While this high school spring season brings a breath of relief in giving athletes the chance to be back out competing, its biggest challenge for coaches will be balancing two classes of underclassmen who have no high school competition experience.
Outside of seniors and juniors, this year’s sophomores lost their freshmen seasons last spring due to the pandemic, while many of this year’s freshmen haven’t played organized spring sports for their school since their seventh grade.
Just a few weeks into the season, high school spring sport coaches are learning what it takes to manage a team with inexperienced underclassmen and upperclassmen who have never been in leadership positions until now. While they’ve had to refocus practices and put more trust in their seniors, these coaches understand this season is going to take a lot of patience and a lot of rebuilding.
With about half of the athletes on their rosters having very limited experience in their sports and no experience playing for their high schools teams, coaches are prioritizing teaching game fundamentals and breaking down basic skills during practices instead of focusing on learning specific plays and drills. For many coaches, building their teams this year is almost like starting from scratch.
“When you come from seventh grade and then your next experience is a varsity program, the culture, the climate, the attitude is different,” Ben Levy, Fairfield Warde’s girls’ lacrosse coach said. “It’s just taking time for these kids who have been in and out of school because of the pandemic, in and out of classrooms, quarantine not quarantined, it’s taking everyone just some time to reacclimate to what a varsity sport looks like.”
Levy spends about an hour of his two-hour and 15-minute practices teaching basic stick work to his varsity players since so many have never played at such a high level before. Kristin Woods, New Canaan’s girls’ lacrosse coach, spends about an hour and a half during her two-hour practice windows breaking down veteran-player drills and explaining varsity expectations for her players.
In a normal season, these coaches would spend 30 minutes or less during practices going over these fundamentals before moving on to perfecting team plays and defensive schemes.
Coaches understand they need to be more patient than ever this season as athletes take time to learn new skills and expectations. With more patience comes making an effort to continually boost confidence in athletes who are getting their first experience with varsity level athletics and all the high demands that come along with it.
SPRING 2021: BASEBALL TOP 10 | SOFTBALL TOP 10 | BOYS LACROSSE TOP 10
“As you move up the game speeds up and we gotta remind our guys to make sure we try to slow the game down,” Roberto Mercado, New Britain High School baseball coach said. “We’re very patient. We tell our guys, ‘Hey, you’re gonna struggle and that’s expected, and it takes time.”
In terms of connecting players and building team chemistry, coaches are relying on their seniors to build trust within the team as very few others have ever played together at this level before this season.
In the blink of an eye the 2019 high school sophomores have become seniors this spring.
The last time they played on the field for their schools, they were the ones looking up to the older players for guidance. However, now in 2021, these then-underclassmen have been thrust into senior leadership positions across every spring sport.
While, they didn’t get to watch last year’s seniors set examples for younger players, these seniors are learning quickly what it takes to be a leader.
“They are the ones that know our warm-ups and our routines and what we do. But they kinda forgot, as everybody did from the season that we had off, so they had to bring back their memories of what they did and once that got there they’re really enjoying taking everybody and showing them the routines and laying out expectations,” said Amity softball coach Sara Hale.
“It’s actually taking their leadership position to a higher level than normal because they have to be the ones that show the expectations and the routines and all of that because none of these girls, even the seniors, besides my captains, they don’t know what our expectations of Amity softball are”
Despite their lack of leadership experience, many of this year’s seniors have taken the role in stride.
During practices, they’re showing new players how to do warmups and how to play up to varsity-level game pace. They’re staying back after practice to help younger players master skills and get extra reps in. Off the field, they’re leading virtual team bonding activities, such as big-little-sister pairings, and being available for advice outside of just their sport.
“We have a plan in place to really try to have our seniors and juniors mentor younger players to get them comfortable with the whole high school scene,” said Lou Bunosso, Fairfield Ludlowe softball coach. “We’re trying to get them [the underclassmen] to understand what it takes to practice six days a week, what it takes to be a good student-athlete as far as keeping your grades going while you’re doing this every single day of the week and what it takes to stay healthy.”
The mix of classes on each team, particularly on varsity rosters, has led to an increase of competition within the team for starting spots out on the field and in lineups. A lot of teams have multiple starting spots open and the competition has been fierce, with players in all classes pushing for spots.
“Having the difference in classes is really lighting a fire under our whole team,” Hale said. “We have been lucky at Amity softball where we only usually have about one or two positions to fill. This year we have a ton. So, we really have our work to be doing. They know that the competition is tight just among themselves and they really come ready to play and ready to do their best and they want to make an impact.”
There is no doubt this season will have its bumps. Already teams have experienced losing players to contact tracing and quarantines, and coaches know, despite the vaccine now be eligible to those 16 years and older, the virus’ constant threat of canceling games will remain present throughout the season.
“There’s a lot of things in the past that we never had to worry about, like telling kids to have their masks on to having them check in every day and do a COVID screening every day. Those are things as a coach I would have never had expected,” Fairfield Ludlowe baseball coach Mike Francese said. “Other than that, once we’re playing baseball it feels like we never left and that’s been the most fun part about it.”
All in all, the drive to compete this season is just as high as any other. While teams are sure to look different than years past, coaches are just happy their players are getting the chance to play their sport again after everything they’ve had to go through over the past year because of the pandemic.
“I’m in this for the kids, it means a lot for these kids. Going through the past year, the pandemic has been hard on everybody, especially high school students,” Bunosso said. “This is an outlet for them to escape the classroom and do something they love doing and being with friends that they’ve been playing softball with ever since little league. … I think it’s important for them to have a season. It will be tough with the COVID still being around, but it’s really all about the kids and getting back to having some positivity in their lives.”