University City

Young Mustangs are growing competitive sports from scratch

Countryside Montessori has built a competitive sports program from scratch and can boast something probably no other area school can: 79 percent of its upper school students participated in at least one sport this school year.

A small but growing Montessori school, Countryside doesn't have many students when compared to Vance, Mallard Creek and other area schools, but encourages kids of all ages to participate in their sports programs, clinics, leagues and camps.

Countryside and Mallard Creek both will graduate their first class of seniors this year. Mallard Creek has hundreds of seniors in its inaugural class; Countryside has six seniors and 33 kids total in its entire upper school.

Of the 33 upper school students, 26 participate in at least one sport. Middle and upper school combined have 111 kids, and more than 71 percent played a sport this year, many participating in several.

The Mustangs used to be considered a schedule-filler for some of the larger teams in their conference, but not anymore. The boys' and girls' varsity basketball teams both finished with winning records this year, including the girls' 16-7 mark. The varsity girls' volleyball team finished 6-2.

"When I first got here, we had the academics in place but our athletics was way behind," said Countryside Montessori athletic director and basketball coach and program head Nick Nichols. "Teams used to love to schedule us and would try to put us on their schedule three to four times a year. We were literally the laughingstock of the league in the beginning."

Countryside is more than competitive now and has reinforcements on the way. There currently are more than 10 basketball teams, including in-house, middle school and upper school, featuring first-grade through varsity students.

When Nichols arrived to take over the athletic department, brittle tiles covered the gym's concrete floor, there was no hanging time clock, no bleachers, and the baskets were wheeled in and out of the gym. The Mustangs had no athletic trophies.

Today trophies are scattered around the gym, more sit in Nichols' office - which he shares with his wife, Lindsay - and even more in an adjoining room.

Along with trophies, Countryside has school spirit and pride oozing from its campuses - not just for the school itself, but for the athletic teams.

With more teams being added yearly, the Mustangs needed a way to safely get teams to and from games. Nichols bought an old school bus that he and students restored, painstakingly sanding it down and cleaning it inside and out. They now have one of the nicest team buses around.

What Countryside lacks in stature and numbers, it more than makes up for in pride, commitment and an eye for the future.

The lower school has by far the biggest population, with nearly 150 students in grades one through four. Almost one-third participate in basketball, the one sport that is offered to lower school students.

Countryside Montessori currently is spread over three University City-area campuses, but school officials envision eventually having one central campus.