Anyone who looked at the 4A state football brackets in November likely noticed a common thread among the teams — they all have youth feeder programs.
For the Kent Knights, a junior football program offered for youngsters since 1979, that model seems like one worth emulating.
This summer will mark a conceptual shift for Kent Knights as those who run the program, in partnership with head coaches from the four high schools which field football teams, go from a large one-size-fits-all to something tailored to feed into each high school.
Steve Delvo, president of Kent Knights, said the concept has been under consideration for a few years now.
“We’ve got kids who play at all the high schools, so, we go to a lot of high school games,” Delvo said. “We don’t see the community participation you’d like to see. There are times on a given Saturday where there are more people at a junior football game on Saturday than at the high school game on Friday night.”
While the idea of pushing all four high school football programs — Kentwood, Kentlake, Kent-Meridian and Kentridge — into playoff contention consistently in three to five years there’s a more broad intent behind the shift.
“We’d like to get kids … wearing their respective jerseys running around their neighborhoods at age 7, raising awareness and get the community more involved as well as getting more kids playing football,” Delvo said. “When you have all your second graders and they’re all going to be playing together, they’re going to start that camaraderie and teamwork at a young age. We’d love to be able to have all those kids play in one program and playing together from the second grade. That’s a huge team builder.”
For Kentlake’s Chris Paulson, who will start his third year as head coach of the Falcons in August, envisions children embracing their future high school as early as second grade.
“I want 7-year-olds walking around the community with Kentlake Falcons stuff on,” Paulson said. “That’s what’s going to breed success, anytime you can get the community on board.”
And at Kentlake, Paulson noted, this new feeder program could be part of a larger effort to build community spirit while developing a strong culture as well as identity for future Falcons spearheaded by second-year Principal Joe Potts.
“Joe Potts has done such a great job here at really trying to make some changes in this school and tie this school to the community,” Paulson said. “This is going to be a huge step in that direction. Right now in Kent, kids don’t have that early connection to the school like they do in Bellevue and Skyline. It helps that they’re running similar schemes at the youth level, but, I don’t think it’s about the Xs and Os. It helps that there’s an extra 200 to 300 kids walking around with Kentlake Falcons gear on in the community.”
Paulson is also looking forward to the kind of football players he will get coming out of the Junior Falcons football program.
In the past, kids from the age of 7 to 14 could play for Kent Knights, but there were weight restrictions which made it tricky to get bigger kids in to teach them how to play line positions.
As the program develops, Paulson said, he said he hopes the kids will practice at Kentlake so the coaching staff can develop relationships with kids before they are freshmen.
Paulson is not the only Kent School District football coach excited about this shift for the Knights.
Brett Allen, who will also start his third season as a head coach this fall at Kent-Meridian, said not only will future players and the program benefit in the long run but he sees some critical short-term impacts.
“I thought this was a good idea because it would build a stronger sense of culture and it would help each high school build a brand from the ground up,” Allen said. “That’s one of our big issues is drawing the talent from the hallways because our big athletes don’t play football.
We do get those kids who do come and take a peek who aren’t necessarily football players, so to speak. There are a lot of talent that walks our hallways and we’ve been trying to get those kids out. That’s the most exciting thing about this for me, we took this over knowing we had to make a huge culture change, there hasn’t been a winning season in more than 15 years.”
This new feeder program, however, can help Allen and the K-M football staff build a culture of winning from the ground up.
It will help develop a sense of team, a sense of family, a sense of community for the kids.
This could also help develop those friendly district rivalries from an early age so players are excited to get to high school.
Allen said he envisions third and fourth graders wearing their Junior Royals jersey to a high school football game on a Friday night.
But there’s also opportunity to bring his high school athletes into the process, Allen said.
“Camps are a way to do that,” Allen said. “Just having a presence by having our kids go to their games, help by holding the chains and working their concessions stands. Those little kids look up to our players, they see them as football gods. If we can get those kids in front of the little kids and show them, ‘You’re part of this family.’ They’re building a legacy.”
Kentwood’s Rex Norris, who has been the Conquerors head coach for eight seasons, knows all about junior football feeder programs.
Norris is a native of West Texas, where high school football takes on an entirely different meaning for communities.
“It’s a philosophy change,” Norris said. “It gives us some structure. Being from Texas, that’s what everyone has. What we have going here isn’t bad, it just doesn’t allow us to start developing kids in our systems to when they get here they’re learning easier.”
In a few years, Norris said, freshmen who haven’t come up through the Kent Knights program won’t have to re-learn fundamentals and won’t lose their whole first year of high school ball.
Norris has also seen this formula work here in Washington state.
“In ‘04 when we played Stanwood, I remember going to the fields there and watching grade after grade after grade (of youth football) before our game … and their stands were full,” he said. “Kent is a sports town, always has been. There’s a lot of history here and a lot of tradition. This would accentuate that.”
This new approach could also allow the Kentwood community to grow closer.
While Kentwood is known as a sports power, Norris said, it doesn’t have a dedicated feeder middle school.
Having a dedicated youth football program Norris can see not just parents, friends and neighbors stepping up to support it.
“With Kent Knights being the umbrella, it opens the door for businesses to support the programs versus ‘I can’t support Kentwood because I’ve got Kentlake students,’” Norris said. “Hopefully (this will lead) to more community awareness of our field use. Then turn these things into events instead of something that just happens.”
Norris said the school definitely has the athletes with the potential at Kentwood.
A dedicated program will help them learn the schemes early on, help the Conks run and maintain a successful spread offense because they’ll get quarterbacks coming out of the Kent Knights Junior Conquerors program every year, but more than anything it will help all the schools build relationships with the community.
“It will attract families to our area,” he said. “It will help be part of the decision-making process. You have sports-oriented families and they want to find the best programs they can get their kids into and it’s benefiting the schools that have it. I think this will only help us. It’s going to take a lot of community support.”