From tee ball to D1 ball, it’s all possible in Evansville, Indiana. In the very lower lefthand part of the state lies the city of Evansville, home to the 3rd largest school district in all of Indiana, as well as two division one universities. Growing up, kids search for role models that they can mirror and strive to be like one day. Typically, those role models are people they will never meet, as they are so out of reach, but that’s not the case for kids in Evansville. Both the University of Southern Indiana and the University of Evansville take pride in their athletics, and it shines throughout the community. From high school prospects all the way down to the peewee teams, kids in Vanderburgh county have accessible role models to look up to.
The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation has 40 schools throughout the city and serves more than 22,000 students, along with countless sports teams between them all. The school district has a multitude of athletics including football, basketball, tennis, golf, and wrestling and consistently brings home winning titles across all of their teams. EVSC hosts their sporting events in many top-of-the-line athletic facilities including the historic Bosse Field, the Ford Center, The Deaconess Aquatic Center, and many outdoor playing fields attached to each individual school.
According to Andy Owen, Director of Athletics and Physical Education and Health at EVSC, having top notch facilities for students to practice and compete in is the first step in having a successful season and continued success in individual athletes. In addition to the facilities, young athletes need role models to not only look up to, but for them to get involved with as well.
Typically, meeting the people who inspire you would be difficult, but not for the athletes in the EVSC. They have plenty of Division 1 athletes to choose from, between UE and USI, and a multitude of opportunities to get involved in the programs that they strive to be a part of one day. Evan Waggoner is a sophomore catcher for UE’s baseball team who is passionate about youth sports. He’s proud to be an ACE because of the commitment UE athletics has to the betterment of youth sports in Evansville.
Just this past month, UE’s baseball team hosted an event with an organization in the Evansville/ Vanderburgh area called “The Highland Challenger League.” The University of Evansville’s athletic director, Dr. Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried, explained that “The Highland Challenger League is an adaptive baseball program that serves the youth ages 3-18 with physical and intellectual challenges.” Waggoner explained that the event was just your typical baseball game where the UE team got to play one-on-one with kids in the Challenger League. “We got set up with buddies and we pretty much got to know them and just had fun with them on the diamond.” Waggoner explained that, to make sure that everyone could get involved, no matter their disability, the UE baseball team would throw balls out to everyone and then help them field, throw, and even run the bases.
This event was a major step forward in not only breaking the stigma between special needs athletes not being able to be involved in sports, but also in showing that division one athletics are not out of reach to the youth athletes who may look up to those higher-level sportsmen.
The baseball team isn’t the only team at UE who go out of their way to work with the youth of Evansville. At the end of September, the UE Women’s basketball team hosted an event at Peyton Manning’s Children’s Hospital at Ascension St. Vincent, where kids had the opportunity to design the season tickets for this season. A few players, the coach, and Ace Purple attended this event at this hospital to involve kids who are not able to come to sporting events and be exposed to college athletics. Dr. Ziggy also explained that this was not just a one-off event and that the women’s basketball team, along with the men’s basketball team, volunteer at the hospital often to help advance their exposure to athletics and to give them real and attainable role models to look up to.
Later this month (November 2022), The Women’s Basketball team will be hosting an event in Downtown Evansville called “Education Day”, an outreach day for middle and high schoolers to attend the basketball game “as a field trip and an educational opportunity.” UE’s athletic department, in conjunction with the UE women’s basketball team and The Ford Center, are giving out over 2,200 tickets to the school so that the game is accessible for all who wish to attend. This is just another example of how UE athletics are going out of their way to make a good impact on the youth in our community and neighboring communities as well.
Just across highway 41 in Evansville, The University of Southern Indiana’s athletic teams are doing their parts to get involved with the youth of Vanderburgh County as well. Jackson McPheeters is a senior runner on the USI track and field team and competes in the 800 meters run. He has a unique perspective, as he grew up in a town where there weren’t many professional athletes to look up to. However, similar to kids at EVSC, he also chose his role model from the local college near him.
He explained that, in his time at USI, the youth are always involved in some way, even if it is just as supporters in the stands at meets. McPheeters also explained that due to the lack of facilities, they do not host full youth events as of now, but they do have recruiting events where high school prospects can come to campus. “We bring recruits on campus so they can interact or practice with the team and learn how things go around here.”
Jon Mark Hall has been working at The University of Southern Indiana for over 25 years and has been the athletic director since 2002, marking this his 20th year in the position. He is very passionate about sports at the collegiate level, but also at the youth level. “I have six children and all of them played youth sports at some level.” Having an AD with such experience both professionally at USI and personally with his family drives his passion to better sports in the Evansville area, and his department’s outreach in the community shows that.
USI does many things with kids in the area, including civic engagement days such as one just this past week. During this, the men’s basketball team worked with the Joshua Academy kids. The women’s basketball team volunteered with youth in the city to expose them to basketball and the athletic world in general. Mr. Hall is proud of his athletic teams for their passion to be involved and said, “All of our teams do some sort of community service and community engagement with our youth.”
Ziggy and Jon Mark agree that this is a great step forward not only for the universities, but for the youth as well. Having two division 1 schools will double the amount of exposure young athletes get to high level sporting events. Alexis Berggren, President & CEO of Visit Evansville, said, “In my opinion, it’s all about exposure. Everyone, especially kids, have a hard time getting excited about anything unless they’ve experienced it directly.”
The city of Evansville holds many opportunities for success and inspiration of young athletes through the top-of-the-line facilities, supportive community, and its two division one universities. Every day there are new and exciting ways to get involved with youth and college sports alike; because of this, the future of Evansville athletics is looking bright. UE baseball player Evan Waggoner said it best: “Every college athlete who inspires a young athlete is another light of hope that Evansville will continue to make history in more than one way through sports.”