For many years, there has been a loose connection between the Badger High School football program and Lake Geneva Youth Football. But starting this fall, the two organizations will be officially connected.
With the two groups separate, there is the potential for communication differences and misunderstandings. As one joined entity, both groups believe that those issues should be a thing of the past.
“There was always sort of a partnership there, but now it’s really just one program,” Badger High School varsity head football coach Matt Hensler said. “A lot of those holes and gaps in communication — those are all filled up.”
It wasn’t only the Badger varsity coach who had hoped for unification of the two football programs.
“To us, this is a huge positive, something we’ve been trying to accomplish the past couple years now,” said Russ Hayes, president of Lake Geneva Youth Football.
After talks that had taken place for the past few years, the nine-person Lake Geneva Youth Football board has voted to approve the restructuring. Under the new partnership, the youth football program will be run by a six-person executive board that includes three representatives from Badger High School and three from Lake Geneva Youth Football.
Hensler’s hope is that with a six-person board, all votes will need to pass 4-2, meaning that at least one person from each side of the partnership will agree on what is best.
With the new connection, the merged program will see some immediate changes.
Perhaps the most noticeable change will involve the youngest players in youth football. In past years, kids as young as seven or eight years old were playing full-contact football. With mounting evidence on the dangers of concussions, a clear takeaway has been the risk of allowing young kids to participate in tackle football.
To alleviate those concerns, the new program will partner with the YMCA to offer flag football for players in kindergarten through second grade — a no-contact program that the Y has run for the past few years with great success. This will replace any of the tackle leagues for kids in those age groups.
For third- through fifth-grade students, the options are more complex. There will be a six-week flag football season in the fall run by the YMCA, and a tackle football season run by the youth football program will follow.
The tackle portion of the season will also be six weeks, and will feature eight-on-eight football, with all teams playing one another strictly in-house. By hosting the tackle season in Lake Geneva, it will reduce the burden on families, who previously had to drive to Kenosha or Milwaukee for games, while also keeping down the costs.
Players in that age group can sign up for both flag and tackle football, or they can choose to only do one or the other. Either way, by transitioning from flag football to a more limited version of tackle football creates a slower ramp up to full 11-on-11 football, which should keep kids safer, while also giving parents plenty of choices to do what they think is best for their children, according to Avi Mor, sports director at the YMCA.
“I think it’s smarter to have the opportunities to choose from, instead of having to jump right into tackle football,” Mor said.
From sixth grade to eighth grade, youth football will look more or less the same as in past years, with full contact and the teams traveling around the area to face local competition.
A key benefit to the partnership with Badger will be that the varsity coaches — with decades of experience among them — will be able to help the youth coaches in a number of ways.
The youth coaches will still be volunteer fathers as in the past, but Hensler and his assistant coaches will host coaching clinics, draw up a playbook and create a list of practice drills that are appropriate for each age group to help the often less-experienced volunteers.
“We have a great staff, a great parent base, some great players,” Hayes said. “And when you’re involved in a sport, anytime you align yourself with the local school, you’re bettering both programs.”
Hayes added that the youth football coaches will also be able to lean on the troubleshooting ability of the high school coaches when something unforeseen arises.
By having the high school coaches prepare game and practice plans for the youth teams, not only will it make a youth coach’s job easier and make the game safer, it will mean the kids are better prepared for their eventual transition to high school football, Hensler said.
While Hensler’s focus is on making the experience for the kids the best it can be, if a byproduct of that is a few more varsity wins in a couple of years, then that’s okay, too, he said.
“The whole point of this all is we know that this is the plan that will help kids be their best and max out their potential,” he said. “We also know that this is the same thing that’s going to max out our team’s potential.”