From parent to coach: Irwin builds winning athletic program at St. Andrew

It has been about 14 years since Mike Irwin camped outside St. Andrew’s Catholic School, located at 3304 Dryden Road in the 109, but he remembers it as if it were just yesterday. For two days, he waited patiently along with other individuals to try to secure his then- 5-year-old son a spot as a student.

As Irwin waited he met a woman and struck up a conversation about his love for sports, especially basketball. Irwin said the woman replied with an unexpected response.

“She said, ‘Well, you are going to coach my daughter in basketball this year,’” he remembered.

Irwin said he gave no real thought to the encounter, but when basketball season rolled around, he got a call. The woman wanted him to coach her daughter’s sixth grade basketball team.

Flash forward to today and Irwin is both the sports coordinator and gym director for St. Andrew, as well as plant manager by day. Though both his son and daughter are now in college and high school, Irwin still brings his passion for sports and the Christian values the school was built on together to produce the next generation of athletes.

School offers full sports schedule

Currently, St. Andrew’s sports program is open to sixth, seventh and eighth graders and includes volleyball, soccer, basketball, track, baseball, and softball. With both coed and non-coed teams, the school offers its students a full schedule of sports year-round, as well as competition against non-parochial private schools and other schools within the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

Irwin said the amount of participation from students in the program has been enormous. Irwin said this year alone the school has 15 basketball teams comprising about 170 students.

“We have 225 students out of sixth, seventh and eighth grade, and 170 of those 225 are playing in a sport,” Irwin said. “That is a huge testament to our program.”

Irwin said he credits the amount of student interest to the relationships that he is able to develop with the students from the time they enter kindergarten to the time they are old enough to participate in the school’s sports program. Irwin, who has been coaching for 14 years, said year-round he tries to excite the younger students through encouraging words about the program.

“By the time they get into sixth grade they are dying to play a sport,” he said.

Irwin said that St. Andrew’s physical education instructors do “an awesome job” of preparing the younger grade levels for competitive sports by teaching them basic sports fundamentals, such as drills that develop their hand-eye coordination. He said most of these drills or exercises prepare students for sports in which the upper level grades are competing at that time.

Besides these drills, the lower grade levels also participate in the President’s Challenge, a program through the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition that promotes a happy and active lifestyle.

“They do a good job of keeping them active and having some fun at the same time,” Irwin said.

All athletes get playing time

One of the great things about the school, Irwin said, is that when students are finally eligible to participate in St. Andrew’s sports program they don’t have to worry whether or not they will play or sit the bench. Unlike most middle schools that separate students in to A and B teams depending on athletic prowess, Irwin said the school makes it a point to see that the students are divided evenly into teams based on their skills and that each player is given equal amounts of playing time.

Rose Hall, development director for St. Andrew, said having sports in a school this large can often be competitive, yet the school always makes it a point to make sure that each student plays.

At St. Andrew student-athletes are taught that every single one of their peers is equal, regardless of athletic ability. Irwin said he uses this concept to reinforce the importance of teamwork and accomplishing goals for the greater good of everyone.

“I think it really helps to teach how to work with somebody and how to trust someone else to get the same job done,” Irwin said. “It develops you in many ways, not just physically.”

Irwin said what make St. Andrew’s sports program so unique is that it is truly based on a Christian atmosphere. He, along with the other volunteers, often stresses the importance of sportsmanship among the students. As a custom before each game, each St. Andrew’s sports team prays alongside the team they are about to play. And as Irwin puts it, it’s not to get a leg up from the man upstairs.

“We pray not to win, but to allow us to take something away from the experience,” Irwin said.

Hall said as in all activities or organizations that the students take part in through St. Andrew, it is extremely important that the faculty and staff teach Christlike behaviors.

Matthew Soles, an eighth grader at St. Andrew who participates in basketball and baseball, said he enjoys being a part of a sport program that is competitive, but not to the extreme that it limits some players’ ability to play.

“Nobody gets shunned, everyone gets to play,” he said.

Teams emphasize sportsmanship

Soles, who previously played basketball for North Crowley, said that St. Andrew’s coaches are great in giving the students constructive criticism without doing so in an aggressive manner. He said they also do a great job of expecting each of the students to act in a mature way when competing.

“They want us to be good sports,” Soles said.

Irwin said that even sometimes the grown-ups can find themselves needing to be reminded of what good sportsmanship is and it often comes from the most unlikely of places. He recalled an incident in where he himself got heated after a bad call had been made against his own team.

“One of the girls walked over to me and said, ‘Hey Coach, you are the only one here — don’t get kicked out today,’” Irwin said. “They reminded me that I needed to put myself in a better place.”

Kayla Howell, an eighth grader who participates in basketball, volleyball, and track, also played basketball at North Crowley and said that compared to St. Andrew, it was overly competitive and some athletes were rude. She said she has really enjoyed being a part of the sports program that St. Andrew’s has built.

St. Andrew has built a successful program, but Irwin said he however cannot take credit alone. A real community of sorts, 13 of the 15 basketball teams are coached by parent volunteers while the other two are coached by Irwin himself.

Parent volunteers number 45

With assistant coaches and team moms included, Irwin said, the number of parent volunteers in the basketball program alone is around 45.
“I couldn’t do it without all the volunteers,” Irwin said.

Hall said that parent volunteers are of paramount importance to the school, especially in such large extracurricular programs such as sports.

“We do not have a budget to hire coaches so we are blessed to have so many great St. Andrew’s parents who share their talent in the sport they love and their time to their children,” Hall said.

With no real budget set aside for sports, Irwin said that the sports program relies on small fees charged to each of the athletes and that this allows program to break even at the end of the year. Money from the collected from the participation fees is used to provide uniforms and equipment for the students, he said.

Irwin said luckily the school does not have to worry about renting out or paying for facilities to practice or play. St. Andrew’s Catholic Church owns the fields surrounding the school that are used to play some of the sports, such as soccer, while the school has its own gym for other sports, such as volleyball and basketball.

The topic of the school’s gym can sometimes be a stressful one. As of right now, St. Andrew’s gym currently doubles as an auditorium for the school. This can often cause a conflict for some of the sports teams, as well as other school organizations, such as the drama club, when it is time for practice.

Irwin said as much as he would like to have a new gym all to himself he recognizes that there is a need for money in other areas of the school and he is happy to see it put to good use there.

Hall said she commends the work that Irwin does and that St. Andrew’s sports program has done a great job of building up school spirit as well as giving something for students in the lower grades to look forward to. She said that it becomes a privilege and honor for the students to represent St. Andrew.

Irwin said that he recognizes that for some of the students this will be the one and only time that they will ever play sports, as most do not always continue after their transition to high school. However, Irwin said because of this he tries his best to make every student’s experience within the program is a fun and enjoyable one.

He said he hopes that each of the students that come through not only St. Andrew’s sports program, but the school realizes how much of a blessing they are upon his own life.

“To see them actually challenge themselves year after year amazes me,” he said.

Irwin said he also hopes that besides a good time, students are able to take away from their time as a St. Andrew’s Wildcat the kind of lessons that can be used as they grow older.

“I think we are really building some strong characters through the kids for them to develop into good young men and women in the future,” Irwin said.