A group of boys is outside Austin Meehan Middle School in Mayfair, scooping up the melting snow for one last snowball fight.
Inside the school’s gymnasium, however, a group of girls is already engaged in an annual rite of spring – softball tryouts.
Health and physical education teacher Sue Newnam stands in front of 16 hopefuls, laying out her ground rules before calling on Devinne Corson, the team’s returning shortstop, to demonstrate basic fielding techniques.
As Newnam rolls ground balls her way, Corson looks to already be in midseason form, cleanly plucking each one.
“See how her center of gravity is down low and her head is up?” calls the coach.
On cue, Corson loses her focus and lets a ball roll through her legs. The lapse earns a teasing rebuke from Newnam and laughs from the rest of the girls.
At the middle grades level, interscholastic sports is all about having fun and learning the game, says District Athletic Program Manager Rick Howard. And in recent years, the District’s middle grades athletics offerings have expanded dramatically.
“Before, we only had pure middle schools playing sports, so there were only 44 schools eligible to compete,” he explains.
“Since we aligned with the PIAA in 2004, any school with grades 6 through 8 can field a team. Now, there are 136 eligible schools.”
The biggest interscholastic middle grades sports are track, basketball, volleyball, baseball (for boys), and softball (for girls). Districtwide, says Howard, there are 152 teams with upwards of 2,000 students participating.
Furthermore, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan includes a directive for every school with middle grades to offer at least two intramural athletic programs.
“That we have middle grades athletics at all is something to be proud of,” Howard says.
“A lot of districts don’t have those developmental opportunities.”
But there are still wide disparities across schools in resources and skill levels.
Stephanie Lackey, a reading teacher at Kearney Elementary School in Northern Liberties, started the school’s entire athletics program from scratch just four years ago.
“When I came to Kearney, it was a K-5 school, so there were no athletics,” she explains.
Lackey says the biggest challenge was trying to introduce the game without proper facilities and equipment.
“Most of these kids have never played softball,” she says.
“I had to teach them how to throw a ball, where to set up, and how to field. But it’s completely different trying to do that on concrete.”
On a bright but brisk March day of practice outside the school, the challenges are still evident.
During a throwing drill, softballs are flying everywhere. Errant tosses scoot out into oncoming traffic. A few girls, underdressed in shorts or T-shirts, mutter into their gloves about the cold.
Just when the team starts to settle into a rhythm, the wind picks up and blows a plastic dumpster into the middle of their makeshift field.
But thanks in no small part to Lackey’s infectious enthusiasm, most of the girls stay focused and upbeat.
It helps that this year they have thousands of dollars worth of new equipment.
“I wrote a grant through an organization called Good Sports,” says Lackey.
“We got a ton of equipment – about 30 gloves, four or five bats, a brand new set of catcher’s equipment, and new balls.”
Good Sports, a nonprofit organization, has donated over $4 million in sports equipment to disadvantaged youth.
“Kearney exemplified why we do what we do,” says Davin Lencz, community partnerships manager at Good Sports.
“Three years ago, they had no programs. Then kids were interested in playing sports, but there was no equipment. These are kids who otherwise wouldn’t be playing sports.”
While that’s true for many District middle grades programs, it’s different for schools in the river wards and the Northeast.
“There’s haves and have-nots in Philly,” explains Richard Kirby, who for the past seven years has coached softball at Conwell Middle School in Kensington.
“Some teams have trouble getting 12 kids with a completed physical. It’s exciting when a girl can catch a ball in the outfield.”
Kirby adds, “We make the playoffs every year, but then we run into the teams who are all kids whose parents can afford private coaching.”
Meehan’s Newnam knows she is one of the lucky ones.
Not only does she have a big indoor gym that is available for practices; her teams are usually built around girls who have years of softball experience at local athletics clubs.
Devinne Corson is a perfect example.
“I started playing softball two years ago for Mayfair Athletic Club,” says the 5’1”, 100-pound shortstop.
She started learning important lessons early.