Perry quarterback Brock Purdy takes a snap. Purdy and the rest of the Perry Pumas.
Cheryl Haselhorst/Special to the Tribune

The competitive stakes have been raised in high school athletics. The pursuit of even the most minuscule of advantages can warrant a change of action.

The Chandler Unified School District has found a way to give its schools’ athletic departments a big leg up on their competitors. In the CUSD, playing a sport is a class.

The district, which is home to three of the top five seeded teams in this year’s AIA 6A football playoffs – and the final two, Chandler High and Perry High – allows its student to enroll in classes that focus on the varsity sport they play. The benefits have been noticeable.

“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Perry High School coach Preston Jones said. “Now, they get to take an hour of their school day and they get home earlier. They get more time for rest, recovery, studying, being a kid.”

Jones gets to see his players during a school-day class period four times a week, year-round. He said it gives his staff the flexibility to work in a multitude of football activities throughout the day that otherwise might be left out of his team’s routine.

“We get to take advantage of this,” he said. “We can bring them in to lift in the morning, and then during football class, we get to do some football-skill-specific things.”

Some days, his team is done with both class and football before student-athletes at other schools around the Valley have started their final period of the day.

Perry men’s volleyball assistant coach Ryan Tolman has seen the difference the program can make. Tolman used to be the head coach of the men’s volleyball team at Desert Vista High School, a member of the Tempe Union High School District – a district that didn’t have an arrangement for its athletes to take a class built around their sport.

“The best part about being at Perry, as a teacher and coach, is that the day is not as long,” he said. “Granted you start earlier … but I’m done with practice at 4:30 (p.m.) every day. Sometimes I wouldn’t even start practice until then at Desert Vista.”

Tolman’s son, Daxton, is a sophomore at Perry and enrolled in the school’s volleyball class. Having his own child experience the program has only added to his praises of its impact.

“It shortens the day for the kids,” he said. “It frees them up to be able to participate in other things outside of the sport they are doing or have time to do their homework.”

In CUSD, the tradition of during-school sports started at Hamilton High School. Its system, named “The Academy,” helped build one of Arizona’s most dominant athletic programs – the seven-time state champion football team being its crown jewel.

It’s no wonder the system became a district-wide phenomenon.

“(Schools) control their schedules that fits their campus the best regarding athletics,” CUSD Director of Athletics Marcus Williams said, via email. “Each campus does something a little different.”

The real surprise isn’t that CUSD extended the privilege to all of its schools, but that there are still districts around the state that haven’t adopted the plan yet.

Why? For the same reason most things either do or don’t happen in sports.

Money.

“That’s always the issue. Where do you find the money?” Tolman said. “We tried to do it in the Tempe district. I remember a few years ago, we had coaches’ meetings about how can we do something similar to what Hamilton and the Chandler district are doing. We just couldn’t find the money.”

Desert Vista settled on what it calls “Advanced P.E.,” a glorified weightlifting class for student-athletes that aims to improve specific skills. But that program doesn’t divide students based on their sports, nor does it allow varsity coaches an extra free hour with their teams.

“They just aren’t the same,” Tolman said.

At Perry, the program has been titled “locker class” and is available to all students of all competitive levels. What each sport does with its extra team time is a little different.

“(Our) locker class is usually strictly for weights and getting stronger,” senior soccer player Kyle Davidson said of his sport’s class.

Jones’ football team on the other hand uses the time slot to get a head start on daily practice. Then during the offseason, strength-building is reincorporated into the routine. But with the freedom allowed to coaches by courses, the possibilities to improve a team can be endless.

Tolman said the Pumas volleyball squad has even used the period as a study hall sometimes, pushing its players to catch up on schoolwork they might have missed because of sports.

Concerns of any kind regarding the program are few and far between.

There is no inherent pressure for every athlete at the school to enroll in the program. Davidson said he is only one of three varsity soccer players in the class, which is instead mostly comprises younger players looking to jump up from junior varsity levels.

Worries of a lessened focus on academics has been mitigated, with the locker classes accounting for necessary P.E. credits.

And when it comes to game days, the unique system seems to pay off.

“As a coach, you are seeing your kids every single day, all year long,” Tolman said. “I think it’s a huge competitive advantage and the schools who aren’t doing it are just a step behind.”

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