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How We Started Our Homeschool Athletic Club

By Steve Leer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #82, 2008.

How to set up and run a homeschool sports program.
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Steve Leer

Severe weather is considered sport in Lafayette, Ind.

On weekends every fall and winter, people gather in large numbers to await approaching storms. The meteorological events arrive with great fanfare:

"Welcome to the Storm Cellar, where the forecast is always mostly exciting with a one hundred percent chance of Tornados!"

A cheer goes up from the crowd. At least, those in the crowd who don't have a mouthful of nachos, that is.

The storm shelter is a gymnasium, and the Tornados - spelled with a capital "T" and no "e" - aren't the violent rotating columns of air that turn subdivisions into instant redevelopment projects. Instead, these twisters are student-athletes who play for the Tippecanoe Tornados.

The Tornados provide home-educated students in Tippecanoe and surrounding Indiana counties an opportunity to compete against other homeschool and Christian school teams from across the state and eastern Illinois. The Tornados are operated by Homeschool Unified Sports Teams of Lafayette (HUSTL, or "hustle"), a nonprofit organization.

Founded in 2003, HUSTL is among the younger of the more than 500 homeschool athletic clubs in the United States. Although still in its infancy, HUSTL is one of the fastest growing organizations in the homeschool sports movement. What began with 33 boys and girls on three basketball teams five years ago has grown to nearly 100 elementary through high school kids on 10 teams in three sports - fall girls volleyball and co-ed soccer are the others - and cheerleading.

For the homeschool students who don the Tornados' navy and silver uniforms, getting to participate in organized sports is a joy, a privilege, and part of their educational experience.

"It gives me more of a social life," said Michael Miley, a junior on the Tornados' varsity boys basketball team. "It also helps me learn the value of teamwork and gives me the chance to play basketball without having to go to a traditional school."

For Macy Anderson, a junior on Tippecanoe's varsity girls volleyball team, the Tornados have been a godsend.

"It's been a blessing to me to be able to play with Christian girls in a Christian environment," Anderson said. "There isn't the pressure to win, although we play to win. The Tornados have meant a lot to me."

I've been blessed by my involvement with HUSTL, as well. As the organization's founder and athletic director, I'm still amazed how far we've come in such a short time.

Why I Play the Game
by Darrin Leer

It's eight o'clock on a typical January night in northwestern Indiana. Standing in a doorway leading into the crowded gym, I can hear the squeak of sneakers and the steady beat of music playing over the P.A. system. I catch the faint whiff of popcorn and hotdogs from a nearby concession stand.

The familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach arrives right on time to accompany me to the court. It's then that I hear our entrance music play like trumpets calling us to do battle. The crowd rises to its feet, letting out a roar.

My teammates and I rush the court in single file. We circle the court several times as if we are sharks entrapping our prey, preparing for the kill. After several laps, we break off into two lines and begin running through out pregame drills. All the while I can feel the tension rising as everyone knows that the clash with our opponent is imminent.

As warm-ups progress, the feeling of queasiness in my stomach begins to pass, and my body and mind prepare for the battle about to begin.

The one-minute warning horn sounds and both teams group back at their respective benches. Our coach gives us some last words about the game plan, and we break the huddle and take the court. The last warning horn sounds and we take our positions at mid-court for the opening tip. As the referee blows his whistle and throws the ball up, one thing comes to the forefront of my mind: "It's game time." This is what I play for - the love of the game.

I have played organized sports almost since I learned to walk. One of the things that drew me to sports in the first place was its physical nature. I have always been a fairly active person and sports gave me an outlet of sorts for my cooped-up energy. Whether it is practice or games, sports gave me a reason to get out and run with a purpose.

Another key reason I became involved in sports is its competitive nature. Having a strong competitive nature runs in my family. My father helped instill in me the same fiery competitive spirit that is within him. This zeal to win has been a trait of mine from the day I could comprehend winning and losing. Being able to prove myself against others in the arena of sports is something I have always relished.

However, of all the things that drew me to sports, the camaraderie with teammates tops the list. You develop a different type of bond with teammates that you don't with other friends. You go through many different feelings both physical and emotionally together. You endure the pain of preseason conditioning together. You relish the triumph after a big win together. You deal with the pain of a crushing loss together. At that point you aren't just teammates and friends - you're brothers.

As we walk off the court after a hard-fought win, weary but completely satisfied, my mind goes back to why I love the game. It's not just the physical activity, the competitive spirit, or even the camaraderie with teammates. No, it's all three that give me a true love for the game.

Like most homeschool athletic organizations, HUSTL started out of necessity. My wife, Margie, began teaching our children Darrin and Alissa at home as soon as they were old enough to put words together. I was a supportive father, meaning I went to work and brought home a paycheck to finance our two-student school.

As our children got older they became interested in sports. We enrolled our son in Little League, YMCA soccer and basketball, and travel soccer. Our daughter tried her hand at basketball and gymnastics.

By the spring of 2003 and at age 14, Darrin's organized athletic opportunities had run out. It was assumed that kids his age would join their middle school teams and continue right on into high school sports. Making matters worse, in Indiana homeschooled students are prohibited from participating on public school teams.

For the first time Margie and I had to decide: Would we put Darrin, and then Alissa, into a traditional school so that they could keep playing ball, or try to establish a local homeschool athletic program?

After much discussion and prayer, we gulped hard and chose the latter.

I began calling people who had been involved in homeschool sports, to learn more. I surfed the Internet for tips on running an athletic program. I called schools and churches with gymnasiums to check on reservation policies.

After gathering information, I arranged an organizational meeting for local homeschool families interested in forming boys basketball teams. Nine homeschool parents met in my living room in June 2003. The consensus was that we should move forward.

Without a single student recruit or even one hour of gym time booked, I started scheduling basketball games and gave our organization a name. I worked almost as hard coming up the HUSTL acronym as I did putting together our first player rosters.

Player registration took place during a local homeschool open house in August 2003, and whenever a parent handed me a check to cover the cost for their sons. We held a "Name the Team" contest, and "Tippecanoe Tornados" won in an e-mail vote.

Eighteen boys attended our first basketball practice in September that year. Several of their sisters did, too. The girls asked if they would have a team. I said sure, if there was enough interest. A week later, 15 girls showed up to join.

Between the junior high boys, varsity girls and varsity boys teams the Tornados won 18 games in the inaugural 2003-04 season. In addition to serving as HUSTL's athletic director, I coached the varsity boys team.

Since then, expansion has come fast and furious. HUSTL added a junior high girls team and cheerleading squads in 2004 and, the following year, branched out into volleyball and soccer. In 2007 HUSTL introduced the Microbursts - a developmental basketball program for home-educated elementary school students. This past fall the Tornados became charter members of a homeschool/Christian school athletic conference, and debuted a junior varsity boys basketball team.

We've been fortunate to enjoy early athletic success. In our brief history, Tornados teams have won state homeschool championships in basketball and soccer, claimed a pair of conference basketball titles and brought home a second place finish in a national basketball tournament.

HUSTL parents have played like champions themselves. They've stepped forward to coach, run concessions, take admission, organize fundraising activities, secure sponsorships, oversee first aid, and serve on HUSTL's Board of Directors. Some have even cleaned the restrooms at one church recreational center we use. Talk about dedication!

God only knows what the future holds for HUSTL. But, Lord willing, even more Lafayette area homeschoolers will be pulled into the Tornados' vortex.

The Joyous Life of a Homeschool Athletic Director (It Can Be Tough, but It's Worth It)

Homeschool athletic administration is both a white- and blue-collar job. At times, it's just a hot-under-the-collar job.

In my five years as HUSTL's Athletic Director, I've learned the position requires the math skills of an accountant, the problem-solving acumen of an engineer, the listening ability of a therapist, the communications talent of a public relations specialist, and the persuasiveness of a politician. It also doesn't hurt to know a little bit about diplomacy, customer service, procurement, education, and hawking NASCAR race programs.

OK, the last one comes in handy only if you're raising money at a motor speedway.

While directing a homeschool sports program doesn't bring with it the headaches of dealing with millionaire professional athletes, that's not to suggest you won't pop a Tylenol now and then.

Game scheduling is an adventure on par with "Indiana Jones." Teams approach scheduling one of three ways: as soon as the season is over (Yes!), a few months after the season ends (Well... OK), and within weeks of the start of a new season (Are you kidding?). Unless there are enough early-bird opponents on an athletic director's contact list, he or she will have to work with the other two (WHAT?!).

Cancellations are inevitable in homeschool athletics. Not a year has gone by where I haven't had at least one athletic director or game scheduler contact me and say they can't play a game because "not enough kids went out for the team." You'd prefer those calls come 24 days before the event takes place. Too often they come 24 hours prior.

Every athletic director occasionally gets caught in the parent trap. One scenario goes something like this: Joe Blow thinks his son is a great ballplayer and asks you why the coach isn't playing him more. You tell Mr. Blow that you'll talk to the coach. The coach says Junior Blow isn't very good. At this point, do you ask the coach to reconsider, thus appearing to micromanage his team, or let it go and receive a second visit from a less cordial Mr. Blow? Where's that copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People when you need it?

Fundraising is an activity whose first three letters are misleading. But as an athletic director it's often your responsibility to persuade your parents and students that earning cash for that tournament 800 miles away can be as much fun as, well, that tournament 800 miles away. Mobilizing your sales force can present a major challenge, especially if you don't believe in the power of frozen cookie dough. That's when you try convincing everyone in the organization to buy a half dozen tubs of the stuff themselves.

The games themselves provide athletic directors plenty of thrills. My personal favorites include:

  • The referee who hasn't arrived at the gymnasium... and the pregame warmup clock is under two minutes.

  • Balls that grow legs and walk away before the coach can put them back in the ball bag.

  • Visiting teams that show up in a van - one van. Translation: No gate receipts.

  • The player who forgets we're at an away game and brings only his home white uniform.

  • Injuries exhaust three of the four ice packs in the first aid kit. Just then, two kids turn ankles.

At that moment, any athletic director would be half tempted to apply the cold bag to his or her pounding forehead!

Yes, it's a tough job. But for our kids, it's worth it.

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