ST. CHARLES – Heated backlash from parents of some St. Charles North freshmen who did not make North's baseball program has prompted policy changes from the school's athletic department, though the school denies favoritism was shown during tryouts to players that train through a private facility called The Infield, Inc.
A group of parents cried foul after tryouts, contending that North's freshman A and B teams were stacked with players who train at The Infield, a South Elgin facility where one of North's assistant coaches, Sean Doherty, is program coordinator.
In a recent interview with the Kane County Chronicle, North athletic director Dan Dolney stood by the integrity of North's tryouts, but said other issues that came to light through the school's internal probe – such as coaches using Twitter to direct athletes to open gym workouts and the prevalence of conducting workouts at off-campus sites, such as The Infield – are being addressed.
Those changes won't satisfy the core grievances of parents such as Rob Marshall. Marshall is convinced that his son, Dawson, did not receive a fair shake at tryouts compared to the boys who train at The Infield. Marshall contends that all freshman players affiliated with The Infield made North's team, and that some of them did not deserve spots.
"This whole thing left a bad taste in my son's mouth," Marshall said. "He doesn't really want to be part of this organization because he sees how tainted it is. It's not that he got cut, it's that the process is unfair."
North's varsity baseball coach is Todd Genke. Dolney said that Genke and Doherty – a former player under Genke and now a varsity assistant coach – played a minimal role in choosing the team's freshman rosters, with the program's freshman coaches, Wayne Demaar and Steve Anderson, taking the lead in that process. Dolney said that North runs a longer tryout than many schools in order to be as thorough as possible in evaluating athletes.
Dolney said about 55 boys tried out for the freshman team, with 30 to 32 available spots. Inevitably, there are hard feelings when cuts are involved, Dolney said.
"It's not crossing their mind where did this kid play [outside of high school] … they want to get the best 30, 32 kids they can and hope that they progress and become varsity baseball players," Dolney said.
But some parents believe ties to The Infield have clouded coaches' judgment. After a series of meetings with school officials at North yielded little satisfaction, Marshall's wife, Brook, and Dan Specht, the father of another North freshman who was cut from the baseball team, spoke out at last month's District 303 school board meeting. Both discussed what they believe to be a conflict of interest, with Marshall citing tweets from Genke promoting offseason open gym sessions at The Infield.
District 303 spokesman Jim Blaney said IHSA rules indicate communication about training sessions need to be distributed to all athletes in a program, not just those that might be following a coach on Twitter.
"People love Twitter because it's an effective way to communicate quickly, but you're limited to only the people that follow you. So that particular part of this is something that did result in discipline [from within the district]," said Blaney, adding that the district is generally satisfied with North's internal review.
Dolney said coaches at the school have many "proven methods" available to spread the word about practices and open gyms aside from social media.
"There are certain things we have here in school, announcements and the televisions and websites where we can get it out to the masses at that point," Dolney said.
Aside from narrowing the scope of social media use, Dolney said North athletics will move away from having team workouts at off-campus facilities that could be perceived as exclusionary or, in this case, tied too closely to a private organization.
Coaches often like moving workouts off campus because of a space crunch on campus at certain times of the year, but Dolney said the school will try to make more use of weekend hours to help accommodate the change in protocol.
"If you keep it in-house, it's easier to communicate with everybody and easier to almost assure that people are communicated with," Dolney said.
Dolney said he and North principal Audra Christenson communicated with the IHSA regarding the concerns raised this spring about the baseball program, and no sanctions are expected.
Specht – president of the Fox Valley Red Bullz travel baseball program – said drawing attention to what he considers North baseball's unfair way of operating is important in hopes that aspiring players can expect fair treatment in the future.
"These people are clearly not criminals because they don't know how to get away with anything," Specht said. "They're so blatantly arrogant with what they're doing."
Dolney does not think North athletics – and the baseball program in particular – should be worried about its image in the aftermath of the contentious spring.
"We have coaches with very high integrity," Dolney said. "We have coaches that love St. Charles North and love those kids coming back after, one, two, three, four years down the line, and having those kids say how much they appreciated the coaches. I think as long as that continues, and I see it on a daily basis, and we continue to give kids opportunities, I think we're going to be just fine."