Star runner spurs new look at varsity rule

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. She's 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.

Other districts, including the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, have allowed exceptional athletes to play on varsity teams.

At Tartan High in Oakdale, 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.

"Jake was a great player for us for five years," said Bryan Munter, the school's current activities director.

Anoka-Hennepin's more restrictive 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 new athlete to take the place of a junior or senior who has spent years earning a spot on a team.

Coon Rapids High School Coach Don Timm, one of the greatest runners the University of Minnesota has ever produced, doesn't buy it. He 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."

Bryna and her family moved to Andover from Alexandria, Minn., before the school year, when her father, Doc DelCastillo, was hired to coach the Hamline University hockey team.

It's about having fun

DelCastillo played hockey at St. Cloud State University, where he met his future wife, Sue, a three-time track and field All-American. The DelCastillos now have six daughters and 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, she 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.

State league rule is no bar

In its bylaws, the Minnesota State High School League says seventh- and eighth-graders can play at the high school level if their school has the same administrative head and governing board as that of the high school.

At Tartan High, middle school athletes are a common sight on varsity teams -- particularly in sports such as swimming and girls' hockey, which do not have their own middle school teams, Munter said.

In Apple Valley, Tyrus Jones is considered the nation's top point guard for the class of 2014. Like Sullivan of Tartan, Jones started as an eighth-grader.

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, just 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."

plevy@startribune.com • 612-673-4419 alonetree@startribune.com • 651-925-5036

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