by Stephanie A. WilkenAt 3:05 p.m. Friday, the late afternoon sunlight pours into the lobby of Center High School as students spill into the halls with excited chatter and sporting their school colors of yellow and blue
as they find their friends at the end of the school day.
But this isn’t a typical Friday. This week, posters adorn the columns advertising that the spirit bus leaves for the district conference football championship later that afternoon. The buses and caravans that will follow will drive almost an hour each way to be there as the Center Yellowjackets face the Odessa Bulldogs in the Class 3 District 7 finals.
Wrestling practice is expected to be light, because most of the players are riding the bus to support their classmates. The students at Center High School are focused on their fellow Yellowjackets.
It’s most likely a similar scene forty minutes away at Oak Grove High School; just replace the school colors of blue and yellow with orange and black – and there’s no district championship under Friday night lights: The Oak Grove Panthers lost two weeks earlier 47-26 to the Boonville Pirates in the first round of the post season. That’s a fact apparently overlooked by appointed and elected officials in the Oak Grove School district when they recently went on record wondering if Center brought “competition,” among a list of other negative comments when discussing the Missouri River Valley Conference expanding to include the Yellowjackets in its Western division.
Oak Grove athletic director Darin Sehlke made his comments about Center High School at the Oak
Grove Board of Education meeting October 28, the Monday before the Friday, November 1 11-1 decision, with Oak Grove being the lone dissenting vote against Center and Clinton joining the MRVC West.
“The coaches are not in favor,” Sehlke said in the meeting, as reported by the local newspaper Focus on Oak Grove in its November 7 edition. “Do they fit with the conference? The distance to Clinton is a factor, and Center is urban. Do they bring a rich tradition in athletics? Do they bring competition?”
“We hold our students to a high standard,” Sehlke said. “Is that true with Center? They have a nice
facility. They don’t have the perception of the Kansas City School District to weigh into them.”
Oak Grove Board of Education director Randy McClain said at the meeting that “there’s a significant
cultural difference between Center and us.” “I think I would rather add Sedalia rather than Clinton and Center,” he said.
While the Focus reported that their discussion at the Board meeting did not include how they would cast their Friday conference expansion vote, the eventual 11-1 is an indicator that feelings did not change in the four days preceding the MRVC vote.
“Play hard to get,” said director Montie Tripp at the meeting. “Tell them to go fly a kite.”
On November 1, Center notified staff that they had been accepted into the Missouri River Valley conference, as reported in the November 7 Advocate. The conference expansion included Center and Clinton joining the existing Excelsior Springs, Harrisonville, Oak Grove, Odessa, Pleasant Hill and Warrensburg school districts.
The news was welcome throughout the district, according to Center Athletic Director Brad Sweeten.
Center had previous success both on and off the field when they were a part of the West Central conference before it dissolved. Sweeten added that while not every student is involved in athletics, being in a conference created a ripple effect where they saw test scores rise, earned a Blue Ribbon nomination, and students were more involved overall.
“We found out that it did wonders for our kids,” he said. “All of a sudden, we were competitive.”
Sweeten said that they’re eager to have that again.
“All of our coaches have been very excited,” Sweeten said. “I don’t think our kids understand yet what that means because for two years now, we haven’t been in a conference.”
“That’s a big deal, because you might not go far in your district, and the reality of winning a state
championship in any sport s very slim. You set little goals, and maybe that’s the first little goal you
set: ‘Let’s win conference games, and then let’s win the conference.’”
The district's Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael Weishaar agrees.
“Center School District believes in partnerships and communities. We believe that joining the
MRVC will expand our students’ knowledge, create new experiences and provide a catalyst that will
push students toward future success,” he said. “We also believe this opportunity will not only benefit our students, but will also provide positive benefits for all MRVC conference member communities.”
Sweeten doesn’t look at traveling to Oak Grove as a bad thing.
“We’ve always said it’s good for our kids to get out and see how other people live, with how the small town life is, but it’s also good for those kids to come and see our kids and adults are no different,” he said. “You don’t change people’s minds with words, you change in actions, so that’s
what we’re going to show them. We’re going to show them that we’re no different than anyone else.”
In football, Center traveled to Oak Grove this year and won 41-10. In all-time matchups, it’s 4-0 Center, with Center winning both away in 2019 and at home in 2018, and winning the other two contests in the post season, with Center coming out on top in both district and state tournaments.
“The next time we play, they could beat us,” Sweeten said. “But that win or loss isn’t important, it’s
what happens on the field. In the last game where we played them I saw guys from both teams reaching out and holding out a hand, picking another guy off the field.”
The kids, Sweeten said, were just playing the game. And he said they’ll keep leading by example.
At Center, Sweeten has helped foster a culture of leading with love. It’s not just words on an inspiration poster somewhere, or someone talking in abstracts about culture. At Center, that’s a daily weekday email to his coaches and community about positivity and personal goals of positive interactions; it’s breakfast together on Fridays with any student who would like that fellowship; it’s showing the students at Center that adults care. And Sweeten has been a driving force in creating that environment.
“It makes a big difference, to show our kids that,” Sweeten said. “Our kids come from all kinds of backgrounds, mostly working families, and it’s important for our kids to see the example of adults.
Sometimes that’s the greatest gift we can give them is the example.”
And even in the face of negativity, Sweeten continues the positive attitude.
“With my words, I can’t change the way [the people quoted in the Focus] think,” he said “I’ve known
Darin, the AD out there, for a long time,” Sweeten said. “He’s a great guy.”
“We’re just excited,” Sweeten said. “We’re excited to be in the conference. We’re going to welcome
them to come here, and hopefully we’re welcome to go there.”