Using the entire village

MVRHS sports have benefited from feeder programs and waivers.

From left, Molly Pogue, Victoria Scott, Kelly Klaren, and Hannah Rabasca cheer as they're greeted by family, fans, and fire trucks at the SSA terminal in Vineyard Haven after winning their fifth consecutive championship last spring. — Gabrielle Mannino

Island high school athletic teams have been on a roll over the past few years in an unusually broad spectrum of sports. 

For example, last spring, eight of the nine Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) teams qualified for postseason competition. Girls tennis won a fifth consecutive state championship, while the boys were undefeated in the regular season, and finished 19-1 after a narrow defeat in the south sectional final. Plus, the Cape & Islands League champion sailing team raced for the Terk Trophy, an event for teams ranked 9-16 in New England.

Last month, the boys cross-country team won its school’s first-ever Division II state championship after taking the south sectionals, mirroring the girl’s sectional win in 2018. Also this fall, the football team reversed a three-year losing slide. 

And beginning next month, the 10-year-old MVRHS swim program will defend its 2018–19 Cape & Islands League championship, the team’s first championship and first winning (6-4) season. Boys basketball and hockey teams last year qualified for postseason play after an absence of several years from the state tournament. 

So what’s up? Why is this good stuff happening? It appears to be a perfect storm, in a good way.

Success in sports builds on its own momentum, but absolutely depends on three elements: talent, coaching, and numbers. The Vineyarders have benefited from a core of good, long-term coaches and have been graced with young talent in greater numbers, growth related to youth feeder programs, state athletic waiver programs that allow middle schoolers to compete, and the inclusion of Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School high school athletes to good effect, particularly in swimming.

Volunteer-run youth feeder programs, several more than 20 years old, some in the four- to five-year range, and one brand-new, have been a boon to programs on an Island that lacks contiguous towns with which to partner in high school sports to build numbers, a movement that has grown rapidly off-Island. For example, most of us remember when Bourne, Mashpee, Wareham and Old Rochester Regional (Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester) high schools had standalone sports programs. All of those towns are included in the BMW-ORR League in several sports now. 

Over the next few weeks, The Times will look at the successful development of MVRHS sports programs, beginning this week with the cross-country and track teams. 

For several years prior to 2017, longtime track and cross-country Coach Joe Schroeder struggled to generate enough numbers to field a complete team. MVRHS did not have a track on which to compete. They traveled to every meet for several seasons. Individual track athletes prospered under coaching staff tutelage, but with fewer than two dozen boys and girls total, MVRHS was unable to field a complete team and to be competitive as a team.

“We’d go to a meet, and Feehan would have more javelin throwers than we had on the entire team,” Schroeder once joked, about Bishop Feehan High School’s nearly 200-member track team. But this cross-country season, Schroeder had 56 athletes in his growing program, could populate varsity and junior varsity teams, and compete in freshmen and sophomores races if he wished. 

How did it happen? Three elements were in play. The Martha’s Vineyard Hurricanes youth running program began sending him athletes, and athletic director Mark McCarthy employed middle school waivers that allowed high-achieving ’Canes to compete.
Just as important, MVRHS track and XC individual and team success statewide have drawn kids to the program. Track is cool now. 

“Long-distance runners improve over time. That’s the nature of the sport,” Schroeder said recently. “And while that’s still true, we’ve had kids like Mackenzie Condon [MVRHS 2018], who began at a high level and improved from there. Some kids, like the Christys [Wren, Eloise, and Dash], for example, just have a knack for competing. Hurricane runners practice twice a week, so the daily practice in high school represents a sharp increase in their training regimen, but that’s fine because middle school kids shouldn’t be training more than two to three times a week,” he said, noting that the Hurricane regimen helps develop skills and understanding of the competitive environment.

Schroeder’s varsity track and cross-country rosters these days are peppered with graduates of the Hurricane fifth- to eighth-grade running program. By the seventh or eighth grade, young Hurricanes are veterans of regional and statewide competitions. That may be one reason why MVRHS senior captain Catherine Cherry, daughter of Hurricanes Coach Kim Kirk, surprised the world as a freshman miler, and Wren and Eloise Christy, Hurricanes briefly, did the same as eighth graders last year when the girls cross-country won its first-ever sectional crown, and Zach Utz came on this year as a cross-country force.

“2018 was the first year we did the waiver program. Mark [McCarthy, MVRHS athletic director] uses the waiver rule carefully, and we don’t want to have to rely on it,” Schroeder said, noting that seventh and eighth graders begin with a lighter practice regimen before going full-bore in practice. “And we use the buddy system, similar to field hockey, in which kids look out for each other all season long,” he said.

The Hurricanes were established by U.S. Track Association–certified coaches Kim Kirk and Reean Steenkamp in 2015, with three runners that the coaches took to an invitational meet. “Catherine was in eighth grade then, and there was no vehicle for young runners at the time. Then the program began to attract other kids, and we put the word out to the schools and set up a nonprofit for fundraising purposes, and now there are 24 kids in the program,” Kirk said.

Kirk and Steenkamp focus on training runners in a “transformational, not transactional, way. We want to instill a love of running that will engage them for a lifetime,” Kirk said.

The Hurricane program has been extended to summer kids and kids of high school age who want to explore running. The Hurricanes are independent of MVRHS, but high school indoor Coach Donald Brown is developing a regimen for the high school–age group, Kirk said.

“The support from the community has been terrific. A summer resident donated uniforms for the kids, and we get donations to help pay for the four invitational and 5K races the team participates in throughout the year,” she said.

“The Hurricanes are about fostering the love of running,” she said.