Janesville sits in the Big Eight's shadows
JANESVILLE—Is the gap narrowing for Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker athletes when it comes to competing against the Big Eight Conference's best?
Or will Janesville teams continue to lag behind when it comes to the non-high-profile sports?
You have to dig deep to find the last time Craig or Parker won a conference title in boys or girls soccer, boys or girls tennis, boys or girls swim or girls volleyball.
The city has had a number of great athletes in those sports, but no championship teams.
So what's the main reason behind the uneven playing field? The biggest culprit is club players, or—in Janesville's case—the lack thereof.
When a Craig or Parker girls soccer team hits the field with four or five club players who play year-round, Middleton counters with a roster full of year-round club players.
Janesville Parker's boys swim team might have a handful of swimmers who hit the pool 365 days a year. Madison Memorial's entire team seems to live in the water. The Spartans have won three straight Division 1 state titles and have won a state-record 13 total. Memorial's junior varsity team could probably finish in the top three in the Big Eight most years.
Parker boys swim coach Eric Rhodes said the gap between the Big Eight's best and Craig and Parker is still vast—at least in swim. Rhodes graduated from Craig in 1981 and was a standout swimmer. His daughter, Sierra, is making waves for the Cougars this season and is a state hopeful. Craig narrowly missed beating Madison Memorial last week in girls swim, but the Spartans are in fourth place in the conference.
“It seems to be a whole different mentality in Madison as far as swim goes,” Eric Rhodes said. “They've set the bar so high that it's going to be awfully hard for Janesville to ever catch up. We're far from winning the Big Eight, but we're making strides.
“In the old days, it seems like boys in Madison would pop out with ice skates on,” Rhodes said about Madison's dominance in state hockey in the 1970s and '80s. “Now, it seems they pop out with flippers on.”
Janesville offers swim at the middle-school level, and Madison does not. But while Madison has a highly competitive summer league for young swimmers, the only option for Janesville swimmers is to join a local club team out of town. Rhodes says that's a huge advantage for Madison.
“You can't take a kid and make him a great swimmer starting in high school,” Rhodes said. “You have to start them when they are 8, 9 or 10.
“Our sport is all about the investment, and that starts at a young age. That's where the conditioning and technique are perfected—not in high school.”
Rhodes believes Janesville took a big step in raising the bar for young swimmers by hosting a national meet at Rockport Pool last summer. It was the first ever held in the city. Madison hosts an average of three or four a summer.
Facilities matter in these sports, as well. Janesville is limited for places to play indoor soccer and tennis. Madison, Middleton and Sun Prairie have a slew of facilities.
Blake Budrow is in his 23rd season as Craig's volleyball coach. The dean of Big Eight coaches won a conference title in 1996 and puts a solid product on the court every season. He believes the gap is narrowing between the elite programs at Sun Prairie and Middleton and the next three or four teams, which include Craig, but it won't happen overnight.
“I think we've really made strides the last several seasons, but there are still several factors that go into the equation,” Budrow said of his program. “A lot of our players are multi-sport athletes, which I'm totally OK with, whereas the Sun Prairies and the Middletons have a lot of girls that specialize.
“The Madison area also has several facilities available to play year-round, including the Keva Sports Center in Middleton, where they can play soccer and volleyball. Those types of facilities aren't available down here.”
Specializing is part of the conversation about why Janesville continues to lag behind in some sports. Many elite athletes on the Big Eight's elite teams realize that they must concentrate on one sport if they hope to get to the next level. Janesville's best athletes tend to play two or more sports to get the most out of the high school experience. And because less than 1 percent of all high school athletes go on to play at the Division I level in college, it's probably the right choice.