softball coach.
“I did ask Sister Vianney at a wedding, ‘What was the reason with doing away with sports?’ ” Durazo said. “She made a remark that some of the students who didn’t compete in sports programs felt left out. … I asked, ‘What about the students who did participate?’
“No matter what, you still had enough students to play boys and girls basketball. I think it’s really hurting the school. … I think it’s hurting the morale of the school in ways the principal and parish priest don’t realize.”