In Focus: Education and Athletics

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The state of Ohio is known for its sports. Ohio State is a power house in football and basketball, being one of the top programs in the country in both sports. Cincinnati and Cleveland are home to some of the best high school football teams in the nation. Akron's St Vincent St Mary High School is a force in basketball and has been dominant ever since a certain you-know-who went there. Over the years, the state has produced a large amount of professional talent that has played well in all major sports.

 The Underdogs
One region that gets over looked in the sports frenzy is Southeast Ohio. The region is the poorest part of the state so resources aren't as prevalent and the top young athletes are less likely to try to attend the schools there. As a result, the schools don't produce many division one and professional athletes. What this part of the state tries to focus on, is creating an environment in which their students can succeed in a more important area of school: the class room.

"We try to stress to every kid that 'hey you need to look at a school that you want to do your academic needs,'" Athens High School Athletic Director Charles Robinson explained. "'And then, if you want to participate in athletics there, you got a background where you can possibly do that.'"

The schools in Southeast Ohio take pride in the time and energy that they put into helping their students get an education. They try to provide study tables and tutors to those that need them. They also try to raise the expectation levels of their student athletes, a gesture that the students themselves appreciate.
"I asked them specifically, 'do you guys think you work harder when you're playing a sport?'" Theresa Schultheiss, the athletic director at Logan High School said. "They were like 'heck yea! You got to in order to play!'"

One of the reasons why her athletes feel the need to work harder is because they need to maintain a certain grade point average in order to participate in athletics. Logan High School requires at least a 2.0 GPA for its student athletes. The mark is above the minimum state requirement of about a 1.68 GPA given by the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA). Theresa explains why she wanted Logan to go above and beyond the state requirement.

"We feel that it sets the standard a little higher. Because if we water it down, it's not helping them create that path to their future."

Money Ball
So why is it so important for these kids to get a good education while they are in high school? We hear all the time about how athletics saved a kid's life, one who might have struggled financially, but is now making lots of money. Why can't that apply in Southeast Ohio?

Well the numbers suggest that the chances of going pro are very scarce, no matter where you live. Only 5% of high school athletes get to play division one college sports, the highest level of college athletics. Of the 5% that make it that far, only 2% of them get to make it to the professionals. Even you make it into professional athletics it is hard to stay there. A little less than 2% of professional athletes make it past two years in their sport, before they are out of their league. Those numbers will double and even triple for an athlete in this region because they do not have the benefit of going to a top flight high school athletically and finically.

Financials do play a huge role in both the education and athletic participation of a student athlete. Some schools just can't afford to pay for travel costs, equipment, and maintenance of a sports team. Throughout the state and even the country, athletic programs are being cut. With Southeast Ohio being the poorest part of the state, schools are feeling the pressure to be able to stay afloat, while providing programs and sports for their students.

One of the ways that schools have found a way to do both is by having a pay-to-play system. Students who want to participate in a certain sport would have to pay a fee in order to play for that season. However, schools in the region have been able to keep their sports programs in tact without the use of pay-to-play systems.
Pay-to-play would not be able to last in this region because it could be a huge financial strain on some of the families in the region. The fees can go as high as $150, a price way too steep for struggling families. "We try to come up with the funds so that it's not another hindrance on their families, on their parents," Theresa explained. "Because we know for some of them, it's hard enough just to pay their bills."

None of the schools in Southeast Ohio have pay-to-play fees. Athens High School only asks for a $25 transportation fee for the season. They also work together with families who can't afford them and try to either reduce the cost or take care of it all together if it is a hassle for a family. Schools in some of the big cities of Ohio require these pay-to-play fees from their students, and being able to afford them or not will determine whether or not a student gets to play.  

So how does a region with financially struggling schools and even worse off families continue to maintain their sports programs? They can sustain with the help of the community and local businesses, the 'X-factors' if you will, of Southeast Ohio.

Athletic boosters and local businesses help fund a lot of the programs that the schools provide and try to be a good partner in the community. Robert Killkenny is the general manager of Pizza Crossing in Logan, a huge contributor to the athletic program, and overall friend to the school. "I think the kids are important to the community." He says. "If you don't support them, you're not gonna see anything in the future."

The community has a strong presence in the region, and some would argue that community is what separates Southeast Ohio from the rest of the state. "Southeast Ohio is a great place for people that want to help people." Charles said. It is this motto that the region has embraced and that has kept the school systems strong.

In a League all Her Own
The region is not known for producing a lot of top athletes. Most of the student athletes would have to go to division two or three colleges if they want to participate in sports at the next level. However, there are some who have been able to go the distance and beat the odds. One of those people includes maybe the region's most famous alumni, Katie Smith.

Katie was a three sport athlete when she went to Logan high school. She carried the girls basketball team to the 1992 State Championship Game before went onto play basketball at Ohio State. She went to even greater heights when she graduated and played in the WNBA. There she was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time WNBA Champion, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and retired as the all-time leading scorer in woman's professional basketball history.

She is proud of where she came from, and loves to be an inspiration to the younger generation. Even more, she is inspired by the young crop of athletes in the region, and hopes one day other athletes emerge from the area. "I hope one day I'm coming to watch somebody who's breaking records and having gyms named after them in southeastern Ohio." You can watch more of the In Focus interview with Katie Smith here.

The Final Stretch
Education work hand-in-hand when trying to mold young kids into the adults that they are going to be. Students learn in the class room all of the information that they are going to need in college as well as when they start working. Sports give different types of lessons. It teaches students time management skills, an aspect of life that will be crucial when they go to college, whether they are playing sports there or not. It teaches them about commitment and teamwork, how to do things to help yourself as well as the people around you. It keeps them off the streets, where the temptations of life can hinder success and growth. And if nothing else, it is a fun way to distract a kid from any of the problems they may have in life, if only for a few hours.

Athletics in southeast Ohio is special. The community gets involved in a way that only can be appreciated if you take the time on a Friday night to go to a gym or field and see it for yourself.


Athletes here get the support they need from their families, friends, teachers and administrators to do their best in their sport as well as in the classroom. This formula is the perfect play, one that the best coach in the world, may not have been able to draw up. That's why southeast Ohio is winning, in more ways than one.