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‘Independent athlete’ an alternative to high school mergers

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One alternative to team mergers for several area high schools is the “independent athlete.”

In this arrangement, an athlete from one school practices with and competes in events with another school’s team in an individually based sport such as swimming, cross country, or track and field.

The independent athletes’ contributions are not counted toward that team’s scoring. Rather, the athletes score points for their own school, wearing their own school’s colors, and are eligible to qualify individually for league, sectional and state postseason events.

Watertown High School, for example, allows students from Immaculate Heart Central and Lyme to compete on its cross-country, swimming, and track and field teams.

Watertown High athletic director Michael Lennox said there is no financial incentive for the host school in regard to independent athletes.

“It’s kind of a good neighbor’s act,” he said. “As long as it’s manageable to have kids from other schools, then we typically have allowed it.”

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association mandates that no more than three athletes from one school can compete individually for another school in a given sport.

Approval for an independent athlete is gained first from the athlete’s school board, and then from the board of the school hosting the athlete. The agreement must be cleared by the league, section and NYSPHSAA.

Officials at Section 10 and Section 3, both of which comprise all public high schools in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, said they don’t keep a list of independent athletes.

Lennox said his school board has been receptive to hosting those athletes as long as they don’t displace Watertown High students. He said with the exception of hockey, the school doesn’t merge with other schools in sports because it has enough participants to support its own teams.

Maureen Lundy-Way, a Watertown YMCA Blue Sharks coach who has two sons and a daughter in the IHC school system, said she would like Watertown High to consider a merger with IHC in boys swimming.

“I very much appreciate that Watertown is allowing our kids to swim, but I really want them to be a part of the team,” Lundy-Way said. “The Watertown students play for IHC hockey, and that works, so it would be great to see the Watertown school district reciprocate.”

In hockey, IHC is the host team and is merged with Watertown, General Brown and Indian River.

In swimming, Lundy-Way’s oldest son, Connor, an eighth-grader, was one of two IHC students who competed independently alongside the Watertown varsity team this winter. Before the season, the Watertown school board listened to Lundy-Way and another IHC parent, but decided not to have a merged swim team.

“We always look at numbers. If we have good numbers, then we stay with what we have,” Lennox said, referring to the school’s decision-making process on mergers.

Staff writer Leslie Sheldon contributed to this report.

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