Few things compare to a winning streak in a small town.
Restaurants put up well wishes on their marquees, playoff buzz begins by mid-season, and every other person walking down the sidewalk can recite the stat line from Friday night’s game. The town floats in a cloud of optimism and confidence and perhaps validation – all stemming from the triumphs of high school sports. Many put it simply: pride.
Three years ago, a group of Smithfield-Selma alumni met and said the pride of SSS’s glory days seemed to be missing, both in the school and the town. Looking to cure the current era of Spartan athletic woe, parents and alumni talked about a youth sports program geared toward developing teams that could contend for years to come. At its most basic level, success meant simply offering kids more time on the court or field, but the dream was to get Smithfield-Selma to believe in itself again.
So the Smithfield-Selma Sports Academy was born, started by then-Smithfield town manager Paul Sabiston and operated as an off-season league for basketball, soccer and baseball in a loose affiliation with Smithfield’s parks and recreation department. In the spirit of an AAU program, or travel ball, elementary and middle school-aged kids spend a couple of more months each year playing together, competitively, and building the kind of cohesion and skill winning records are built on.
Smithfield Town Council members, some who say Sabiston created the academy without their knowledge or authority, are raising questions about a gulf they see between theory and practice. Specifically they say, with just as many out-of-town kids participating, the program intended to bolster SSS sports is really just serving the rest of Johnston County.
“We talked about how we could come together and get our kids, starting young, to be ready to compete by the time they reached Smithfield-Selma High School,” said Councilman Marlon Lee, who attended the early meeting in 2014. “After that, there wasn’t any kind of agreements written down, and after the meeting, (the town) started doing things on their own.”
So far, in the two seasons of the academy, only basketball has really gained a footing. Parks and recreation director Gary Johnson said that last season, 52 boys were divided among five teams, but half of the kids came from outside the SSS attendance boundary. Johnson said without kids from the county or other towns, the academy might die before it really gets started.
“The program is still so young and the players are so young, these kids haven’t reached SSS yet,” Johnson said, noting the creation of the academy fell under his predecessor, Tim Johnson. “The intent was to try and help and improve athletics at SSS by offering additional sports training to kids. The only thing we had at the time was rec basketball, but this offered playing in tournament and more time on the floor and more experience to try and help high school teams when kids get older.”
If demand were higher, Johnson said priority for slots on teams would be given to Smithfield and Selma kids, but that isn’t needed now, and no player has ever not made a team. As a program connected to the town’s parks and rec department, teams get court time for free, Johnson said. But the academy gets no direct town funding, relying instead on program fees and fundraisers.
With half the program made up of kids who will wear other jerseys when they reach high school, some on the Smithfield council have wondered what the program really offers the town.
“We’re not really doing it how it was set up to work,” Lee said. “It’s supposed to better our kids and get them ready so that when they get to high school we’re not going to be a laughing stock any more. My thing is, if we’re not going to do it how we were going to do it, call it something else. Don’t call it the ‘Smithfield-Selma Spartan Academy.’ Right now that’s pretty much a misrepresentation.”
Councilman Lee coaches volleyball and girls’ basketball at Clayton High School, but said whenever his teams play away games in Smithfield, he’s wearing a SSS shirt under his clothes. Lee graduated from SSS in the early 1990s and said his heart is still buried in the school, under a few decades of floor wax. He’s seen the people he grew up with remain in Johnston County, but living in Clayton or Cleveland and maybe not Smithfield, taking some of the wind out of building the next generation of Spartan pride.
“That’s really what we’re missing in Smithfield,” Lee said. “I work in Clayton, but I’ll always have Spartan pride.”
Solutions to the lack of interest from Smithfield kids are hard to find. Lee wonders if maybe the program could be marketed better and issues of transportation and access could be addressed. Currently, a Google search for the academy turns up nothing, and no mention of the program is on the town’s parks and recreation website. Only by finding the organization on Facebook can one find a link to a website. Johnson thinks the struggles facing the academy are ones any new group will face and that it simply needs time to grow its players and reputation.
The Smithfield council seems to have embraced mission of the academy, despite any growing pains in the program. But with the high number of out-of-district players, Councilman Perry Harris sees the academy as the latest example of Smithfield assuming the role of parks and rec department for Johnston County.
“We have to ask ourselves, can we continue to support parks and rec at a rate we are, and are we doing more than our share for Johnston County?” Harris said. “We have probably one of the finest departments in the country for the size town we are. Are we going to serve as the parks and rec department for Johnston County? If we are, they need to step up to the plate and contribute.”