When school starts next week, practice will begin for the 2017-18 Parochial Athletic League, the sports league that includes faith-based elementary schools in the Diocese of Orange. The league promises to teach kids important lessons on self-esteem, fitness and sportsmanship.
Dozens of fifth-through-eighth grade students on each campus are eligible to play PAL girls volleyball or boys flag football this fall against each other’s schools as part of the league for youth that promotes Christian values, along with team spirit and community pride.
“Our kids love being part of the school, but outside the school,” as they travel to away games on other campuses during the season, says Russ Smith, the Sts. Simon & Jude School physical education teacher who founded PAL 28 years ago. “They love wearing their jersey or sweatshirt with the school mascot and representing their campus outside of the classroom.”
Indeed, the league offers friendly, low-pressure sports participation, in quite a contrast to what’s to come in four years of hyper-serious, mega-challenging high school athletic competition. In addition to the fall sports, PAL offers basketball in the winter and softball and boys volleyball each spring.
“The league opens up a whole new adventure with different kids interacting with their friends at other schools,” Smith says. “When you’re a fifth-grader and you get to travel across town to play another school, that’s a big deal. It broadens their horizons about what’s out there athletically.”
The Diocese of Orange League, with 44 eligible schools, is second only to the Los Angeles Diocese in size. Teams can sometimes fill the rosters of more than 150 teams. Most of the participating schools are Catholic, with schools from other denominations taking part, such as St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, Carden School in Whittier and Mission Hills Christian in Rancho Santa Margarita.
In addition to teaching kids the basics of each season’s sports, PAL participation offers students the opportunity to play in front of hundreds of spectators at season tournaments, Smith notes. “There is nothing like running in front of 3,000 cheering spectators,” he says.
As adults, we tend to look at sports seriously, Smith observes. “But the kids are like, ‘Hey, we got this, leave us alone, it will be fine,’” he explains. “They just want to get out and have a good time with their friends.”
One of the largest annual PAL events is the track meet for grades 1-8, held each spring, Smith says. “During the past two years, 2,000 students participated over two days. It’s a huge school spirit event.” And beyond the fun of seeing who can do the long jump is the lasting skill of running, Smith says. He believes that more young people will run track in later years than will play competitive sports.
God fits into athletics just fine, Smith says, noting Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” chant. Both the Fighting Irish and the University of Oklahoma Sooners intone the saying before games, as they have since the late 1940s. “Kids learn how to deal with life through sports and in our league,” Smith says.
In addition, Smith notes, the players feel as if they belong to something more than themselves, “and there is a great dynamic among players who discover that the nerdy kid can actually play.”
Smith is gratified to know that the PAL often prompts fond memories even among elite athletes. Rex Pflueger, a standout Mater Dei basketball player who’s now a shooting guard at Notre Dame, told Smith he misses his PAL days. “When we played in PAL it was fun,” Pflueger recalled, “and now playing is almost like work. I cherish the way you made it fun for us.”