School of the best

2014-02-06 00:00

A MIDDLE-TIER state school in the Highway area has suddenly overtaken private colleges and traditional sporting giants to become, arguably, the top all-round sports school in South Africa.

And it claims the revolution began merely as an effort to curb delinquency — and that it happened without “poaching” talent.

Once dominated by schools like Pinetown Boys’ — and not even in the same league as Grey College or DHS — Westville Boys’ High School (WBHS) appeared near the top of national rankings in almost every high school sports code last year, despite charging a quarter the tuition fees of many top schools.

Meanwhile, this week, six of South Africa’s 15-member men’s swimming team who competed in the Aquatic Super Series in Australia were WBHS boys, and a third of the Dolphins cricket team — including Khaya Zondo and Cameron Delport — hail from the humble former model-C school.

Westville was not even invited to participate in the gala for the top five swimming schools in KZN until 2007. Since then, it has won that gala seven times in a row.

Now number one nationally in swimming — producing stars like Olympic champion Chad le Clos — Westville was listed at second in South Africa for cricket and waterpolo, and number one in KZN for soccer, golf, squash, volleyball and even badminton.

In June last year, WBHS stunned the world of school sports by trouncing KZN’s rugby powerhouse Maritzburg College by a record 50 points to 10, on their own ground. Their first XV were unbeaten in KZN last year.

Deputy headmaster Nestor Pierides said that while most top schools relied on bursaries to attract elite athletes from other schools, WBHS focused on identifying potential within local boys, and developing it through a team of semi-professional coaches and skilled oldboys.

And Pierides claimed the surge in sport was directly linked to the school’s academic leap to the top — as the top boys’ school in South Africa, with over 600 subjects As last year, and producing South Africa’s top matriculant, Asil Motala, with a grade of 98%.

Pierides revealed that one key secret to Westville’s astonishing rise was a two-hour coaching session each week for all boys within the academic day — in addition to after-school and club sport.

Also, the school’s senior first team coaches are required to coach 13- and 14-year-olds during these two-hour “sports academy” sessions — allowing experts who feed teams like the Sharks and the Dolphins to identify talent they’ll need four years down the line.

Sharmin Naidoo, director of sport, said: “The tests help us identify a boy’s particular potential early on — is he explosive; does he have exceptional balance, etcetera.” He said one swimmer in matric this year, Daniel Ronaldson, “would be in the Olympics team now if it was an Olympic year”.

Pierides told The Witness the turnaround began in 1998, when the school adopted a “sport for all” policy designed to curb misbehaviour among idle boys after school.

“At the time, it wasn’t compulsory to do sport, and one of the things I picked up was that too many boys were doing nothing after school; sitting around and getting in trouble. We also found that a lot of kids from the Westville area were not going to Westville Boys’ — they were going to Kearsney or [Maritzburg] College.”

Pierides admitted luring some talented kids with a scholarship programme, but said it was “small”. “I don’t care if he’s a world-class rugby player, he’s not coming to this school if his discipline is poor, or his academic results are below par. Our scholarships are not actually a bribe — you’ve got to attain a certain level of academics.”

He claimed Westville “doesn’t poach or use other underhanded enticements”.

However, in his office he has a file with lists of swimming times for 13-year-olds at primary schools around the province.

If he sees that a 13-year-old has swum the 50-metre freestyle in under 33 seconds, he notes it; if they do it in under 31 seconds he highlights the name in dayglo ink and follows their progress.

And if, like Chad le Clos as a 12-year-old, they do it in 29 seconds, he picks up the phone and calls their parents — “to see if they’d be interested in coming to Westville”.

Last year, he lunged for that phone when he saw that a 13-year-old had swum the 50 metre breaststroke in 36 seconds, and twisted a parent’s arm to bring the young star to the school.

“Generally, we grow our own vegetables, we don’t buy them from the supermarket,” he said.

Three years ago, Jesse Smit played in the U14 D cricket team at WBHS. Within two years, Smit made the first XI and, last year, he was selected for the KZN U19 side.

However, Graham Bennett, director of sport at Maritzburg College, disputed Pierides notion of elite 13-year-old athletes, saying that only six percent of top U13s went on to become top U19s in the same code.

Bennett also warned that national rankings for school sports were “ludicrous”, as KZN schools did not compete with Cape schools, and “who knows what measures they’re relying on”.

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