Tampa Tribune – Apr 18, 2008 – Eddie Daniels – Varsity rosters around the Bay area have been sprinkled with middle-school athletes, many of whom have been key components to their teams. Sounds strange, but it’s happening.

Berkeley Prep eighth-grade pitcher Jenny Weissman is ranked 12th in the state in strikeouts, fanning 122 batters.

Academy of the Holy Names has its own trio of pre-high-school players.

“From an athletic standpoint, benefit No. 1 is the competition is so much better,” said Ed Gerecke, whose seventh-grade twin daughters, Alexandra and Christina, are varsity softball players at the Academy of the Holy Names. “The more you’re exposed to better competition, I think the better you become, so that’s been a real plus.

“Secondly, the level of coaching. They have great coaches there at Academy, so the coaching they’re getting, they’re not going to get otherwise. Obviously, the higher up you go in competition level, the quality of coaching gets better.”

The Jaguars (12-4) also have starting outfielder Ashton Hill.

According to Florida High School Athletic Association bylaw 11.5.4, it is all legal. The excerpt states: “Participation or non-participation in the sixth, seventh and/or eighth grades shall not affect a student’s eligibility after entering the ninth grade. A student shall have four consecutive years of opportunity for eligibility after his/her first enrollment in the ninth grade.”

What makes their participation possible is if the student attends an independent middle school or a middle-junior high school with grades from kindergarten to 12th.

Don’t Rush Them

The players might have the physical ability to compete against older athletes, but it’s a delicate dance to ensure that players have what it takes mentally to deal with the pressures of varsity athletics.

“If they succeed, I think, it’s going to be helpful to them and they’re going to be the prodigies of sport,” said John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach. “Socially, I think, is where the difference is going to be. They’re not really going to fit in as much perhaps socially, and they might develop a bit of an insecurity with the team. But if they’re contributing to the team and helping the team win, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.”

During the 2006-07 , Tampa Bay Christian’s Clark Glass won the program’s first wrestling title when he won the Class 1A, 103-pound title – as a seventh-grader.

Clark’s father, Greg, said the early start might not have come had his son been wrestling in a higher weight class. This season, as an eighth-grader, Clark moved up two weight classes to 119 pounds, returning to the state tournament and placing fourth.

“We felt that Clark, mentally and physically, especially coming in here as a 103-pounder last year, was at a level where he would be fine,” Greg Glass said. “Win, lose or draw, he was going to be OK on both perspectives, mentally and physically.

“Ultimately we felt where Clark was at in his life, that it would actually make him stronger by taking some losses now that in the long run would actually make him better.”

Clark Glass, 15, never had any qualms about mixing it up with older wrestlers.

“If I lose matches, I bounce back, learn from my mistakes and wrestle hard the next time,” said Glass, who went 39-4 this past season and was 41-1 as a seventh-grader.

Glass wasn’t the trend-setter when it comes to young wrestlers striking gold. Former Brandon wrestler Sean Joyce, now at the United States Military Academy, became the state’s first pre-high-school wrestler to win the Class 1A 103-pound title, while at Temple Heights. Joyce went on to win four state titles.

At this year’s state wrestling tournament in Lakeland, Clark Glass’ teammate, eighth-grader Rossi Bruno, won the 1A title at 103 and finished 40-0, while Tampa Prep’s Tyler Liberatore, also an eighth-grader, won the 1A 112-pound title. He finished the season 40-3.

Make Sure They Love It

When Alexandra Gerecke talks about pitching on the varsity level, there is no fright in her voice.

“I’m not really nervous pitching,” said Gerecke, who pitched in AHN’s first 10 games, compiling an 8-2 record. She counts her 10-inning victory against Tampa Catholic as the highlight of her young career.

“It’s just a dream to get to play, and to have fun doing what I’m doing,” said Christina Gerecke, the starting third baseman, who played in a game for the Jaguars as a sixth-grader last season.

According to Murray, it’s important for parents to watch their young athletes and detect if their passion for the game remains or fades.

“There are a lot of elements that need to be properly managed, that’s all,” Murray said. “It raises the stakes a little bit for the parents and the coaches to make sure that they’re taking care of the person, not isolating the performer, not ignoring the other important aspects of youth development.”

AHN coach Roger Rivard found out about the twins first from playing Christina Gerecke last season and through word-of-mouth from parents at the school. It also helped that the Jaguars were in dire need of players.

For the Gereckes, passion isn’t a problem.

“The smiles on their faces, they are just having a wonderful time,” Ed Gerecke said. “They’re just so upbeat and positive about the experience. Just thoroughly enjoying it.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.