Is it fair to bar 14-year-old athlete from high school team?
Cross country phenomenon Bryna DelCastillo is a half-minute faster than anyone on the Coon Rapids High School team -- "in a class by herself," says her coach.
Yet Bryna can't compete in varsity meets.
Bryna is an eighth-grader.
Although the Minnesota State High School League allows seventh- and eighth-graders to compete in varsity events, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has its own rule that says, with few exceptions, high school athletic teams should be comprised of high school students.
The rule has been a subject of contention for two decades and is expected to be the topic of discussion at Monday's school board meeting. Last month, 35 parents commented on the rule, according to one board member who is open to yet another revision.
"If the kid's got this remarkable talent, maybe it's time to rethink this policy again," said board member John Hoffman.
The rule came into being, district officials say, because some felt it would be unfair for a young athlete to take the place of a senior-high student who has spent years earning a spot on a team.
Other Minnesota school districts have allowed exceptional athletes to play on varsity teams. Tyrus Jones, considered the nation's top point guard for the class of 2014, was a starter for the Apple Valley High basketball team as an eighth-grader. In Oakdale, one of Tartan High's star graduates, Jake Sullivan, started for the varsity basketball team in the eighth grade. When his high-school career ended in 2000, he was only the second Minnesota boy to score 3,000 points.
The Coon Rapids coach, Don Timm, one of the greatest runners the University of Minnesota has ever produced, said he's never encountered an athlete like Bryna in 40 years of coaching. Bryna was easily the top junior varsity finisher at this month's Northwest Suburban Conference meet in Elk River. Had her time been included among the varsity times, the Coon Rapids team would have qualified for the state tournament.
"The school board has said that a seventh- or eighth-grader will deprive older students by taking their spot on the varsity," Timm said last week. "But Bryna has added to the experience of every girl on our team. She's the best runner we have this year and by working so hard she's earned the admiration of every girl on the team."
Feels like home
Bryna and her family moved to Andover from Alexandria before the school year, when her father, Doc DelCastillo, was hired to coach the Hamline University hockey team. Doc played hockey at St. Cloud State, where he met his future wife, Sue, a three-time track and field All-American. The DelCastillos, who have six daughters, say they have moved 12 times over the past 20 years. Doc, who grew up in St. Paul, feels like he's finally home.
So does Bryna, who is popular with the other Coon Rapids runners. It's the grownups who don't seem to understand, Bryna said.
"This rule doesn't make sense to me," she said. "This sport is about having fun, but you have more fun while winning. If younger girls can help the varsity team win, isn't that a good thing?"
Her supporters note that youngsters with off-the-charts academic skills are often encouraged to take advanced classes, even college courses.
Bryna's teammates want her on the varsity -- so much so that some of the varsity athletes have asked if they could practice with the JV team, to run with Bryna.
"Coach says that even though I can't be on the varsity, just go out and show them what I can do," Bryna said.
"My teammates support me. They're not offended that a middle schooler is faster than them."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419