January 07, 2004 11:00 pm

This past spring, in light of a sluggish Oregon economy and declining tax revenues, the La Grande School District was forced to make the tough decision to cut funding for middle school sports.

It could've been a rough situation for middle school athletes and their parents, but into the void stepped the La Grande Optimists.

The Optimists have managed middle school sports in the past when the need arose, and this year, they were called upon again, and agreed take it on again. On short notice, the club took over the management of the middle school sports programs and is committed to running the programs next year, as well.

In the fall, the Optimists managed seventh- and eighth-grade football and girls' volleyball. This winter, the club will be running seventh- and eighth-grade boys' and girls' basketball programs, and wrestling.

In the spring, the club hopes to run track and tennis programs.

The group has distributed $59,000 it has raised for youth sports during the past year. The money goes for a variety of expenses, with the biggest being transportation.

The club works with the La Grande School District to make sure the kids still get the experience of participating in school-based teams, so they gain the school pride to carry through to high school. For instance, just like the high school kids, the middle school athletes have to keep up their grades to stay eligible to play sports.

While the Optimists have been a lifesaver for the middle school teams this year, saving sports is not all club members do. Optimists, through the Grande Ronde Association for Youth (otherwise known as "the GRAY Group"), also run a number of youth programs at the old Riveria building.

There's open gym for kids and adults alike during the days and nights, batting cages for area Babe Ruth and Little League players (and adults, too, if you want to make an appointment), and the group is looking to sponsor more high school dances after basketball games and drug- and alcohol-free youth activity nights.

The Optimists also put on the annual Wapiti League basketball tournaments every year. This year, the Optimists will put on the softball and baseball tournaments for the Wapiti League.

The Optimists also run the annual Moonlight Softball Tournaments, which bring tons of revenue into the community from hundreds of out-of-town softball players coming into La Grande. These tournaments serve as the main fund-raiser for the Optimists.

The Optimists and the GRAY Group don't necessarily like tooting their own horn for all the things they're doing for La Grande youth (one member told me, "we're so focused on rolling up our sleeves and just doing things that we're bad about public relations"), but they need to get the word out that they need some help.

First, the Optimists are looking for more volunteer help, especially coaches for the middle school girls' basketball teams and track. Those interested in volunteering can call Randy Miles at 663-8119 or Bryan Ackley at 963-2155.

Second, the GRAY Group and Community Connection are looking to purchase the Riveria property by a December deadline. This project will probably involve some community fund-raisers over the course of the year.

It's a $100,000 project, and about $20,000 has been raised so far through grants and about $4,000 to $5,000 in local donations. The building will be purchased mostly with grants if local groups can raise enough money to match.

When the local fund-raisers are held, be sure to do your part to support local youth athletics.

Pierre LaBossierre is The Observer sports editor.