Being chosen as captain of a Staples High School sports team is a great honor.
Coaches congratulate the young man or woman. Parents beam with pride. Teammates look to their peer with new respect.
And then — just like that — everyone expects the teenager to lead.
For better or worse, sports programs help define a high school’s environment and culture.
Staples athletic director VJ Sarullo wants to make sure that at his school, that’s a positive one.
For that to happen, he says, leaders must know how to lead.
So, starting this year, Sarullo is bringing together dozens of captains and future leaders. He’ll give them the tools to create a positive culture — one, he says, that can spill over into the entire community.
Actually, he won’t “give them” those resources. He’ll help them discover them on their own.
Sarullo became athletic director in March. He organized a similar Leadership Council at his previous school, Jonathan Law High.
But there were only a couple of dozen varsity sports at the Milford school. Staples fields 39 varsity teams. That’s a lot of students thrust into leadership roles.
This summer, Sarullo asked all 39 varsity coaches for the names of captains. For winter and spring teams that did not yet have them, he asked for potential leaders.
He got 98 names.
The AD asked them all:
- What are your personal goals, as a Leadership Council member?
- What areas should we focus on, to improve our Athletic Department?
- What areas should we focus on, to improve Staples High School overall?
- What other suggestions do you have?
Answers came quickly. Major themes included:
- Equal treatment for all teams and genders, in areas like funding and facility usage.
- A voice for athletes.
- Increased recognition of student-athletes, in areas like social media.
- Ensuring that everyone — including freshmen, transfers, and newcomers to a sport — feels welcome and involved.
Two weeks ago, the Leadership Council held its first meeting. It was, Sarullo told attendees, “the only time all year I want to start off by talking to you. From here on, I want you to drive this.”
The first meeting of the Staples High School Leadership Council.
After presenting the survey results, the leaders broke into small groups. Each included a wide range of teams, and both genders.
They brainstormed ideas. Some were broad: a welcoming field day for all athletes. Others were specific: an explanation of the budget process.
All, Sarullo says, will help focus the Leadership Council the rest of the year.
“This is all about being better,” Sarullo says. “This department already has a great culture. But we want to make sure that everyone feels welcome, feels that they’re treated equally, and supports each other. And that affects the entire school.”
The next meeting will feature Dan Switchenko, former baseball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University. He’ll help the teenagers understand the connection between leading by example, and team culture.
The Leadership Council will meet monthly, at 7 p.m. (Chartwells — Staples’ food service — provides food for athletes just coming off a practice or game.)
Student-athletes like Santi Alfageme (#15) are learning to lead, on and off the field. (Photo/Mark Sikorski)
As they learn about leadership, Sarullo is learning from them.
“These kids are honest, and incredible,” he says.
“They all dug in, right from the start. I had to get them to stop their meetings, so they could get out of there by 8:30.”
After all, they still had homework to do. Games to prepare for. Teams to lead.
A captain’s work is never done.
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