SIKESTON -- For the first time ever, Sikeston Bulldog football will include seventh graders.
For more than three decades, the Bulldogs have offered football for varsity level down to the eighth grade. But the school made the decision to add a younger level in addition to girls basketball for seventh graders this upcoming school year.
Many schools around the area have done seventh grade football for several years, including many of Sikeston's opponents, such as Jackson, Poplar Bluff and New Madrid County Central.
First-year Sikeston varsity coach Kent Gibbs is hoping that the addition of the program will only help the overall state of the program down the road.
"I think, potentially, it could be very beneficial to our program," said Gibbs. "It's just going to be an extension of our little league program, so to speak. The big key is to get those kids in and get them interested and give them a positive experience with it. Hopefully that will carry on into the eighth and the ninth and ultimately make our varsity program better."
With the addition of seventh grade football to the Bulldogs, the face of the Sikeston Jaycee Little League program has changed somewhat. The league will now use fifth and sixth graders, instead of sixth and seventh like it has been in the past.
Gibbs sees this as a plus as well since kids will be learning the game of football, fundamentals and basic formations and terminology at an earlier age.
Other towns have little league at even younger ages, starting as early as third grade for Poplar Bluff's youth.
"It would be real nice if the kids could do more of the sandlot-type things like you used to see, where they can do what they want to do and grow and learn with other kids, but I don't think that's the way it's going to be anymore," said Gibbs. "I think when you look at all the sports, whether it's wrestling, volleyball, basketball, soccer, football -- they're all starting at earlier ages. I think this is just a sign of the times."
With the addition of seventh grade football, the Sikeston football coaching staff has undergone some changes. Steve Bays, who spent the last few years running the junior high program, is now involved with the varsity.
Brett Blackman, who previously was the varsity head coach at East Prairie and an assistant at Hayti and Fredericktown, is now in charge of the junior high program. Sikeston hired Andrew Proffer, Russ Dial and Derek James to assist the junior high program. Steve Drake and Brent Taylor will remain with the junior high staff.
Gibbs says one of the goals of the seventh grade team will be to promote interest as well as teaching the basic fundamentals of the game.
"You want to get them interested in the game in a positive way," said Gibbs. "You want to give them a general introduction to what it takes to play football, from the physical aspect to the mental aspect. The kids are still formulating ideas about what they like or might not like as far as athletic pursuits that go to down the road, so I think it's important to give them a positive experience. As far as what you want to accomplish, you want to play as many as you can possibly play, you want to teach them the fundamentals, let them have some fun, but yet they need to know that football is going to take a little work along the way."
Seth Harrell was also hired as a varsity assistant coach. Varsity assistant coaches Jay Eckert and Terrance Sterling and junior high assistant Tim Young have left the school district to pursue other opportunities.