University City

Countryside Montessori sports programs grow

Jordan Baker, a junior, is a new student at Countryside Montessori School. But he’s already heard some students say the boys basketball team he will try out for was pretty good last year and that it has a chance to be even better this year.

Only a few years ago, there never would have been any kind of buzz about a sports team at the University City private school.

Between its in-house intramural leagues for elementary school students and eight interscholastic sports for middle and high school students, it’s a good time to be involved in athletics at Countryside Montessori.

Student participation and parental support are at an all-time high and the Mustangs are as competitive as ever against opposing schools.

“This is the year we are peaking in our sports,” said athletic director Nick Nichols. “Most of our kids have been with us since kindergarten or first grade and participated in our in-house sports leagues.”

Countryside’s athletic program has consistently grown since it opened its middle school in 1993. The school added varsity sports when it enrolled its first high school class in 2007.

In 2012-13, a record 93 out of 149 middle and high school students participated in at least one athletic program. This year, 84 students tried out for Countryside’s fall sports teams, 23 more than the previous high.

“I think it’s the pride and our size,” added Nichols. “Everyone wants to be a Mustang. We can put everyone out there (to play). Everyone knows they will get a chance to play. Our school is growing by leaps and bounds.”

Nichols has presided over much of the growth. When he was hired in 1998, the school’s only athletic programs were its middle school soccer and basketball teams. Countryside offers middle and high school teams in soccer, cross country, volleyball, basketball, golf, tennis, cheerleading and flag football.

Middle school teams play in the Charlotte-Gastonia Athletic Association; the high school teams compete in the Mid-state Athletic Conference.

This year, the co-ed middle school tennis team will have an opportunity to compete in a statewide conference coordinated by the United States Tennis Association. It will be the first time any Countryside team will have a chance to compete for a state championship.

With flag football, Countryside has found a niche for sports that public schools and most private schools don’t offer. The last two years, Countryside also offered ultimate Frisbee as a club sport.

“Two years ago, we won the conference in ultimate Frisbee,” said senior Jelani Scott. “Last year we finished second. We’re pretty good at it. It’s a fun thing to do in the spring time.”

Scott’s main sport is basketball, though. Nichols, who also coaches basketball and cross country, says all 14 of his players return from last season. During the first week of classes two weeks ago, the school hung a banner in its gym for senior Nick McHahan to honor him scoring his 1,000th point last season.

The Countryside gymnasium is located at its elementary school campus on Mallard Creek Road, a few miles from the middle school and high school campus on Johnston Oehler Road. This summer, the school added a set of bleachers to increase its seating capacity to about 340 and offset its standing-room-only crowds.

Countryside uses Mallard Creek Park for its soccer, flag football and ultimate Frisbee teams. For tennis, Mallard Creek High School shares its courts with Countryside.

Beyond Countryside’s high school and middle school teams, the school offers “junior” volleyball and basketball opportunities to student-athletes who aren’t good enough to make the middle school teams. The junior programs play similar teams from other schools and function like junior varsity middle school teams.

High school volleyball coach Katie Miller remembers barely having enough players to field the school’s first middle school team eight years ago. This year, among the high school, middle school, and junior teams, the program has 36 girls.

Having attended Countryside since kindergarten, senior Steven McKenzie, a basketball player and cross country runner, has seen the growth of the sports program first hand and has a unique perspective of its qualities.

“It really brings Countryside together,” he says. “Without sports, we’d be just going to school and then leaving. … Basically all of Countryside (students) plays sports.”