Fort Worth

For YMLA’s fledgling football program to survive, UIL must revisit rule

Before the season started, Young Men’s Leadership Academy football coach Joseph Heath wanted to believe all the hard work his first-year varsity squad put in would somehow serve to match the monstrous physical disadvantages his players would face over the next 10 weeks.

It was wishful thinking.

The Wildcats of YMLA, the small, all-boys magnet school located in the Stop Six neighborhood in east Fort Worth, end their exhausting inaugural season Thursday night against District 7-5A foe Arlington Heights. The Wildcats, already a victim of limited support from the district, limp in with a predictably decimated offensive line, and are likely to finish with a lone win that happily came last week against North Side.

With an enrollment that would land a typical public school in Class 3A, a University Interscholastic League rule aimed at magnet and charter schools within large school districts mandated that YMLA play in the classification of the largest school in that district. It was at least afforded an escape from 6A because the 7-5A all-Fort Worth district unanimously voted the Wildcats into the league as part of an appeals process.

Bryan Cottingim discusses the ups and downs of Young Men's Leadership Academy football, a 3A-size school that under UIL rules had to play in Class 5A. (Star-Telegram/Jeff Caplan)

They’ve been easy pickings, outscored 362-78 and shut out six times. There was a heartbreaking three-point loss against Trimble Tech and a 17-point loss against O.D. Wyatt. Otherwise, YMLA has suffered seven losses by at least 29 points and four by at least 46 points. By the time it scored its first points in the fifth game, energy and morale were low and aches and pains high as the optimism of the summer quickly faded to the cruel reality of fall in 5A.

“The kids have fought it, we’ve fought,” Heath said. “The kids have been nervous and apprehensive. It’s been hard for them to have fun sometimes, because competitiveness is what we preach. Every game plan every week is designed to win the football game, and there have been football games where we’ve lined up, and you can give them the best speech in the world and tell them you know what to do when you get out there, and you’re just outmanned.

“And those kids know that, too. We watch film and they realize that, ‘Hey, I’m a 150-pound nose guard and this guard is 320 pounds and he’s going to lay on me all game.’ So, it’s been a struggle, but you know, I hope we’re growing from it.”

Said junior defensive lineman Sir Mark Sanders: “It started getting tough around the fourth or fifth game because people started losing hope. But as great leaders as some of us are, we inspired the others to stick with it: We have five more games left, just play strong and let’s finish the season together. Pretty tough.”

Schools in class 5A often have enrollments of 1,000 more students than YMLA, even when doubling YMLA’s enrollment to count for the lack of girls. Varsity football rosters often double YMLA’s. When the Wildcats line up against Arlington Heights, injuries to the offensive line will force multiple freshmen to start. They’ve been fortunate not to suffer major injuries save for a dislocated knee to starting sophomore offensive and defensive lineman Jayden Young.

Sir Mark Sanders discusses the ups and downs of Young Men's Leadership Academy football, a 3A-size school that under UIL rules had to play in Class 5A. (Star-Telegram/Jeff Caplan)

But the physical and emotional toll Heath has seen drain his team of enthusiasm has him concerned about the sustainability of the program. As long as the UIL remains unwilling to bend a rule created to prevent low-enrollment charter schools from recruiting and building academic and athletic superteams in smaller classifications, he knows YMLA will always be outmanned and outmuscled.

“They do a good job of trying to compete and their kids played hard, so they have to make the best of a bad situation,” said a District 7-5A coach who asked for his name to not be used. “Them competing in 6A or 5A is a very tall order.”

Equal playing field

A UIL spokesperson Wednesday reiterated the possibility for YMLA to again appeal its placement in 2018, the next time public high schools will undergo realignment and reclassification. At the start of the season, the official statement from the Fort Worth school district was that YMLA was not in over its head. Now, Fort Worth school district athletic director Kevin Green at least opens the door to the possibility of change.

“There will be discussions with the UIL and campus and district personnel in consideration of the future level of participation in the sports YMLA and YWLA participate in,” Green said, also noting the Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

“You know,” Heath said, “my mom was in town to watch us play last week and she said, ‘I just don’t understand, if everything is based on enrollment, how can they make you play schools that are 10 times bigger than y’all? It just doesn’t make sense. With all the player-safety stuff going around in football, are they trying to make an example out of you or are they just too lazy to look at the rule?’ I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know.’

“I would like to play on an equal playing field, but, you know, we’ll play wherever we play. I don’t think that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that the UIL is going to look at it.”

The situation was predictable. Johnny Burleson, coach at San Angelo Leadership Academy, a charter school that is allowed to play in its rightful smaller classification because of a quirk in the UIL rule, said of YMLA’s plight in 5A: “I don’t think it’s fair, I don’t think it’s safe.” Renowned orthopedic surgeon T.O. Souryal, the former longtime team physician for the Dallas Mavericks who has monitored Texas high school football games for two decades, called it an “absolute disaster” and said the UIL has “lost its way on this one.”

“I worry about that if [UIL officials] don’t change something, that next realignment, maybe there’s not a district that will accept us and so we get stuck in 6A,” Heath said. “So, you know, it worries me. It worries me for the safety of some of these kids.

“It would take five minutes for them to sit down and say, ‘OK, let’s separate the academics from the athletics in the rule.’ It would take five minutes.”

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

The Young Men's Leadership Academy fields its first varsity football team as newcomers to the sport and 5A competition. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)

Junior WR/CB Tyson Haynes-Jones discusses the Wildcats' varsity debut in a 46-0 loss to Chisholm Trail.

Junior lineman Sir Marc Sanders and the YMLA Wildcats are set to open their first varsity season.