Hollister School District Athletic Director Don Smith is “excited” about the return of sports programs to local middle schools. Photo: Courtesy of Hollister School District

Don Smith said the vibe at Hollister schools is different with the return of the after-school sports programs this year. 

“The reintroduction of sports has completely changed the energy at our schools,” said Smith, a physical education teacher at Rancho San Justo Middle School and the district’s athletic commissioner. “An educator at another school site mentioned that bringing back after-school sports has made the school feel alive again.” 

Smith added that he can see it in his own classroom. Students are trying harder to maintain good behavior and focus more in class. They must do so, after all, to ensure eligibility for sports. 

It has been three years since the Hollister School District has had sports teams, with the pandemic shutting down those activities in the spring of 2020. With Smith at the helm as the new athletic commissioner, the district is reintroducing organized sports this year. 

Smith and others involved with sports have worked hard to organize programs in the middle of the school year, with practices beginning in late January. The plan is to gradually ramp up and reevaluate what will work best before a full reintroduction of an after-school athletics program in the 2023-24 school year. 

“I am excited,” Smith said. “I’m seeing things finally come to fruition. The first day of tryouts, it gave me goosebumps to see our students in that element again.” 

He said the reintroduction has entailed a lot of work for staff, but he credited a “super great support network” for making it happen. 

“It’s been very satisfying to help restore the after-school sports programs for our students,” said Smith, who has been an educator at Rancho San Justo Middle School for 28 years. 

The current sports season includes girls soccer and boys basketball. The second and final sports season for this school year is set to begin after spring break, and will include co-ed volleyball and co-ed track and field. 

For next school year, Smith and others are working out logistics. Right now, the plan is to reintroduce girls volleyball, co-ed cross country, girls and boys flag football, girls basketball,  boys soccer and wrestling.

“Our goal is to use this as our push into next school year and bring all of the after-school sports back,” Smith said, adding how each sports season is eight weeks. 

He noted that the Hollister School District has aligned the current and future sports seasons with the San Benito Athletic League, which includes Spring Grove School, Southside School, Tres Pinos School, Sacred Heart School, Hollister Prep and the Aromas-San Juan schools. The district hopes to integrate schedules so Hollister School District teams play one another and some of these schools as well. Smith mentioned that most of the students in the community eventually end up attending Hollister High School.

“The San Benito Athletic League has been around for a very long time,” he said. “Since it’s so well established, and with the direction we’re going as a program, it makes sense.” 

He said when the district sent out a student athletic survey in October, about 300 students showed interest in after-school sports. He said volleyball was the most requested sport followed by soccer and then basketball.

He said ultimately, the goal is to create a “fun-petitive” environment, as he called it. Competition is a good thing, but he said the goal is that the student-athletes have fun and learn life experiences through sports.

For those students who are at schools without basketball teams, or for anyone who was cut from a basketball team, the district will host what’s called the Hollister School District Hoops Program. It’s essentially an open gym concept at Rancho San Justo Middle School and Maze Middle School on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

“We’re going to give all students who are participating on any of the Hollister School District after-school athletic teams an opportunity to play,” he said. 

Assistant Superintendent Kip Ward said the district is “very excited about the upcoming sports season, and our students will learn and grow with each practice and game.” 

“Our Athletic Commissioner Mr. Don Smith has shown tremendous leadership and commitment to doing what’s best for our students,” Ward said. “His passion for teaching is exceptional.” 

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