Students from all parts of the state gathered on Nov. 15 at the Woodbridge Community Center for the first full meeting of the NJSIAA Student Athlete Advisory Council.
The SAAC is comprised of two groups of students who have the same goal. There are 31 Student Ambassdors from throughout the state who were selected over the summer and met for the first time in late August. Additionally, each school in the state had the opportunity to send one student athlete to represent their school as part of the council, which is sponsored by New Jersey Advance Media.
The purpose of the SAAC is to give New Jersey’s more than 280,000 student athletes a voice in the governing of high school sports in the state. That had never been done before, but it’s something the NJSIAA wants to change going forward.
“We need to hear from the kids; it’s too much adults talking,” said Colleen Maguire, the NJSIAA Director of Finance and Administration, who also oversees the program. She was also an All-State field hockey and basketball player at South Hunterdon, and continued her basketball career at George Washington University, so she is very much in tune to the needs and concerns of high school athletes.
“This is really intended to start driving feedback from the kids to see what we can do to make life better for all of them,” she said. “Kids today are too stressed out and sports are only adding to that stress. Sports should be a relief of that stress.”
The meeting in Woodbridge was the first held that involved the overall group, and program and dialogue was both informative and lively.
First, the attendees listened to several speakers.
The first was Lee Rubin, a former multi-sport athlete at Manalapan who went on to become a captain of the Penn State football team. He addressed the students on several important facets of leadership.
“I love being around young people, and giving them some of the stuff I wish I knew then,” he said after his address. “It’s important to help them develop their leadership skills. We put people in leadership positions but don’t equip them. It’s hard to expect a 15 or 16 year old kid to be a leader without empowering them.”
The students also heard from two individuals who officiate games in several sports, Greg Bailey and Maureen Dzwill. They explained what goes into their jobs, and also answered questions from the athletes regarding the work that they and their colleagues do, from how they became officials, to how they are assigned games, and also on how to best communicate with them during a contest.
The third speaker was Kalee Iacoangeli, who is the Unified Sports Director for Special Olympics New Jersey. She spoke to the athletes about the NJSIAA’s ever-expanding Unified Sports program, as well as the alliance between the NJSIAA and Special Olympics.
Following lunch, the Student Athletes split into breakout meetings divided into North, Central and South sections.
In those meetings, the students talked about issues relating to themselves and high school sports as a whole. Everything was on the table, and the discussion touched on things like time management, stress, injury prevention, length of seasons, officiating, transfers, state tournament formats and just about everything else relating to high school sports nowadays in New Jersey.
Those discussions will continue in future SAAC meetings, with the goal of helping the NJSIAA shape and refine policy and regulations going forward.
Students at the meeting were excited to be included in the process.
“I thought that learning about how leaders should act was very beneficial, and I’ll be bringing that back to the teams at Kinnelon,” said Grace DenBleyker, a soccer player at the Morris County school. “It was also useful about learning how the officials feel when you play, and how to deal with them respectfully.”
Another athlete who gained perspective from the discussion was Taylor Phillips of Irvington. She competes in volleyball and softball, and this winter she is ready to try wrestling, which will be an official NJSIAA sport for the first time.
“What really caught my eye was the Unified Sports program,” she said. “The idea of that was something that really interested me. The leadership lessons were really good, and I never knew those things about officials and what goes into what they do. This really interests me, and it made me want to learn more about the NJSIAA and what they do.”