By REID TUCKER
Paxton High’s sports programs, well-known for their successes in terms of wins in the athletic arena, have now been acknowledged as some of Florida’s top performers in the classroom as well.
The Florida High School Athletic Association awarded the boys basketball and baseball teams with top honors in Class 1A of the Academic Team Championship Award Program due to the two Bobcat squads’ cumulative grade point averages of 3.595 and 3.469, respectively. Additionally, the girls basketball team came in third in the state with a GPA of 3.677 and the softball team took fourth with a cumulative mark of 3.507. Furthermore, since the FHSAA assigned point values to each top-10 school at each classification, Paxton ranked fifth among all Class 1A schools in the state, just one point behind fourth-place Mandarin Christian of Jacksonville.
Paxton Assistant Principal Mitch Jackson, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, said the 2010-2011 school year is not the first time the Bobcats have been nominated for these kinds of awards, though it is the first time Paxton received so much academic notoriety from the FHSAA. The boys basketball squad came in fifth while the Lady Cats came in fourth in 2009-2010. Jackson said the awards are part of what is hoped to be a continuing trend of academic excellence among the school’s athletes.
“Our students take a lot of pride in their schoolwork but this is a team effort,” he said. “The coaches stress hitting the books just as much as getting rebounds or scoring runs and we also depend on the involvement of our parents. It takes effort from everyone involved.”
Softball coach Laurie Gilbert’s policy toward school work exemplified Jackson’s assessment. Gilbert said she had the team arrive 30 minutes early to practice so that she would be available if any players had problems with their schoolwork and the girls would also often stay after practice to help their teammates. By making education paramount to strictly athletic success, Gilbert said she was trying to teach her players an important life lesson.
“You might have a whole team of good athletes, but only a few of them are going to make their way in life through sports,” Gilbert said. “A final four in academics will take you farther than a final four on the field ever will.”
While all four of the school’s main sports programs heaped up academic awards, the Bobcats’ basketball team shot the competition’s lights out by not only taking first place in 1A but also by having a team GPA higher than the winners of all the other classifications. What’s more, the closest two runners up, Tampa’s 4A Jesuit (with a 3.493 cumulative GPA) and the 2A Orangewood Christian of Maitland (3.482) are both private schools.
This fact was not lost on head basketball coach Jeff Bradley, who also coaches many of the same athletes on Paxton’s baseball team. Even though the Bobcats finished their seasons with state playoffs appearance and records of 24-5 in basketball and 19-4 in baseball, Bradley was most pleased that his players showed the motivation to excel in the classroom. He said winning a state championship in academics was more humbling in its own way than winning on the court or field because the former has more do to with each student’s dedication and takes coaching almost completely out of the picture.
“This award was a huge honor for the school and the team but it really shows a lot about the quality of the kids we have [at Paxton],” Bradley said. “As coaches we don’t do an extraordinarily special job, we’re just dealing with extraordinary kids. As much as the whole team tries to win (sports) championships during the season, this is something [each student] does on their own. It makes the whole experience that much more overwhelming.”