The last football practice Highland Park conducted this fall was on its playing field.
Well, its former playing field, but that’s another topic that factors into the state of the program.
As the Scots loosened up for their last workout, they confined themselves to a 20-yard segment in front of the north end zone. Easily enough space for the 20 players still participating on the squad.
“It’s like a mystery pot,’’ said senior Will White, who played quarterback, defensive back and only came off the field when the Scots returned kickoffs. “It’s like I don’t know what I’m going to get each game.’’
White was talking about the performance level of the Scots, who started some games competitively but often withered, in part because of the depth they lacked.
The finish was discouraging. Highland Park suffered its third consecutive winless season.
Yet the Scots did finish the season, a prospect that seemed bleak when fewer than 30 varsity players dressed for their season opener. The maximum number of players out for football was 44 spread over all four grades, a total that left Highland Park to play just three freshman games and again prevented much of a sub-varsity schedule.
“They’re not building any experience, they’re not building confidence and I think confidence is the big thing,’’ said Faron Kraft, who completed his third season as Scots coach. “They’re not getting any confidence playing against somebody their own size, their own ability level, where maybe they can dominate that guy here and there.’’
Problems only seem to worsen, primarily because losses on the field are symptomatic of larger issues. Student-athlete departures. Apathy. Demoralization. Safety concerns. Negative perceptions. Even league affiliation. All are factors contributing to Highland Park’s struggles and diminishing participation.
Football, as much as any sport played at the high school level, builds on success. Wins generate interest and attract participants who fill rosters at the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels. Poor results, however, tend to discourage kids from wanting to be involved with such a physical pursuit.
Realize too that health risks associated with the sport have also caused parents to judge football to be too dangerous for their children.
“We can’t improve our team unless we get individuals to come out,” said assistant principal Danny Ackerman. “We just sit and spin our wheels and it perpetuates itself.’’
Competitive shortcomings have become chronic for the Scots.
Their last winning season was in 1995, a 5-4 mark under Nick McGrain, who coached through 1997. Six other coaches have directed Highland Park since then. Its current losing streak stands at 34 games.
The last coach to post a winning record during his time at Highland Park was Warren Dobry, who went 40-35 from 1973-80. The Scots reached the Class 5A semifinals in 1991 under Ken Caywood, but the strides he made with the program were cut short after he was diagnosed with cancer the next season.
Good players do emerge.
Michael Wilhoite quarterbacked the Scots as a senior, went on to star at Washburn and gained a spot in the NFL as a free agent. Wilhoite is now with the Seattle Seahawks as a sixth-year pro. Craig Schurig, the same WU coach who recruited Wilhoite, points to another Hi Park standout, Grant Gould, as the first city prospect Schurig signed for the Ichabods.
Nonetheless, consistently solid football has long been a challenge for a school that does have a strong reputation in basketball.
To promote the program and attempt to be successful, a Highland Park football coach can be stretched thin.
“It just takes a special kind of person to do that, because you have to fulfill so many roles besides being a head coach,’’ Ackerman said. “You’re the counselor, you’re the social person, you’re the ride.
“It’s amazing how many kids don’t have their parents at the game or there for Senior Night. It’s just a different world than most of us are used to. It takes a special person (to coach). But I know it wears on them. It really wears on them. It’s tough.’’
Obviously the task is demanding.
Especially when young players who are not ready to play varsity ball cannot benefit from playing at the freshman and JV levels because participatory levels do not facilitate such competition.
“I would like to play some of them more,’’ said Kraft, “but frankly if our older guys are struggling, there’s no way I’m putting in a younger kid that’s not even close. It’s a safety issue.’’
Players also drop off because of problems with academic eligibility, issues at home, or even weather conditions they find too cold.
Also, they leave for other schools.
Departures of students who have played football for the Scots have been on the rise in recent years. This past season, the loss of four prominent performers who began attending Topeka High, including three who played football, was especially discouraging for Highland Park.
“It’s a systemic issue the school board needs to address,’’ said Anthony Hensley, a state senator who maintains the home he grew up in as a resident of the Highland Park neighborhood. Hensley also teaches at the high school.
Another teacher at Highland Park, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “I know the district would never release information (about addresses), but the city would be astounded.’’
Topeka West principal Dustin Dick, who also oversees athletics for USD 501, said in the case of the former Highland Park athletes who enrolled at Topeka High, changes in addresses permitted the move to another school and did not involve a transfer request.
“There was no transfer process that happened in those instances,’’ Dick said. “They all produced a lease-rental agreement for property in the Topeka High attendance area.’’
Families of students moving into a different USD 501 school, Dick said, are required to submit a water bill, electric bill or lease-rental agreement that indicates a physical address. The district, however, does not physically verify changes of address.
“In regard to checking, we couldn’t do it for only certain cases,’’ said Misty Kruger, director of communications for Topeka Public Schools. “If we were going to do it, we need to be across the board and when you’re talking 14,000 students in a district, how do you develop the manpower to go out and do that?’’
Was it a coincidence that four good athletes from Highland Park all moved at the same time into the attendance area for another USD 501 high school?
“I think the thing we realize is people know how and what they’re doing,’’ Dick said. “For instance, one of the four that could really make an impact, the prior year applied for a transfer (to Topeka High) and it was denied all four times. And so, in order to be eligible and to attend that school, they moved. I don’t know what to do when people are going to move. I don’t know how we stop that.’’
Not everyone, however, is satisfied that students who begin attending other USD 501 schools, and are not considered “transfers’’ by the district office, are providing sufficient proof they moved into different residences.
Teresa White, a lifelong Highland Park resident who followed her parents as graduates of the high school and now serves as president of the booster club, is the mother of Will, as well as three other children who graduated with honors from Highland Park.
“Yes, the students all have legal addresses and all of the paperwork is appropriate and correct. The issue is beyond the transfer,’’ she said.
“This is happening all across the country and parents and students need to be aware of the fact that winning records are not what gets you recruited. We have high school coaches that allow students to pass and arrange for them to play. It is a well-known fact. Coaches have tried to recruit my children to go to other schools.
“My husband and I have spoken to NAIA schools all the way to premier D-I schools. None of them asked about our win-loss record. They looked at grades, ACT scores, school transcripts, character and then skills. If you cannot be loyal to your school, then you cannot be loyal to a college program. Everyone is aware of what is really going on and the sad point is that the students lose in the long run.’’
Over the years, Highland Park has also benefited from movement within the district, particularly with basketball players who enrolled at the school.
“I’m just as concerned when parents transfer their kids to Highland Park to play basketball. It’s not OK,’’ Teresa White added. “At some point in time, you have to look at what the skills are of these kids. Are they getting better when they play? Are they considered high-character when they walk off the court or they walk off the field?’’
To that end, White said that far too often she has seen student-athletes return to Topeka after attending as little as one semester of college.
“If they cannot perform in the classroom, they cannot perform on the field or the court,’’ she said while noting the example set by her nephew, Trey Lewis, a former Washburn Rural and Washburn standout who earned his college degree and played in the NFL.
Among seniors who played football this season, Kraft said the only Scots who finished as four-year contributors were Will White and Angelo Plakio.
They did their best to block out the departures of former teammates, who in some cases were kids they grew up playing with on the same youth teams in various sports, including football.
“It’s just like, if you didn’t want to be here, why were you here?’’ said Plakio, who played linebacker and running back and also wrestles for Highland Park, qualifying for the 5A state tournament last season.
White played quarterback out of necessity after previously playing wide receiver. He also plays basketball.
“It’s pretty hard to think about sometimes,’’ White said, “but I just try to put my best foot forward. I kind of got this saying from coach Kraft: ‘There’s only 11 people on the field at a time.’ They can have 50 million on the sideline, but only 11 can be on the field against our 11.’’
Those who did see the field for Highland Park contributed mightily for a school attended by some kids who are looking for merely some kind of opportunity.
Highland Park’s first-year principal, Shana Perry, began an initiative this year allowing students who posted exemplary grades and had no unexcused absences to attend home football and basketball games for free. According to Ackerman, one of the Scots’ football games attracted 99 students who took advantage of the incentive.
“The thing that was interesting,’’ said Teresa White, “was the kids said, ‘My parents would like to come. I play in the band and they’ve never heard me play. Could my parents have my free ticket and hear me play?’ So those kinds of things are real for our community.’’
A community, keep in mind, that Highland Park High School has represented, by name, for 100 years.
Schools with that much tradition, that much history want to compete on their own terms — something that becomes more difficult if accusations of recruiting by parents, or even coaches and teachers beginning at the middle school level, are true.
“We’ve investigated reports of things like that,’’ said Dick, “but have never found any evidence to suggest that has ever happened. Never found a parent or a student that would say so and so talked to me about coming. Never been able to verify that.’’
To help with Highland Park football and the safety issues that arise from a lack of participants, one potential solution would be a cooperative agreement the Kansas State High School Activities Association permits to field a team comprised of athletes from separate high schools.
Topeka West, another Class 5A program from USD 501, has also struggled in football. The Chargers’ last winning season was in 2005, when current West coach Ryan Kelly was a senior quarterback.
Cooperative agreements, however, are most common in individual sports for schools in larger classifications. West, for example, has a co-op in swimming with Shawnee Heights.
“That’s a pretty complicated thing,’’ Dick said. “If we do a co-op on a team sport, we combine the enrollment of both schools, which would move us up to 6A. You’ve set your football schedule and districts have already been set for football and we’re a 5A school. To be honest, we really haven’t explored that a lot because it doesn’t really happen much in a team sport.’’
Another alternative for Highland Park would be to explore the possibility of joining a different league comprised of fewer 6A schools, which could potentially offer a better competitive balance.
Currently, Hi Park and West are among the five 5A members in the Centennial League, which also includes four 6A members and one 4A member.
One of the 5A schools, Shawnee Heights, will leave the league after this school year. Heights will help form the United Kansas Conference along with Basehor-Linwood, KC-Turner, Lansing, Leavenworth and De Soto.
“We’ve talked about (league affiliations) and we’ll continue to talk about it,’’ Dick said. “Some of the issues we’ve talked about, there aren’t any other leagues right here (in the Topeka vicinity) with 4A, 5A, 6A schools. We’re all in the one.
“Now, Shawnee Heights is leaving and going to another one. (West administrators) went, same as Seaman, to a meeting over in Lansing just to hear what people had to say and talk through that (regarding the formation of the United Kansas League). What they were looking for in schools was people who fielded all sports and had three levels of competition in all those sports.’’
Highland Park does not meet such criteria.
“Basketball is probably the only sport,’’ said Ackerman, “that we can almost guarantee to fill out a sub-varsity schedule.’’
Unfortunately for Highland Park, the inability to compete favorably in most sports creates an unfavorable impression of the high school. At least among some people.
Transfers do not help that image, especially since any enrollment declines caused by departing students can jeopardize the offerings of some curriculum, including advanced placement courses.
“It’s not just about the sports,’’ Teresa White said. “It’s about the entire environment. We have kids that are bright, do very well in terms of education, are motivated and when we have kids go to other schools, it causes issues with our A.P. classes and all the other things that are going on. The reality is our students want to do well.’’
Enrollment at Highland Park has actually increased the past two years and more courses have been added that help in obtaining early college credits.
“If one comes from Highland Park to somewhere else, we insist that everyone set up a tour and go see Highland Park before we consider that,’’ said Dick, who was an assistant principal at the school before becoming principal at West. “There’s some perceptions out there that just aren’t really reality if you walk the halls and go into the school.’’
Still, those who stay at Highland Park and want to thrive at Highland Park often face obstacles, sometimes at school, sometimes at home.
As for football, the home field the Scots have played on will not be lit on Friday nights anymore.
A move was approved stipulating that Highland Park play home football games at Hummer Sports Park beginning next season. Topeka High and Topeka West have played at Hummer since it opened in 2003.
The decision, Dick said, stemmed from a meeting USD 501 superintendent Tiffany Anderson had with Highland Park students last year. The impression made was that the Scots should be using the Topeka district’s newer facility, Hummer, along with the Trojans and Chargers.
“I think that’s where Dr. Anderson is at. We have this equity thing,’’ Dick said. “It’s for all schools and for whatever reason, Highland Park hasn’t used it. I don’t think the Highland Park flag, or the LED lights, I don’t think they’ve ever had them on for Highland Park in red and green as the home team.’’
Realize again, though, that Highland Park is not only the name of a school, but also a community.
People who live near the school can identify with kids whose names they hear announced into the loudspeaker during games.
At church, Teresa White has heard worshipers tell her about listening to the game from their porches. With a little encouragement, these are citizens who could be influenced to head down the street and attend games.
Also, the initiative started by the new Hi Park principal for students to attend home games for free may encounter snags if Hummer is home to the Scots.
“I don’t think our kids would go out there,’’ White said. “The things that Mrs. Perry has done to get kids involved and get our student section going, we need our community, we need our school and we need our field. We want to keep kids on our field and keep them in our community.’’
Keeping the kids in the community by keeping them at the high school seems to be a logical start.
For football in particular, and Highland Park in general.
“It’s probably a bigger problem than I can talk about,’’ said Plakio, after sticking it out alongside Will White all four years on the gridiron. “They have to stop the transfers and the kids have to be dedicated.’’
Highland Park marks
Following are records for Highland Park coaches over the last 55 seasons:
Faron Kraft (2015-, 0-27)
Nick Cummings (2011-14, 5-32)
Sadiq Muhammed (2009-10, 2-16)
Tony Canacari (2006-08, 3-24)
Phil Brooks (2003-05, 7-21)
Mike Lincoln (1998-02, 11-34)
Nick McGrain (1992, 1995-97, 11-22)
Bob Ginavan (1993-94, 5-13)
Ken Caywood (1989-92, 7-25)
Ernie Drake (1986-88, 2-25)
Lynn Meredith (1985, 2-7)
Craig Broadbent (1983-84, 1-17)
John Blazek (1981-82, 3-15)
Warren Dobry (1973-80, 40-35)
Jim Bell (1963-72, 39-48-3)
* Four wins later forfeited.