When it comes to student sports, the entire family is often onboard

MY TAKE: What lengths have you gone to so your children can participate in sports? Photos by Rebecca Isenhart. Full story continued after the gallery.

Gazette Reporter
NISKAYUNA — Susan Hanks doesn’t think twice before climbing into the driver’s seat for half a day or more.
She’s traveled to almost all the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states over the past four years, plus some even farther away, like California, Florida and Arizona.
She’s not a long-distance truck driver. She’s not a nomad. Susan Hanks is a sports mom.
“I can’t even guess how many miles we have driven or flown,” said Hanks. “I don’t even think to get in the car and drive for nine hours.”
The benefits of team sports for students are demonstrated and celebrated daily in Niskayuna, as in schools around the country.
But often, the hefty contributions of parents and families are limited to hugs after matches and lines on college applications.
Time and money
For many families, allowing their school-aged children to excel at sports means investing massive amounts of time and money that would have otherwise been allotted for leisure and luxury.
It’s a commitment Hanks, who has three athletically inclined daughters, knows well.
“A lot of our vacation time has been spent attending different tournaments throughout the country,” she said. “We’ve gone to Florida a couple of times, Phoenix, Virginia Beach, Massachusetts, the Boston area. We have definitely spent a lot of both vacation days and vacation dollars to attend these.”
For the Hanks family, high school sports are nearly in the rear view mirror.
Susan’s eldest daughter Megan, now 25, led the pack as a Niskayuna crew team member. Jennifer, 19, is now a field hockey player at Skidmore College. Caroline, 18, will move on to play Division I field hockey in the fall.
“Now we’re looking at fall weekends traveling to various college games,” Hanks said.
1,000 participants
For families throughout the district, the herculean commitment to student athletics is just beginning.
Larry Gillooley, director of physical education and athletics for the Niskayuna School District, estimates at least 1,000 students between grades 7 and 12 play at least one school-sanctioned sport. And many play more than that.
“We’re the smallest AA school in the Suburban Council, so we need every athlete available in all our teams to help us be successful,” Gillooley said.
For that reason, and also for the sake of well-rounded student athletes, he discourages students from hyper-focusing on one sport. That also means that for many Niskayuna students, and their parents, there is no off season.
Multi-sport family
Elizabeth Reffelt has probably never heard the words “off” and “season” spoken together. Her children, 13-year-old Jane, 11-year-old Nicholas and 9-year-old Jacquelyn, together hardly leave any sport unplayed.
“We are definitely a multi-sport family,” Reffelt said. All of her children participate in the Wild Turkeys swimming and diving team during the summer. Her eldest plays lacrosse year-round. Other commitments include modified field hockey, multiple seasons of school and club basketball, two seasons of baseball, three dance classes, and the occasional foray into recreational soccer.
Reffelt said the support of the sports community in Niskayuna makes her kids’ school sports careers possible.
“I’ve always said it takes a village,” Reffelt said. “When the children were little I always used to say, I’ll drive! I can take your kids wherever you need to go.” Now, she and other families often arrange to carpool.
Still, Reffelt said some days she’s in the driver’s seat from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., driving and picking up her always-moving offspring.
Some logistical necessities have become favored traditions in the family, including eating on the go.
“It’s a famous line that Tuesday is bagel night in our house,” she said.
Kevin Lau’s children focus their energies on specific sports, but still play year-round.
Nick, 17, plays tennis exclusively, while Christina, 14, plays tennis and participates in Wild Turkeys swimming and diving.
Lau said many families are taken by surprise when they discover the level of commitment necessary when student athletes aspire to high levels of play.
“We make our personal interests secondary to getting them where they need and do what they need to do,” Lau said. “About two years ago a friend and colleague, who had an 8-year-old daughter in tennis, was shocked to hear we were taking our kids to places like Syracuse and Westchester for tennis tournaments. They said, ‘How do you have the time, how do you find the time?’
“Fast forward two and a half years later and their daughter is in the top tier in the eastern region and she’s gone as far as Florida to compete. You enter into this sometimes not realizing what it’s going to evolve into,” Lau said.
CostS mount
Time commitment aside, the financial burden of athletic excellence often grows quickly, especially when students venture outside school sports to join clubs and travel leagues.
School sports are free in Niskayuna with the exception of ice hockey and rowing, but highly competitive community organizations usually require a fee, not including the costs associated with equipment and travel.
Able parents like Reffelt often willingly foot the bill.
“It’s incredibly expensive to do, but kids who aren’t, they’re spending money on video games or going to the mall,” Reffelt said. “We just opted to spend the money elsewhere.”
While optional, these privatized sporting leagues typically offer a training advantage for participants whose families can afford the hefty price tag.
Gillooley said in Niskayuna, students whose families can’t or prefer not to send them to expensive external athletic programs can shuttle students to the school weight room, which is open for free all summer and staffed part-time by a coach sponsored by the booster club.
The booster club also provides individual assistance for families who demonstrate need, footing the bill for expensive equipment and other incidentals when necessary for school sports.
Well worth the effort
These Niskayuna parents knee-deep in sports equipment say the work is well worth the benefits for their children.
Skills such as teamwork, self-discipline, leadership, and dedication are obvious benefits for student athletes.
“If my kids can be out playing with their friends and learning leadership skills and working as a team, that’s really what it is,” Reffelt said. “It’s learning, ‘You know what? I’m not the best at something,’ which i think is so important in today’s world.
“Anybody’s a liar if they say they wouldn’t want to pull their kid out of something at one point or another.
“The thing is, what would you do otherwise? You’re still together with all of your kids and you’re seeing them so happy,” she said.