JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City’s school system has a new twist on “Rivalry Week” this year after the transition to two 6th-8th grade middle schools for the first time ever.

The Indian Trail Hawks and Liberty Bell Patriots took to the field at Science Hill High School’s Tipton Stadium two consecutive nights as fall break and the end of the first quarter beckoned. Wednesday, the ITMS girls’ soccer team squeaked by LBMS 1-0 to cap an unbeaten season.

Liberty Bell (in white) and Indian Trail middle schools clash in girls’ soccer Oct. 5 at Science Hill High School’s Kermit Tipton Stadium. Those who play in high school will go from rivals to teammates.

Thursday, the schools’ football squads were set to clash, with the Patriots coming in at 6-1 following their first loss and the Hawks — cheered on by fans who have a mascot (no such luck yet for LBMS) — hoping to salvage what would be their only win of the season.

“We have most of the eighth graders,” ITMS soccer player Khloe Sommers said of the way last year’s soccer teams split up. She and her schoolmates, most coming from Lake Ridge, Fairmont, Mountain View and North Side elementaries, returned this year to the school where they attended fifth and sixth grades.

They’d spent one year at Liberty Bell, which until this school year was the site for every single seventh and eighth grader in the city, with all the fifth and sixth graders attending Indian Trail Intermediate School.

Liberty Bell now is home to sixth through eighth graders from Woodland, Cherokee, Towne Acres and South Side elementaries. Fifth graders now attend elementary school for the first time in years following additions at Lake Ridge, South Side and Woodland.

Nine weeks in the transition is getting rave reviews from students and staff, with the broader opportunities for sports and other extracurricular clubs considered among the benefits.

“It provides a lot more development for these students who are able to get more of a chance now having teams on both sides of Johnson City,” said Stephan Williams, an eighth-grade science teacher who is also Liberty Bell’s athletic director. “It gives students that better opportunity, it gives them longer to develop and they’ll be more developed going into high school sports.”

More teams means kids double the chance to play their sport. The school system reports 337 students participating in a fall sport between the two middle schools.

Some of those students are trying their sport for the first time, which was the case for Clara McBride, an eighth-grader who decided to go out for the volleyball team. She said with all the seventh and eighth graders at one school prior to this year, quite a few students were hesitant to try out.

“All of us being at Liberty Bell and then sixth graders coming up to Indian Trail, we have some really good athletes,” she said. “We have a bunch of competitive people and so once that split you saw a lot more people wanting to try out and see, and then they end up making the team and they end up loving it.”

McBride, who already looks to be about 5’9″ and played middle blocker and hitter, found a sport she loves and plans to stick with.

Indian Trail eighth-grader Clara McBride tried out for volleyball for the first time and found she is good at the sport, and loves it. (WJHL photo)

“It’s been so much fun,” she said. “I got to play a lot, I got to experience the sport, and it’s made me want to move on with that and play in high school.”

Her Hawks beat Liberty Bell in two out of the three matches the squads played. She said the players got up for the new crosstown rivalry.

“It is actually a lot of fun. It makes the games very exciting. It’s really cool that we were teammates with them and now we get to go be teammates with them again. So we’re kind of learning from each other and growing from that.”

Liberty Bell eighth-grade English teacher Haley Reynolds said clubs are filling out too.

“Every student thrives when they have something to motivate them whether that’s a sport, beta club, FCA — just something that allows them to use their voice and do what they love. It definitely translates into the classroom.”

This week, though, it was about a new rivalry between the cross-town schools.

“It is a rivalry but it’s really kind of a fun rivalry,” Indian Trail Principal James Jacobs said. “They are serious on the floor, on the court but after that they are still friends.”

Hayden Smith plays running back and linebacker for Liberty Bell. The eighth-grader said kids were getting excited for Thursday’s contest.

“It’s Indian Trail, so we’re going to make a big deal about it,” Smith said. “Like our teachers, Mr. Williams and everything, he’s going to push it on us a little bit.”

Like any rivalry, you can throw records out the window.

Indian Trail Principal James Jacobs said now that it’s a middle school it has competitive sports and a mascot for the first time — and a crosstown Johnson City, Tenn. rival in Liberty Bell. (WJHL photo)

“Indian Trail, even though they’ve not been the best this year they’re still pushing it on us. I’m not nervous but I’m really excited to play them.”

When the young athletes reach ninth grade they’ll go from being rivals to teammates at Science Hill. Williams said that means keeping a focus on

“We may be on opposite sides now, but we want that rivalry to be healthy and then keep that unification as we go through and participate at Science Hill,” he said.

Williams is a big proponent of the additional opportunities and actually expects the change to yield some high-level Science Hill High School athletes who may never have even tried out under the old middle school system.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories from other places about there being potential diamonds in the rough,” he said. “People who may not have tried out previously but have that confidence to try out now and progress with their skill all the way up through.”

Tomorrow: Transition makes major positive impact on academics, student success