Life as a non-IHSA athlete

The sound of sabres clashing crowds the LHS cafeteria. 4.5 miles away, noises of skates on the ice and slap shots can be heard at The Glacier Ice Arena. One would think that both sports, fencing and hockey, have very little in common; however, they share one key similarity: They both aren’t recognized as sports by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA).

“I think it’s absurd; I mean, [fencing] is considered an Olympic sport and it’s not considered a sport by the IHSA,” Lawrence Zhang (9), a foil fencer for the LHS/VHHS Thundercats, said.

IHSA is a statewide organization that manages numerous interscholastic sports and activities. Sports such as football, volleyball and soccer, and activities such as scholastic bowl and bass fishing all fall under the IHSA umbrella. Every decade, the IHSA “recognizes” two to three more sports. IHSA most recently recognized Boys & Girls Lacrosse as sports, making them part of IHSA in 2018.

Generally, Fencing and Hockey are treated the same as any other sport. Athletes in any VHHS athletic activity earn letters, can be considered three sport athletes (provided they do two other sports), and their activities are advertised by the athletics department. However, partly due to the lack of IHSA recognition, the VHHS athletic department doesn’t directly manage these two sports. Instead, fencing and hockey are managed by their respective parent boards.

“We don’t have the day to day interaction with them. For example, the fencing coach is hired by their parent board. I don’t interact with that person on a daily basis like I would with any of our football, basketball, or baseball coaches,” Mr. McDonald, VHHS’s Athletic Director, said.

Both sports face several barriers towards becoming IHSA sports. According to the IHSA website, a sport/activity needs to already have existing clubs in 15% of IHSA’s member schools, which totals more than 700, to be recognized as a sport. That’s roughly 100+ clubs. However, this number isn’t concrete. For instance, the IHSA specifically required lacrosse to have 65 boys teams and 40 girls teams to be recognized as a sport. Nevertheless, both sports still don’t have that necessary amount of participating clubs.

According to the Amateur Hockey Association Illinois (AHAI), the Illinois organization that runs high school hockey, only 66 high school hockey clubs exist. The Great Lakes High School Fencing Conference, which is the largest fencing organization in the Great Lakes region, has only 16 members, 12 of which are from Illinois.

While both sports aren’t recognized by the IHSA, they could stand to gain something if they are recognized. Currently, players in both sports receive minimal funding from either VHHS or LHS. With IHSA recognition, this could change. The possibility of extra resources through IHSA recognition could serve to benefit players on the hockey and fencing teams.

“We don’t have buses for tournaments, and sometimes tournaments are four hours away so sometimes we have to drive ourselves to Culver, Indiana,” Patryk Laska (12), the épée (a fencing sword) captain of the VHHS/LHS Thundercats, said.  

While there are some drawbacks to fencing and hockey’s non-sport status, some players don’t think it has hindered them from playing their sport.

“I think for me it’s never played a part if I would join or not,” Francis Gorham (12), the varsity goalie for the VHHS/LHS Icecats, said.

Additionally, coaches and parents from both sports may not want to move to the IHSA. Hockey, for example, has not attempted to follow IHSA guidelines regarding season length. Though it is considered a winter sport, hockey players start their season a few weeks after fall sports start. If IHSA were to take control of Illinois High School Hockey, they could force hockey teams to shorten their season by several weeks, which could displease hockey players and coaches.

Another consequence of both sports lack of IHSA recognition is that players on the Fencing and Hockey team, and up until their IHSA recognition Lacrosse, don’t get gym exemptions.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be exempted [from gym]. I mean we have two hour long practices three times a week in addition to offsite stuff and playing games” Gorham said.

Even though the IHSA doesn’t recognize either sport, fencing and hockey are considered “emerging sports,” sports that may become recognized by the IHSA in the future.