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Murray Journal

Hillcrest-Riverview students bonded over flag football game

Dec 02, 2022 02:57PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest Junior High ninth-grader Taylor Shelton likes to hang out and play different sports with his buddies, many who attend the crosstown junior high, Riverview.

“I thought it would be cool if we did a game versus the two schools,” he said about the two junior highs that feed into Murray High. “We could build a better relationship before high school, starting with a fun friendly rivalry game.”

Shelton, who serves on Hillcrest’s student council, shared the concept with his adviser, Brecken Gnehm.

“Initially, it started as a small idea. Then, it turned into this huge thing—like super cool,” Shelton said. “I didn’t think there was going to be a ton of people like there was. I thought it would be pretty mellow, just a small chill game. It turned out to be perfect, way better than I expected.”

Fans lined up to purchase $5 tickets for “Battle of the Freshmen,” even though tickets were available ahead of time for purchase.

While there was a lot of effort and fun happening on the field and sidelines that day, much of the hard work was done months beforehand.

“We, our student council-SBO (student body officer) class, had a lot of planning to do. I went to a few PTA meetings with a lot of the people and administrators since we turned it into a fundraiser to help our school,” Shelton said.

Gnehm said that for the first couple months of the school year, her class of 29 students has been devoted to the project, even working after school and weekends.

“They were contacting businesses for donations, working with Riverview to make videos encouraging people to come and how to behave appropriately at a game, and we actually put together a spirit week with activities leading up to the game,” she said. “COVID really hit all schools hard, so we’re just beginning to see some normalcy, and we wanted to make it a week which students looked forward to, making school a fun place they wanted to be at and foster school spirit. A lot of kids I spoke with who weren’t even a part of the game or they weren’t on Dance Co., weren’t an SBO or on our student council, they came to watch and said it was the ‘funnest thing I’ve ever done in school.’ A lot of our students were involved in one way or the other whether it was planning or volunteering at the game or being there and watching it. Most of the staff at both schools came to volunteer their time and support the kids.”

Shelton said he and his peers went around Murray businesses “and they gave us some money and donations of many things: a Nike gift card, Nike Dunks (shoes), a really cool new bike, a ton of gift cards from restaurants, and all kinds of cool things. We had a raffle for them at the game,” he said.

Gnehm said she was impressed with her students writing a fundraising letter, delivering it in person, meeting with businesses, and following up with them.

“It was really cool because students were at the center of this whole event, not parents, not staff; it was the kids. They called the businesses, they went there, they planned the events, they marketed the game, and they were 100% rock stars,” she said, adding that the student leaders also organized the tailgate games and activities in the end zone prior to kickoff.

Hillcrest’s dance company also stepped up to create routines and cheers for students, Gnehm said, even being part of the pep assembly right before the game.

“It was really cool that the dance company offered to choreograph a halftime routine; they’re middle schoolers, and this is not something that they’re used to doing. They jumped in, made a halftime dance, because they said, ‘we had halftime show,’” she said.

Gnehm said that before everything got rolling, she reached out to her science teaching peer, Taylor Bly, at Riverview, who got everyone on board there, and oversaw her students work together on the promo video with Hillcrest to organizing a student pep group.

“I had a random group of students, some SBOs and just some kids who volunteered to help out, and they spray painted a raptor claw on some shirts to throw out into the crowd,” she said. “They came up with different cheers and made posters and signs. The whole time, they did a great job, keeping the crowd cheering and getting our students really excited, jumping up and down on the sidelines. It was really fun.”

Bly said that much of the entire event was student-lead at both schools.

“I’ve noticed that when I’m teaching, when I let the students come up with the ideas, then I can guide and help them make their ideas happen. They can do miracles when they come up with these ideas themselves,” she said.

She was even inundated with interest in playing.

“Once we showed the video, I had an influx of ninth-graders charging my room at the end of the day, seriously, to get their packet. The next day when I walked into school, I had five kids running to my room with their packets signed and ready to go,” Bly said, adding that there were about 40 on her team.

Along with a student who volunteered to be a defensive coordinator, the two created plays and held practice during their “Jurassic” or homeroom time a couple times each week for about two weeks prior to the game.

“We split the team into their lines and looked at the strength of each line. We came up with specific plays, opting for passes if a quarterback had an arm that could throw far or shorter plays or running plays if that was their strength,” said Bly, who played flag football intramurals in college. “Some of the students who hadn’t played football got excited and I could see their confidence growing. Our whole approach was to go there to have fun. It wasn’t about winning. It was about having a good time as a team.”

At Hillcrest, 32 Hillcrest students signed up to participate, practicing during their “plus” period as well as occasionally after school under the direction of first-time coach Gnehm and Murray High junior Zach Richter.

“He offered his help with coaching, which was super helpful, but the students stepped up. By the end of the game, the kids were coaching themselves. They were huddling up calling the plays,” she said.

Shelton said that the team had “ton of plays and it worked out really well; so many people on our team scored. We all got equal playing time,” he said.

Gnehm said that almost every person “was given an opportunity to catch the ball or make a play on the ball, which is the best thing I could ask for. I wanted to make sure everyone felt included and I didn’t even facilitate that during the game. It was just done by the players because they wanted to make sure everyone had an opportunity.”

All the flag football players had their names and numbers on their shirts, thanks to a donor who worked with Bly.

“We had so much community support,” Gnehm said. “I’m surrounded by a lot of amazing people.”

The Hillcrest fundraiser, which was still being counted at press deadline, brought in several thousand dollars.

Assistant Principal Lia Smith, who was impressed that the event was creating unity between the two junior highs before entering high school and had much support from the community, said the money raised likely would be used to purchase items students can strive for at the Emporium, Hillcrest’s store that supports students who have been rewarded for positive behavior at school.

“With positive behavior, they can receive a laurel, a coin, and they can use it for school supplies, save it for a Hillcrest hoodie (sweatshirt) or get a bag of chips or whatever might motivate them to be positive members of our community,” she said.

Gnehm said that Hillcrest already has committed to be part of Riverview’s fundraiser, supporting them the same way. At Riverview, there are talks about having another sporting contest this winter or coming spring that would help support the school’s socio-economic challenged students with needed items, Bly said.

“I’m hopeful that we get to do something like that because I really think adding this camaraderie between the two schools will make us feel more of a whole,” Gnehm said. “A lot of them are friends at the two schools. During the game, it was cool because the kids were joking around with each other, and it was all in good fun.”

Hillcrest ended up “schooling” Riverview, 36-6, which Shelton reminds his friends in jest, but “they don’t take it too seriously. The game was all just for fun. We got to help our school and I loved every part of it. It was just super rad.”