Parents, athletes call for changes in Seymour High sports programs

January 25, 2019

SEYMOUR — Call it the winter of their discontent.

For Seymour High School athletes like Patty Jurkowski, Amber Recine and McKenzie Collins, last fall’s girls’ soccer program and the current indoor track season have not met expectations.

Now parents, student athletes, and State Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, are demanding the town’s Board of Education take action and evaluate the high school’s beleaguered athletic programs.

The girls’ soccer team has had four different head coaches in Jurkowski’s four years. That lack of continuity is a problem for Collins, who hopes to refine her soccer skills into a college scholarship.

“Each coach brings a different style of play,” she said.

And this past season, the same head coach handled both girls’ and boys’ soccer.

Diane Saylor-Valdes, whose daughter made the girls’ varsity team as a freshman in 2017 and saw it qualify for the state tournament, was hoping for better things last fall.

Instead, the season ended with the forfeiture of two games — making Seymour ineligible for the state tournament. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference allows girls to play in boys’ junior varsity soccer games but if they do, they are not allowed to play in the all-girls games. Some did.

“They are not having the opportunity to build on their performances,” said Lisa Collins, McKenzie’s mother. “Being disqualified from tournaments cuts down on their being seen by recruiting coaches.”

Seymour High’s sports problems spread wider than soccer.

Late last May, Seymour High Football Coach Tom Lennon was placed on administrative leave, an assistant’s contract was not renewed and four other assistant’s left in solidarity. Then, earlier this month, police charged a former player Seymour High football player with an attack on a teammate in 2015.

The alleged assailant, now legally an adult, was charged as a juvenile with third-degree sexual assault, third-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and risk of injury to a minor. The victim, who left Seymour not long after the alleged locker-room assault, reported the incident to the state Department of Children and Families, which contacted police.

One of the assistants, John Johnson, also coached indoor and outdoor track. He is now employed at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge. Another, Burns, is the current indoor track coach.

Klarides-Ditria said that with “what happened with football in the fall you would think the school would have herniated itself to make sure we didn’t have any issues moving forward.”

Scheduling problems

But this year’s indoor track team arrived late for its first two meets. Some team members missed events; others had to compete without warming up.

That meant that at the opening meet, the Hillhouse Invitational, Jurkowski “ripped off my warmups and lined up” for the 55-meter dash. “I felt a tightness in my inner right thigh after having run the race. I automatically knew it was from a lack of warming up.”

Not only did she post “my worst time ever,” Jurkowski decided not to run the 55 meter hurdles because “I knew from experience the tightness could get way worse if I didn’t rest it.”

The team arrived arrived about an hour late for its second meet — the Wintergarten Invitational at Southern Connecticut State University. Ten athletes missed their events, team members said.

Expecting this would happen, Jurkowski stayed home.

“Imagine being a student athlete getting ready for a competition and ... worrying about even getting there on time,” one parent, Bob Russo, recently told the Board of Education. “That’s not fair.”

Jurkowski is looking at several colleges, including Stonehill in Massachusetts.

“Whether or not I get a scholarship will determine where I go,” she said.

Similar concerns were shared by a number of parents and student-athletes at a recent Seymour Board of Education meeting. the school board meeting.

“I am not confident the Board of Education will do anything unless forced,” Saylor-Valdes said. “Players are talking about not returning as they are discouraged, and unfortunately lost the love of playing”

Recine, a senior, is one of them. The soccer and indoor track problems led her to question whether to compete in outdoor track this spring. She said the soccer forfeitures impacted her ability to focus on school work.

“This situation made me want the (indoor) track season to come faster, because my soccer season had ended so abruptly,” she said.

Difficult choices

But a new season brought more problems. Now Recine questions whether outdoor track will be worth the effort, since the school board has yet to hire a head coach and four assistants for the sport.

“I really hope that this gets fixed, because being on a team like the soccer team and the track team have really, positively impacted my whole high school life,” she said. “I just really want the incoming freshman and the students who will be returning next year to have a great experience that they won’t forget once they leave high school.”

No one is blaming the new indoor track coach. Parents and First Selectman Kurt Miller said James Burns, a former football assistant, made it clear upon taking the track position that his primary job would not allow him to arrive until 3:30 p.m.

“Is the inconvenience of arriving late for one or two meets outweighed by not having an indoor track team at all?” Miller asked. “I’d rather see us have the season, allow our athletes to practice...and have them in shape to compete in outdoor track.”

Russo, Miller, and others commended Burns “for stepping up at the 11th hour” to fill the vacancy and give the kids a chance to compete. Jurkowski said it’s been difficult for Burns, as a new indoor track coach, to have only one assistant, who is also new to the sport.

“The fact there’s many different events and expertises in this sport means it’s better to have many coaches,” Jurkowski said. “Its unfair to our current two coaches, who have never coached track and field before, to have no help, and subsequently it’s unfair to the athletes.”

As for the late arrivals, several parents suggested alternatives — parents driving their kids to meets or requiring another coach or even Athletic Director Tara Yusko to ride the bus so it can arrive on time.

Lack of response

Klarides-Ditria, as well as parents, student-athletes and even a current coach, faulted Yusko for being rigid, and for not answering their questions and emails in a timely fashion.

Yusko, Superintendent of Schools Michael Wilson and several school board members also did not respond to emails or calls from Hearst Connecticut Media.

But Jennifer Magri,the Seymour Board of Education chairwoman, did.

She said a single coach oversaw both soccer programs last season “in part to allow that coach to mentor less-experienced new assistant coaches that are slated to take over the head coaching responsibilities of these programs in the fall of 2019.”

Magri agreed that arriving late for indoor track meets “is certainly not optimal or desirable.” But, like Miller, she said that was preferable to not having a program at all.

“The process for filling open coaching positions is first to post the openings internally, in accordance with the teacher contract requirements,” Magri said. “If internal posting does not result in filling a position, the position is then posted externally on multiple websites, such as www.seymourschools.org, www.ctreap.net,www.cea.org, etc. Networking with colleagues is also utilized as a recruitment tactic. Recently, however, this process has, for several posted positions, unfortunately, yielded an extremely small pool of candidates.”

And finding experienced coaches is not just a problem with Seymour.

Jim Gildea, Derby’s Board of Education chairman, said his city has “experienced our share of issues filling coaches positions.”

“In my opinion, this is based primarily on two issues — scheduling and compensation,” he said.

Gildea said Derby has three pay levels — varsity coaches are paid $5,638, junior varsity coaches $4,364 and middle school coaches receive a stipend of $1,350.

Practices often happen right after school, so getting there can be difficult for someone with a day job. And if practices are moved to later in the day, “you start to affect your ability to recruit in-house candidates whose preference is to practice right after school since it is more convenient for them,” Gildea said.

Backing parents in their pleas to the school board pleas was Klarides-Ditria, whose son is an all-state football player.

“I am constantly getting emails, phone calls from parents,” she said. “They are contacting me because they are not getting a response from the Athletic Director or the administration that they deserve in a timely fashion.”