‘We Shouldn’t Have to Choose’

Every year, Flathead tennis players are forced to make a choice between their academic futures and their athletic aspirations. Four Bravettes impacted this year say that's not fair.

By Andy Viano
Flathead High School tennis players, from left, senior Sierra Dilworth, sophomore Marcella Mercer, senior Olivia Mohatt and senior Tess Huckeba pose for a portrait on the Flathead Valley Community College tennis courts in Kalispell on May 12, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead High School juniors who wish to apply themselves academically beyond the traditional offerings can enroll in the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program and take classes at the IB level for the next two years, with the aim of scoring well enough on tests they take at the end of their senior year to be granted college credits.

Some of these exceptional students, like Tess Huckeba, Olivia Mohatt and Sierra Dilworth, are also outstanding athletes. The three Bravettes are standout tennis players, all of whom should be competing for a championship at the Class AA state tournament later this week in Great Falls. But Huckeba, Mohatt and Dilworth (along with Dilworth’s doubles partner, sophomore Marcella Mercer) will not be in Great Falls. They, like years of Flathead tennis players before them, are forced to make a no-win choice every May — either take the IB tests, earn college credit, and further their education, or attempt to qualify for the state tournament. It can’t be both.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between academics and sports,” Mohatt said, just days after her prep tennis career ended. “It’s kind of dumb that we have to. We want to be in these IB classes and we want to excel in school, but we also want to do good in sports like everyone else gets to.”

It’s a refrain Flathead Activities Director Bryce Wilson has heard for eight years, ever since he was hired in 2011, and the complaints date back even longer to the mid-2000s when Flathead first began offering IB classes. The intractable dilemma stems from two immovable forces: the organization that conducts IB testing and the 14 activities directors at Montana’s Class AA high schools (and by association the state’s governing body, the Montana High School Association). Neither has allowed for special accommodations to be made, and neither has permitted competition or testing schedules to be changed. Thus, ever since Flathead became an IB school — most other Montana schools, including Glacier, offer Advanced Placement (AP) testing and not IB — Braves and Bravettes have been mostly absent from the state tennis tournament.

“We have tried; the whole entire time we attempted to change the conflict to no avail,” Wilson said. “Eight years ago, we were the only IB school. Nobody else cares because it doesn’t affect anyone else.”

Huckeba, Mohatt, Dilworth and Mercer are unwilling to accept that this difficult problem is impossible to solve. So the four of them are speaking out, even though it’s too late for the three seniors to see any benefit, to try to draw attention to their plight and spark change in the future.

“The younger kids on our team, they’re smart too; they’re going to be taking IB,” Huckeba said. “I don’t want to see them have to go through this again and again and again. It’s going to be hard if they’re going to have to choose between academics or athletics.”

Flathead High School tennis players, senior Olivia Mohatt, left, and senior Tess Huckeba pose for a portrait on the Flathead Valley Community College tennis courts on May 12, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The predicament IB students have found themselves in every spring has been simmering for years but may have reached a boiling point last week at the Northern AA Divisional tournament, played at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.

The tournament featured just three teams — Flathead, Glacier and Great Falls C.M. Russell — and would send the top four finishers in boys and girls doubles and singles to the state tournament. The two-day tournament was Thursday and Friday, May 9-10, both days when the three Flathead seniors would be taking part in IB tests. Testing will continue later this week, and even if they were to qualify none of the three would be able to play in the state tournament, May 16-17 in Great Falls, because of additional IB testing.

Still, Flathead coach Jimmy Cripe entered all three in the divisional tournament. The doubles team of Huckeba and Mohatt has been one of the best in the western half of the state this year, and Dilworth and Mercer had gone undefeated against their rivals at Glacier during the regular season. So both teams, barring a string of upsets, should have nabbed one of the four available spots at the state tournament. However, because the MHSA does not have a provision for allowing alternates to play at state, were they to qualify, their spots in the bracket would be empty, denying an opportunity to another team to play in their place. In some prior years, Flathead has opted to leave IB students off of its divisional bracket, but coach Cripe this year entered both of his top two doubles teams even though he knew they may not have been able to play their divisional matches and, even if they were able to play around their testing, would most likely not be playing at the state tournament.

Dilworth and Mercer, in fact, did qualify for the state tournament by finishing third at the divisional. They defaulted one match and nearly another, but were able to keep their season alive when Dilworth raced out of an IB test, was dropped off at FVCC and sprinted over a hill to the tennis courts to narrowly avoid her team being defaulted. Their qualification is a symbolic one, and something Dilworth said she and Mercer did deliberately.

“We were kind of hoping to qualify for state and then have that empty slot at state because of no alternates to show the MHSA we need change,” Dilworth said.

Huckeba and Mohatt defaulted both of their matches, something mandated by rule after a delay of, at most, 25 minutes. Flathead players and coaches believed they would be allowed more flexibility since the tournament featured only three teams, weather was not a concern, and the competition was in Kalispell. The MHSA, however, clarified its rule to the participating teams in the days before the tournament and said that any special accommodations or extra delays would not be permitted.

“The MHSA instructs tournament directors not to hold up matches,” MHSA Executive Director Mark Beckman said. “If you accommodate (IB) you’re going to have to look at accommodating others, too.”

Flathead’s coaches do not agree with that characterization of the IB program. They argue that IB is a part of the school’s curriculum and not an extra-curricular choice.

“It’s absolutely not fair to have any student’s high school senior year exams, not extra-curricular but their high school curriculum, prevent them from playing in the postseason,” Flathead Assistant Coach Amy Borgen said.

Flathead High School tennis players, sophomore Marcella Mercer, left, and senior Sierra Dilworth pose for a portrait on the Flathead Valley Community College tennis courts on May 12, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Some efforts have been made in past years to make the changes necessary to allow IB students to compete in the tennis postseason. Wilson proposed moving the divisional tournament to Friday and Saturday, instead of Thursday and Friday, a fix that is not perfect but would have at least avoided one day of potential IB conflicts (IB tests are not held on the weekend).

His fellow activities directors, citing a concern that in case of inclement weather matches could be moved to Sunday, when the MHSA does not allow competition, voted the proposal down 13-1, according to Wilson. Beckman, the MHSA executive director, said he has the authority to authorize competition on Sunday in case of extenuating circumstances, but that any change to move the divisional tournaments to Friday and Saturday would have to come from the Class AA activities directors.

Another proposal now being considered by Flathead is to move the tennis season later by at least one week. The final weekend of competition for softball and track and field is May 23-25, after IB testing is completed. That action, likewise, would have to be initiated by Class AA activities directors.

The MHSA, for its part, has encouraged Flathead to contact the IB organization and ask for more leniencies in their schedule. The tests happen over the course several weeks, and working around that large of a time period is difficult.

“We support, of course, the academic development of our students and (IB) is an advanced program and that’s great,” Beckman said. “I’m sure we’re not the only state (with this conflict) … It’s so long of a testing schedule that it’s impossible. With other states, if schools got together and said this is important to us, it’s important to our schools, maybe IB would listen.”

One reason for optimism that things may change is that two other schools — Missoula Hellgate and Missoula Big Sky — have recently added IB programs. The more schools impacted by the testing, Wilson and others hope, the more likely they will join the push for a change in schedule or other special accommodations.

Regardless of how change happens, everyone at Flathead hopes change is coming. Cripe and Borgen say the lack of opportunities to compete at state will continue to hurt the program, which has had little to no success at the divisional and state level in the last decade in part because of the IB conflicts, and the players say they’re disillusioned with a system that forces them to make a choice between the two things it is supposed to stand for.

“I’ve been a student-athlete for four years; it’s something I’ve really wanted to do,” Dilworth said. “With the rules, they make excelling in the classroom and excelling on the courts mutually exclusive. It pits academics and athletics against each other … I don’t have a lot of faith in our system if they can’t understand that they’re intentionally harming some of their athletes and students.”

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