Friday, March 14, 2014

Coach Mike's favorite season (so far)

After taking a couple of weeks to let it all sink in, here is a look back at my first year as a head basketball coach. My season at The Scholars Academy in Charlotte was amazing -- one of those rare life experiences that actually exceeds expectations.

I don't know if folks remember any of the things I posted months ago, but it was a rocky start back in October. And that was before the girl who was supposed to be our best player decided on the eve of our first practice to participate in Mock Trial instead of basketball. My wife said after I read that email from the girl's mother, all the color drained from my face.

I knew I had taken a job at a charter school for gifted students, but did I really lose an All-Conference player to Mock Trial? "What have I gotten myself into?"

Our Fine Nine

That left us with 9 girls, including four 6th-graders and one 5th-grader, to play in our 7th/8th-grade league. Four of them had never played basketball at any level. Several were soccer players, not accustomed to using their hands in sports. Our center, Celeste, was shorter than the guards on several teams in our league. Our guards were smaller (often significantly so) than their counterparts.

That being said, the improvement from the first day of practice to the end of the season was absolutely mind-blowing. Our little 5th-grader, Ritika, a tennis-playing basketball neophyte, turned herself into a good outside shooter. She had just 10 points in the first 13 games but was our leading scorer the last three games. Schuyler, who had trouble hitting the backboard on layup attempts -- I am not kidding! -- became a valuable contributor who made two big free throws in one game. Olivia, a soccer-playing 6th-grader who hadn't played hoops in three years, developed a nice short-range jumper. Margaret, who came into the season with some guard skills, took her game up several notches. She hit the winning shot in the final seconds of our next-to-last regular-season game and followed that by scoring 14 points, our season high for any individual.

We had incredible captains, Maddie and Sienna, and they set the tone for a group that was willing to work. If I told the girls to run, they ran hard, and they did so without complaint (mostly). They loved competing against each other in practice. They willingly dove to the floor when the situation called for it. Charlotte, one of our "littles," fearlessly stole the basketball from girls twice her size -- plays that thrilled her teammates (and her coach). Hannah was willing to mix it up with anybody, and our opponents had the bruises to prove it. Celeste and Sienna never got tired, and that's saying something because we used our 1-2-1-1 press almost every minute of every game.

Kids at Scholars are motivated, well-parented -- and smart. They loved to correct my grammar, and Maddie once raised her hand at practice to say, "I have an anecdote I'd like to share." You know, the kind of thing all athletes say. They like each other and have a great collective sense of humor. Also, and this is big, these girls care. A lot.


Despite our improvement and our team chemistry, the Eagles had severe limitations. We had trouble rebounding because of our size. Our players rarely looked up when they dribbled. We often panicked when pressured, leading to lots of bad passes. And to say we shot poorly would be doing a disservice to the word "poorly." Still, we were able to compete because we played good defense -- and because we scrapped and clawed and out-hustled every team we played. 

Once I saw the makeup of our team, I thought we could be more aggressive than our opponents and force the refs to make difficult decisions; as a guy who officiates this age group myself, I'll say most refs don't want to call everything so they let a lot go. I told the girls that I didn't care if half the team fouled out -- I wanted our opponents to know they were in for a battle. These girls are really tough and competitive, and they loved pressing full court. Coming out of huddles, we often would yell, "Aggressive!"

We played a double-round-robin schedule against the other seven teams in the league. A couple were superior and defeated us decisively. Another team was better and beat us twice, but the games were closer. We were more skilled -- and far more physical -- than three of the teams, and we won both games against each. The other team, St. Michael's, beat us in two nail-biters. 

So we went 6-8 during the regular season, and I felt pretty darn good about it considering I had once worried we might not win a game. More than that, the joy that the girls got out of playing together trumped where we finished in the league standings.

A Game To Remember

In the first round of the playoffs, we met St. Mike's again. Margaret, who by that time was sharing point guard duties with Maddie and otherwise playing the 2 or 3, was out of town with her family. So I had to use Sienna, our 4, at the point quite a bit. She did well and we battled hard, but we barely made any shots (even layups) and we trailed by 5 with less than three minutes to go. Those familiar with girls middle-school hoops know that is like being down 15! Plus, our aggressiveness finally caught up to us; the refs were calling everything, and four of our eight girls had four fouls apiece. (St. Mike's also had trouble, and one of their best players fouled out.)

It didn't look good for us, but our press kept forcing turnovers, and finally a couple of shots fell. Sienna hit a layup. Celeste made a free throw. Ritika swished a sweet 17-footer from the baseline to tie it with about a minute left. She then stole an inbound pass and hit a layup to put us ahead, and we held on to win by 2. 

Afterward, during our celebratory meeting, the girls gave me a bunch of carnations they had brought to the game. They denied it, but I'm pretty sure they thought we were going to lose and our season would be over!

Battling Right to the End

Two days later, we did fall in the semifinals to the eventual champion. St. Anne's was better than we were, and we were still without Margaret, but we cut a huge deficit to 7 in the third quarter. We made them sweat a little before they pulled away from us. 

When it was over, I got a little choked up as I told the girls (for the zillionth time) how proud I was of them. Hannah said: "I think Coach Mike needs a group hug!" It was a special moment, but the actual execution of the hug was so funny we all couldn't help but laugh.

I already had decided I was going to return to Scholars -- as long as Mock Trial would return to school hours (where it had been in previous years) instead of after school (where it was at conflict with basketball). After all the hard work we put in, I didn't want to lose half of next year's team! I was assured that the decision already had been made to move Mock Trial back into the school day. 

We had our team party two weeks after the season. (The gathering was at Charlotte's house, and she and her family did the amazing chalk mural that is displayed at the top of this post.) When I announced I was coming back, I got a loud ovation. Parents thanked me for everything I did, and the girls gave me a gift card to a sporting-goods store. I presented each of the returning players with a pair of "dribbling glasses" -- specially designed plastic frames that force players to look up when they dribble. 

Roberta, who wasn't able to make it to any games because of her work schedule, was at the party and said "there was a lot of love in that room." I have to admit it was nice to feel so appreciated.

More To Come!

Had I decided not to return, could I have gotten a better coaching job?

Well, I'm not sure how one should define "better." Could I be a high-school assistant coach or maybe a JV head coach? Could I go to a private middle school that pays good money and has top facilities? 

I don't know, and I won't know next season because I'm not looking. My players are awesome, the parents are wonderful and the administration is supportive. Though I'm an old man (OK, maybe only an old-ish man), I am a young coach, and Scholars is a great spot for me to keep growing.

Just as all of the girls became better players, I like to think I improved as the season progressed. Still, I can recount a couple of exact instances in which I was out-coached, and I hate that feeling! After every game, I wrote down things I could have done differently, and those hard-learned lessons will help me in 2014-15 and beyond.

Bottom line: I am psyched about next season. We're losing two valuable players in Maddie and Hannah, but we should be returning seven. That includes both of our All-Conference picks, Celeste and Sienna, and a good supporting cast that figures to get much better. Hopefully, the girls will "recruit" some classmates to try out for the team. (A couple of tall classmates would be nice!) It looks like I'm going to run a week-long basketball camp in June, and there might be opportunities to get more involved at the school down the line. It's all good!

So what started with me asking myself, "What have I gotten myself into? ended with me realizing that I got myself into something pretty special.

Before the season, the girls were assigned to state their goals in writing. In my welcome note to the team, I stated my goal, too:

I want this season to be such a great experience, both on and off the court, that each of us will look back months and years and decades from now and say, "I'll always remember the 2013-14 basketball season at Scholars Academy. It was one of the best times of my life."

Well, I can't speak for the girls, but I know that will be the case for Coach Mike.


  1. That was really awesome. Im sure i will remember this year and the next 2. Can't wait until next year!! (I might be a captain!)

    1. Captain? Let's see if you make the team first, Celeste. Ha!

      I'll see you soon.

      Coach Mike

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  3. In addition to coaching basketball, would you consider a creative writing class? Think of all the anecdotes you would hear in there.
    We can't wait for next season!

    1. That's up to people several pay grades higher than me, Katherine. Feel free to make this recommendation to somebody who has pull!

      Thank you for all you did for the girls (and for me).


  4. I enjoyed reading this post. It captures the many facets of our unique students. They are why I love coming to work each day. Thank you for sharing, Coach Mike!

    1. It is a great environment, Tracy. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.


    2. Coach Mike, I've got to say I'm as impressed with your writing skills as I am with your coaching! LOVE your intensity and this post was a thrill to read!
      Will your b-ball camp be co-ed? :)
      Suzanne (Peter & Bennett's mom)

    3. Sorry it took so long to reply, Suzanne ...

      Thanks for the very nice thoughts. I've been writing a lot longer than I've been coaching, so I hope I've learned how to use an adverb or two!

      I have responded to your camp question by private message.


  5. Coach Mike,

    Thank you for a great season! You made this year the best ever in Scholars Academy. I hope you decide to coach us next year as well. Next year I hope I become the team captain, that is if I make the team first! By that time we may be able to make it to the championship game in the playoffs which I promise to attend. Hope to see you next year.


    1. Margaret:

      As I told everybody at the party, I had so much fun this season.

      As for being a captain ... I think I'm gonna have to make everybody captain next season!

      Coach Mike