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SMS launches first middle school esports team in state

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Jonas Jernigan plays during a Suwannee Middle School esports practice.

LIVE OAK, Fla. — Calay Anderson and Marcus Raulerson never imagined they’d have the opportunity.

But Anderson and Raulerson are just two of the nearly 40 students at Suwannee Middle School that have flocked to the school’s new esports club team, the first of its kind in the state.

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Marcus Raulerson was surprised when it was announced the school was starting an esports team.

“It surprised me,” Raulerson said of the middle school starting the club, adding he didn’t expect as many people to be interested or to know about Rocket League, the online game that the Bullpups will play. “Playing video games, people at the middle school know that video games are something that ruins students’ sleeping schedules. So for them to start one of these, it surprised me.”

Added Anderson, who already has played Rocket League on his Xbox at home: “When I heard it was announced, I just thought it was good.”

They are not alone.

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Tammy Neil, a computer science teacher at the school and the club’s sponsor, said she is not a gamer herself and never imagined launching the program at SMS.

However, when School Resource Officer Jacob Williamson approached her with the idea, she quickly came around, helping assemble the plan for the program, which received overwhelming support from administration both at the school and at the district office.

“It is not something I expected to fall into, but I am glad I’m here,” Neil said. “I am thrilled that we can offer this here.

“I am very excited about what they’re doing and how excited they are about it.”

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Logan Roberson is one of the nearly 40 SMS students that have joined the esports club team.

That excitement level is what helped sell Laura Williams, the SMS principal, on the club and the idea.

“I just thought it was a really cool idea,” she said. “The interest of the kids is what really sold me on the idea. They’re really into it.”

With administrative support and the green light from the district’s IT department, Neil and Williamson began in the fall by having interested students come watch Rocket League championship matches.

Then, once school resumed in January, they announced that the club team was forming and the school would soon start competing. Suwannee Middle’s first match is currently scheduled for Feb. 27. Neil said connections she has made with teachers across the country through Twitter have helped lead to scheduling matches as well as providing insight throughout the process of starting the club — from what game to play to the code of conduct that the players have signed in order to join the club.

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The Suwannee Middle School esports team plays Rocket League, which is described as car soccer.

But with the unbelievable response and not much time, there is still a lot to be done for the Bullpups to be ready to compete. The computer lab has 12 stations for players to compete on — Rocket League is a 3-on-3 soccer game featuring cars. With nearly 40 members, that has meant a lot of patience in order to get practices organized and running smoothly, as well as to allow all the players a chance to practice and get to know the game.

Neil said she hopes to soon be able to start figuring out a lineup of the Bullpups’ best players.

“We may have a diamond in the rough that gets in here and takes to it and soars,” Neil said. “But we’re building.

“The other thing that this is, it’s an equalizer. You sit down at the computer, you might be a jock, you might be a 90-pound weakling. But behind that controller, your thumbs are just as powerful as anybody else’s.”

That building process has been a challenge for the players as well.

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Calay Anderson, second from left, has already played Rocket League at home.

“It’s going to be hard because only six of us out of 40 are going to play,” Anderson said of the first match (the Minnesota school SMS is slated to play only has two teams). “It’s going to be pretty challenging.”

Raulerson, though, said his friend was just being humble.

“You’re the highest level here buddy, you don’t have to worry about nothing,” he told Anderson.

There’s another bigger challenge on the horizon. SMS has already been invited to play in the national championship, which will take place the first week of April.

“Very excited about it,” said Neil, who added the team is looking for sponsors in order to help obtain practice T-shirts for the team members as well as game jerseys. She added having some gaming chairs in the future would be great as well.

“Looking forward to see what the kids can do.”

Jamie Wachter is the editor of the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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