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The City Journals

Murray Parks & Recreation evolves in an ever-changing participation sport landscape

Jan 08, 2020 01:53PM ● By Carl Fauver

A Murray High School graduate is leading the charge to grow Spikeball as a Utah participation sport, and the Murray Parks & Recreation Department now plans to host a tournament for the first time this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected] 

A simple four-word phrase we all remember – well, at least those of us who also remember Marcia Brady and Thurston Howell III – is all but gone from our lexicon: “Go out and play.”

And that seismic shift is creating quite a challenge for the Murray Parks & Recreation Department.

Moms and dads told kids to go out and play for decades, with the looming threat of yardwork or room cleaning for those who disobeyed. But when’s the last time you heard (or said) those words?

“When I was a kid, we went out and played wiffle ball until we destroyed the bats and balls; we were outside and active all day,” said Murray Parks & Recreation Coordinator Larry Killips. “Unfortunately, today I see kids and I shake my head. They’re overweight, out of shape and have such a short attention span.” 

Killips is not big on sugarcoating. But he’s also not wrong. Childhood obesity is a growing trend nationwide. Sure, it’s a bigger problem in nearly every other state. However, even here in Utah, the trend toward “couch-potatoness” creates a constant challenge for Killips and his parks and rec cohorts.

These are some of the ways they attacked couch-potatoness (if you use a word twice, it’s official) last year, and will continue doing so this decade – in the new “Roaring 20s.”

e-Sports

Granted, one of the two significant activities the Murray Parks & Recreation Department rolled out in 2019 – an eSports tournament – is as sedentary as the come. Many bristle at even calling video gaming a “sport.” But Killips’ fellow Murray P&R recreation coordinator, Leisl Morris, believes even this low-motion activity is a great start for many youngsters.

“Kids are already gaming, so the idea behind the e-Sports tournament was to get them out of their houses and into a social situation,” Morris said. “We want them to put away their phones, develop face-to-face relationships and also learn about some of the more athletic activities our department also has to offer.”

The recreation department’s first, and so far only, e-Sports tournament was a modest success, at the Murray Park Amphitheater last summer. They rounded up six computers and a large screen to show the game action to a small audience. They did not get the dozen, 3-person teams they had hoped would sign up. But Morris blames that on the outdoor venue.

“The trouble is, we had to start the tournament at 9 p.m., because it was not dark enough until then for people to be able to see the action on the screen,” she said. “More than anything, we learned we need an indoor venue to make this work. And we may have a good lead on that now.”

Morris said Murray City has purchased land west of State Street that included the old Murray Chapel. She’s lobbying for that building to be refurbished, creating an indoor e-Sports league and tournament venue.

“It would be a great space, with two floors; but the building has been gutted,” Morris added. “There would be expense in setting it up with computers, screens, a sound system and other things. But we are looking hard at it now.”

Unless or until that happens, Morris said they may try to strike an agreement with the Murray School District to move forward with indoor e-Sports events, possibly at Murray High.  

Murray Parks & Recreation also plans to survey nearby junior high and high school students to learn more about what they would want included in a video game league.

“I loved the e-Sports tournament last summer,” she concluded. “People got involved and had a great time. We’re working to keep it alive.”

Cornhole

The other significant new sport introduced by the Murray Parks & Recreation Department in 2019 was cornhole, under Killips’ purview. He calls it an instant favorite.

“Cornhole is a big hit and we had more people sign up for each league we introduced,” he said. “Some players have encouraged us to make it more competitive. But we don’t want to push people away. Right now, it’s a low-impact, social activity – and a blast for everyone.”

Two-person teams play cornhole by standing at opposite ends of a playing area, each next to an opponent, similar to horseshoes. But rather than throwing metal shoes at a peg, competitors instead toss small cloth bags full of corn toward wooden targets with a “cornhole.” 

One instant advantage: because soft cloth bags are tossed rather than horseshoes, cornhole can be played indoors without causing damage.

“We started last spring and summer playing only outdoors,” Killips added. “But it has been so popular, I had to quickly line up indoor space for leagues to continue this winter. We may eventually divide things into social and competitive leagues. But right now, it is working fine as it is.”

The first winter cornhole league wrapped up play a week before Christmas, while two more are following this month through March.  The leagues are being held at Riverview Junior High School, until Mother Nature allows them to move outdoors this spring, back in Murray Park.

Cross Country and Steeplechase

In addition to launching two completely new activities – eSports and cornhole – Murray Parks & Recreation is also doing some major overhauling on its long-distance running activities. For that, they have a new cross-country coach largely to thank.

“Having him take over our cross country program has been fantastic,” Morris said, in describing coach Walter Watchman. “I like his approach to conditioning and training. And the kids love him.”

After coaching youth cross country through a Salt Lake rec center for more than 20 years, Watchman decided he was ready for a change and became involved with Murray’s cross country and track and field youth programs. Several of his young runners followed him to Murray, as did two assistant coaches – Watchman’s son and daughter-in-law.

“I think I give kids more structure than most youth coaches, because I want them to remember what they’ve learned when they get to their high school cross country teams,” he said.

Nearly 50 young runners competed regularly for the Murray Parks and Recreation team last fall. Along the way, Morris and Watchman decided the kids needed another race in their season. The “HAYDAY 2K” was born.

“We mapped out a course at Willow Pond Park (1000 West, north of the I-215 belt route), laid out a few hay bales for obstacles and let them run,” Morris added. “It was fun, and I am sure we will do it again next fall.”

Before that, Morris will follow another of Watchman’s suggestions and create an entirely new distance running activity.

“Walter is aware of a steeplechase track we can use, with wooden hurdles and water puddles the runners land in after they jump,” she added. “We plan to try it in January or February, with kids practicing at Murray Park and occasionally in the Park Center during bad weather. I’m not sure how the participation will be, but we are willing to give it a try.”

Spikeball

Sometimes the Murray Parks & Recreation staff has to try an event more than once. That’s their plan for Spikeball.

“We offered Spikeball as an event last year, but no one signed up,” Killips said. “But it’s becoming better known now, and I think we will try it again. First, we have to make sure we have enough space. Stronger Spikeball players need a lot of room.”

Spikeball is a kind of hybrid between the childhood game four-square and volleyball. Two-person teams compete by spiking a ball onto a 3-foot diameter net, raised about 6 inches off the ground. The receiving team has three hits (like volleyball) to return the ball to the net. The generic name for the sport is roundnet.

Morris is also involved in bringing Spikeball to life as a Murray Parks & Recreation activity. Last spring, she met Utah Roundnet Association President – and 2006 Murray High School graduate – Taylor Sanford, who has coordinated a couple of Salt Lake Valley Spikeball tournaments.

“Taylor made a Spikeball presentation at the Utah Recreation and Parks Association (URPA) convention in St. George,” she said. “I had already thought it was a good idea for us; but he confirmed it for me. I bought our first Spikeball set at the URPA silent auction.”

Morris has since been in contact with Spikeball company reps who have offered guidance on hosting tournaments and have offered to donate prizes for tournament winners.

“I also taught a Spikeball class at Longview Elementary (6240 S. 550 East) last spring, and the kids loved it,” she added. “We now have six Spikeball sets and it is definitely a go for 2020. We’re just not sure when, because we are still trying to line up a good location.”

Referees

In addition to launching new activities (eSports and cornhole), tweaking another (cross-country) and prepping for yet another (Spikeball), the Murray Parks & Recreation staff also faces a constant struggle to find and keep youth sport referees for some of their longest-standing activities such as soccer, basketball and softball.

“In my nearly 30 years here, the problem has gotten steadily worse,” Killips lamented. “It’s getting to be much more of a challenge to keep refs and umpires. I have been a referee myself for nearly 50 years and have never seen it this bad. Parents, coaches, even players are all bad-mouthing and harassing referees way too much.”

Killips says it has gotten so bad, this winter – for the first time ever – he is refusing to hire high school-age kids to referee junior high- age players.

“Nationally, 80% of youth referees drop out after just a couple of years, due to abuse,” Killips added. “In the Murray Parks & Recreation programs we have not had any referee physically assaulted. But we have had everything else – fights among coaches, fights among fans, parents attacking coaches. It’s ridiculous – and such a bad example for the kids.”

In fact, Killips added, the problem is raising the cost of youth sports, because now they are forced to hire more experienced and costly adult referees, while less expensive high schoolers lose out on gaining the experience.

“It’s an ongoing problem we constantly have to deal with,” he concluded.

But despite that nagging challenge, the Murray Parks & Recreation Department continues to find new and innovative activities to help kids and adults go out and play.