Benefield: Student athletes learning, training together at El Molino High School (w/video)

Jordan "MJ" Shane lifts weights while participating in El Molino High School's integrated athletics program, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Jordan “MJ” Shane lifts weights while participating in El Molino High School’s integrated athletics program, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Black Sabbath was blaring on the stereo in the weight room but the feeling was more Sister Sledge.

More “We Are Family” than “Iron Man.”

“It’s not intimidating,” said El Molino High School senior Stephanie Vajto, who was putting her brother through the paces of a killer ab workout.

Vajto runs cross country and track but works out regularly with members of the football team, the wrestling squad, soccer players and the baseball guys.

“They are here to work out, not compete with each other,” she said.

She’s not alone. Watching a workout at El Molino, it’s hard to pigeonhole who’s who and who plays on what team.

And that’s the idea.

Athletes at El Molino are in year two of a program that is part study hall, part weight training, part conditioning and part athletic head-hunting.

No matter their sport, Lions are expected to attend a facilitated study hall at least twice a week, as well as organized weights and conditioning sessions. This goes on all year long — in season and out of season, El Molino athletes are encouraged to train and study in one, integrated program.

“We are looking for connection,” El Molino athletic director Mike Roan said. “Every high school is training their athletes in the offseason. How can you not? Our boys, our girls, our freshmen, our seniors … really, for the most part, are doing the same workout. We are really just trying to be better athletes, not necessarily better football players or basketball players or better runners.”

There is another goal.

El Molino has a shrinking student population, which means a shrinking pool of athletes from which coaches can pluck team members. The school, a four-time California Distinguished School honoree, has approximately 600 students, down from 1,200 in 1998-1999. School and district officials for years have grappled with ways to stem the decline.

Coaches have, too.

Stand on the sidelines of a football game and the Lions are half in number of most of their competitors. Other sports are in the same fix.

And teams have suffered. The boys soccer team was winless in the fall; the girls team only 3-9 against SCL opponents. Girls volleyball finished 1-8 in league. Both the boys and girls basketball teams are winless in league.

“When we play Analy, our team is half their size,” said Lani Gaspar, a senior and three-sport standout athlete. “It just gives us motivation to keep on trying.”

To that end, El Molino football has enjoyed a fledgling renaissance. The Lions went 4-2 in league under coach Randy Parmeter. And the wrestling squad is battling Healdsburg for the wrestling title this season.

At El Molino, athletes are encouraged to dabble. You say you are a football player? Why not give track a go in the spring? Love soccer? Basketball uses a lot of the same movement.

To that point, senior softball player Kylee Potts was encouraged to come out for golf this fall — and she found a new passion.

“I’m going to play at the JC,” she said. Golf, that is.

(See more photos from El Molino High School)

In a push to attract students to the Forestville campus, Roan uses an experience like that as an example. He touts the value of multisport athletes, of what can be gained from taking instruction from different coaches, from having a variety of teammates, of keeping a young body fit for an array of movements. And that’s to say nothing of time management skills that all extra-curricular activities demand.

And maybe because some teams struggle for wins and struggle to fill out the roster, if you suit up for the Lions, you are likely to get some serious playing time.

“If you are willing to come out and put in the time, you are going to find your way onto the field, the court, the pool,” Roan said. “We are smaller, can we offer that.”

And that’s real.

Baseball coach Tony Franceschi said he lost two students who live within El Molino’s boundaries to a rival campus with a more robust athletic program.

“A couple of players went over there and got cut and their baseball career is over,” he said.

The new program is a support system for both the students and the school. It’s based on practicality but also on a sense of family.

Athletes who live in far-flung locales used to kill time before practice down the road eating junk food or hanging out at the park. Now they get homework done — gasp — before practice and with study hall director Justin Brown on hand if they struggle. And they can work out in a guided routine, with athletes from across the spectrum. This week track sprinters were running next to baseball players while long-distance runners literally ran circles around them.

From the start, Roan said he didn’t know if what El Molino is doing is new or particularly innovative. He said he wasn’t even sure if he would be able to calculate if it’s working. But when he looked at the library after school one day last week and saw more than 30 athletes doing their homework, he guessed that it’s on the right track.

And that football team? The one with the 4-2 record in league? They had a collective grade point average of above 3.0 this season.

And look at Potts, who thought she was a softball player but found out she loves golf. And Gaspar, who took up track to help his speed on the football field and finished second in the league in the 200M and third in the 100M last spring. Or sophomore Jake Peter, a baseballer who this season was a contributor on the football field and calls basketball his “add on.”

Roan, who created the Iron Lion award for any athlete who participates in three sports all four years, is a big proponent of being athletically multi-faceted. That doesn’t mean being a star in every endeavor. It means taking direction from different coaches, being a stud in one sport but a support player in another, learning different strategies, having different teammates.

“It broadens your circle of contacts and friends and support,” he said. “The benefits, to me, are endless.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.