Landing a big fish. Finding a hidden checkpoint. Mastering a video game. Snagging a flag. These—not grand slams, hat tricks or game-winning touchdowns—count as the big “plays” in the nontraditional sports that high schools are adding to engage students with diverse interests.
“It’s an opportunity to engage more students outside the school day and do it in a way that challenges them and cultivates a love for fitness” says Thomas P. Arria III, the director of athletics at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near Boston.
The public high school recently launched a team in orienteering, in which students navigate a local park or other outdoor space, and earn points by finding checkpoints.
Elsewhere across the country, schools have added flag football, cricket, bass fishing and Ultimate Frisbee, among other activities. Here’s a look at how several of them play out.
Girls flag football ranks as the third most popular sport—behind football and basketball—at Seminole Ridge Community High School near West Palm Beach, says Athletic Director Scott Parks.
Over the past decade, a competitive seven-on-seven spring league has developed across most of Florida. The Seminole Ridge Hawks, winners of five and runners-up in three state championships, became an instant powerhouse because robust youth programs supplied enough players for to field varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams.
Flag football, which attracts crowds, gets the school closer to gender equity in athletics, Parks says.
Also, the cost is low—there’s not much equipment needed other than uniforms, flags and footballs—and the girls incur fewer injuries than do classmates who play soccer or basketball.
“From an administrative point of view, it’s really a great sport” Parks says. “The only problem is that until colleges start teams, we’re going to have the issue that it’s nonscholarship and there’s nothing after high school.”
Despite that, many of the 40 to 50 players specialize in flag football and don’t play a winter sport. The team’s graduates, unwilling to wait for the NCAA to get on board, have started club teams at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida.
“It’s a lifestyle for a lot of these kids” Athletic Director and Vice Principal Caleb Houchins says of the students on the bass fishing team at Highland High School in southern Illinois. “They identify as fishermen; that’s who they are.”
Bass fishing has been a part of sports programs in Illinois and Kentucky for the past few years. It all started in the Highland CUSD #5 district with an enthusiastic middle school teacher and avid fisherman, who had taught the sport to hundreds of students and even made it part of his curriculum.
The teacher volunteered to coach the high school team, and local boat captains quickly volunteered to let the team use their vessels. As for rods, reels and lures, students bring their own and often share equipment.
“The school does not own any boats; the school does not provide anything but gas” Houchins says.
Students also learn and practice the science of fishing. They have to track changes in climate, weather and water temperature.
“Bass fishing caters to a different demographic” Houchins says. “There are certain kids who are not associated with athletics who are all-in on bass fishing.”
In the past, students occasionally got into trouble when they skipped school to go fishing, adds Jeremy Pierce, principal of Elverado High School in rural southern Illinois’ Elverado CUSD #196.
“Now, they’re getting out of school officially to do it” Pierce says of his coed team, which is a past state champion. “You now hear high school kids talking about water temperature and clarity. They’re linking some real-world skills.”
Even in a coastal state, you don’t need an actual beach to start a sand volleyball team.
Inland from North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks, nine high schools, mostly in the Raleigh-Durham area, helped launch the spring club sport for both girls and boys in 2013.
Today, more than 50 schools, divided into six geographic conferences, field teams.
Most teams practice in public parks and at private facilities, while some schools have built courts with help from parents, booster clubs and grants, says Mark Nalevanko, a cofounder of Southern Sand Volleyball who helped to start the league.
The outdoor sport hasn’t poached too many players from the more entrenched indoor volleyball teams, Nalevanko adds.
“Some players have shifted to just beach volleyball, and some play a mixture of other sports during the school year” he says. “But there are a few who may not do another sport at school.”
At Montpelier High School in Vermont, competitive Ultimate Frisbee started as a club and has grown exponentially over the past several years, Athletic Director Matt Link says.
About 60 students, evenly split between boys and girls, play at the school, which enrolls only about 350. For boys, ultimate frisbee will soon be sanctioned by the state as a full varsity sport.
Girls won’t be able to play at the varsity level until more schools form teams, Link says.
“A lot of our kids gravitate toward being outside all the time” Link says.
“And this is a very simple sport. All you need are shoes and a disc, and you can just go out there and play.”
Sportsmanship often takes precedence over the final score in Ultimate Frisbee, Link adds.
“Spirit awards are given out at tournaments to the teams that are most sportsmanlike” he says.
“Some teams take more pride in getting the spirit award than they would in winning the championship.”
Not to shortchange the other sports on this list, but orienteering requires a heavy dose of the soft skills that have become a major focus of K12 education.
Using a map of a city park, for instance, students must plot an efficient course through a variety of terrains to locate “controls” or checkpoints, that are each worth a different number of points.
A team has to decide to look for a string of lower-scoring controls or to spend more time locating checkpoints that are worth more points, says Arria, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin athletic director.
“It’s not only about endurance, running and being fit, orienteering also includes strategizing and working together to formulate how you’re going to navigate the map” Arria says.
“It’s a sport that has all the elements that you’re looking for to develop a young person and to help them find success later in life.”
Cambridge Rindge and Latin has won high school nationals, and its athletes have medaled consistently at recent events.
Orienteering has attracted athletes who have not been involved in sports before, Arria says.
“Whenever I’m asked about adding a sport or club, I always want to weigh who we’re going to attract” Arria says.
“When it comes to some team sports, you’re worried about poaching from baseball or track and field. When we can add a club or a sport where that’s not going to happen, it is always a win for the community.”
That’s right—competitive video gaming. Esports has become one of the fastest-growing athletic coed activities in K12 and higher ed. Some colleges and universities even give scholarships to the top high school gamers.
Orange County in Southern California has leveled itself up as a hotbed of this screen sport. The county department of education—with help from the University of California, Irvine and private philanthropy—formed an esports league that comprises nearly 40 teams from more than two dozen high schools.
“There are a lot of students who don’t play traditional sports or who don’t gravitate toward academic clubs,” says Al Mijares, Orange County superintendent of schools. “But they need a place to connect and esports is where they find it.”
Getting more students involved ties in with the county’s mission of boosting academic achievement while nurturing social-emotional growth, Mijares says.
In competitions, which can draw large numbers of online spectators, students play a range of video games, from sports to fantasy adventures to realistic shooters.
But Mijares says the county hopes to shift away from the more violent titles and toward the video games in which students fight animated objects rather than “human beings.”
The curricular and career-prep connections of esports range from problem-solving and collaboration to game development and coding to marketing and event planning.
“Anytime a bunch of teens get together and are excited and enthusiastic, I want to know why,” Mijares says. “This is a phenomenon we need to acknowledge and steer so it becomes constructive.
“We need to populate it with good, healthy content, rather than stand on the side and try to denigrate it.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.