Before volleyball practice, Danae Sheeran wraps up the school day in her bedroom. It’s not homework. Her bedroom is her classroom.
Danae, a talented 5-foot-11-inch middle hitter for the Flathead Valley Home School volleyball team, is one of about 80 home school kids in the area that will participate in athletics this year. Danae is the fifth in her family to participate in FVHS athletics. Her little brother will also play sixth-grade basketball this winter.
The Sheerans define the valley’s home school athletic program on various levels. For starters, a decade ago the father, Mel, started the Montana Christian Athletic Association (MCAA) in which FVHS plays. Danae’s oldest sister coached the volleyball team and her two other older sisters played both volleyball and basketball for the FVHS Crusaders. One of them, Janelle, is the head coach this season. The older brother played basketball.
“A lot of people who are home schooled don’t have this opportunity,” said Cindy Jarvis, who has various roles in organizing FVHS athletics. “It’s awesome.”
There are two seasons for FVHS athletics: fall and winter. Fall has girls volleyball, with a fifth- and sixth-grade team, seventh- and eighth-grade team, junior varsity and varsity. In the winter there is basketball for both boys and girls, covering the same grade range as volleyball. Soccer used to exist, but has since faded away due to a lack of numbers and the difficulties of maintaining three sports with no athletic budget.
A home school athletic program is a great opportunity, Janelle said, but a tough chore as well. Teams begin each season with no funding, a spread out student base and a host of other difficulties associated with not having their own centralized school. Getting the word out is key.
“A lot of people don’t know (the athletic program) is here,” Janelle said.
Then there’s always the issue of where to play.
“The hardest thing is finding a gym for a reasonable price,” Janelle said.
One way FVHS athletics garner money is through a program released at the beginning of each season. The program has team rosters, player information, schedules and most importantly advertisements. Local businesses purchase ad space, which significantly helps out the Crusaders. The rest of the money – to pay for travel expenses, hotels, equipment, gym fees and more – comes from the families themselves.
“You’re just broke by the end of the year,” Janelle said.
For the past few years both the volleyball and basketball teams have practiced and hosted home games at West Valley School’s gymnasium. Criteria for renting a gym include not only a reasonable price, but also accessibility. Since they’re sharing the gym with the school’s teams, coaches have to find schools that don’t have busy athletic schedules.
The volleyball team opened up this year by taking three-time defending Class A state champion Whitefish to the wire in two straight games. It was the first time the Crusaders have played such a high-profile team.
“We were really surprised we played that well,” said co-captain Jenna Sladek, a junior.
Usually the Crusaders don’t get invited to tournaments like the preseason Whitefish invitational, but two teams dropped out and FVHS jumped at the opportunity. Even without big tournament invitations, the Crusaders have packed schedules year in and year out. There are 14 teams in the MCAA and a host of other potential opponents in neighboring states. Last weekend, the Crusaders traveled to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“I can’t remember the last time I got to sleep in on a Saturday,” Danae said.
The MCAA provides the opportunity for home school kids to participate in sports much like their public and private school peers, but perhaps the association’s most redeeming value, according to the girls, is the door it opens up for friendship and meeting people. For home school kids, meeting new people is sometimes difficult.
“I think sports are a really, really, really big part of home schooling,” Danae said, “because you get to meet girls from all over the association.”
Sladek can’t think of any friends she’s made elsewhere.
“I’ve made pretty much all my friends (through sports),” Sladek said. “It’s the only way we get to see each other.”
Quite a few players from the FVHS Crusaders have gone on to play in college. Since no scouts watch the MCAA, Danae said it’s up to the individual players to put together videotapes and promotional packages to send out to colleges. Sometimes, the Crusaders go to out-of-state tournaments where scouts get to see them. Lack of talent has never been a problem – the volleyball team has won four state championships, while both the girls and boys basketball teams have won three championships each.
Sladek is amused by a stereotype she’s heard about home school kids – that they spend all day in the house. For a two-sport star who travels nearly every weekend and practices throughout the week, she knows how active a lot of home school kids really are.
“They say, ‘So you guys just stayed home all the time and didn’t do anything?’” Sladek said. “No, not really.”
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