Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Second stint as middle school coach: A fun first year, and hopefully the start of something big

Well, my first season in my second go-round as a middle school basketball coach is in the books.

Our Community House Cavaliers finished 7-7, tied for 4th place in our 8-team conference. Given that 8 of our 11 players had little to no basketball experience coming into the season, I'm pretty darn proud of what those determined athletes were able to accomplish.

Having been part of championship teams, bad teams and every kind of team in between, I'm not gonna try to fool anybody: Being a champion is special. 

Still, at this level, winning and losing really is secondary. My job at Community House is to give my players a fun experience, to grow their love of basketball, to help them improve, to show them tangible evidence that hard work is rewarded, to guide them in overcoming adversity, and other similarly high-minded concepts.

Each of our 11 players started at least one game, and most started multiple times. Every girl played in every game. I honestly believe that all 11 got better as the season progressed.

I'll take all that, and a 7-7 record. (Not that I have a choice - ha!)
We had a team outing to watch my former school, Ardrey Kell HS, play a game.
Community House is the middle school that feeds into AK.
Our season highlight was a 1-point victory at Crestdale in December, as we roared back after falling behind by 15 points. I haven't been part of many post-game locker-room scenes more joyous than that one was. 

When we played the same team at home in January, we again fell way behind (this time by 14 points). Again we rallied, tying it with about a minute to go. But this time, Crestdale made plays down the stretch and we didn't, and we lost by 3. 

As we got deeper into the season, it became obvious that our opponents included:

  • 2 deep, talented, tall, well-coached teams (Alexander Graham and South Charlotte) we simply couldn't beat; we were 0-4 in those games.
  • 3 less-talented teams (Southwest, Carmel and Quail Hollow) we couldn't have lost to unless we played really, really poorly; we were 6-0 in those games.
  • 1 team that was a little better than us (JM Robinson); unfortunately, we went 0-2 against them.
  • 1 team that was our absolute equal (Crestdale); we split our two games with them.

We finished last week with a decisive, satisfying victory over Carmel. Two players were out: Meniya, who had been our leading scorer, missed several games with health issues; and Allie, an 8th-grader with little experience but a huge heart, had to leave school early that day because she wasn't feeling well.

In her text telling me she was sick, Allie expressed sadness at having to miss her final game. I relayed that to the girls during my pre-game talk with the team. I encouraged them to appreciate this last opportunity to play with their teammates, and to show it by giving maximum effort on the court.

We then went out and played one of our best quarters of the season, building a 16-4 lead thanks to 9 points from our point guard, Skyler; 4 points and great all-around play from our other 8th-grade standout, Jalayah; and tremendous energy, intensity and defense by the other 7 players.

Jalayah inbounds the ball to Skyler
It was especially nice to see our 7th-graders, who likely will form the nucleus of next year's team, demonstrate how much they have improved by playing well in this season's finale. Emma and Bryson each finished with a career-high 5 points; Emersyn and Avery helped set the tone with their aggressive defense and hustle; Janita battled bigger players to grab several rebounds.

It was a great way to finish the season.

The next night, Community House held its winter sports banquet. My team, the boys team and the cheerleading squad were honored, and the three coaches got to talk about our athletes.

I praised my girls for their work ethic, toughness and resiliency. I talked about some of the challenges we faced and how we dealt with them. I joked about us scoring twice into the wrong basket -- including on our very first play of the season. That's some great coaching there! I said something nice (and true) about each player. 

I also gave out 3 awards: Coach's Award for Aggressiveness to Avery; Heart of a Champion Award, for going above and beyond expectations, to Emma; and MVP to Skyler.

Skyler ended up being our leading scorer, with 110 points. She was followed by Meniya (101) and Jalayah (78). Those three -- the only players who had returned from the 2018-19 team -- accounted for 81.6% of our scoring. 

Add in the three other 8th-graders (Chloe, Alyssa and Allie), and it means we have to replace 87% of our scoring. 

Eighty-seven percent!!

I told the girls, especially the 7th-graders, that it was time for them to do some serious recruiting. They need to talk up how much fun they had being part of the Cavs; they need to convince athletic 7th-graders and 6th-graders to go out for the team next season. I specifically encouraged them to point out how much playing time -- and how many shots -- will be available.

My single biggest surprise this season actually happened before we got started: Even though Community House is one of the largest middle schools in North Carolina, with about 600 girls in 7th and 8th grades, fewer than 20 tried out for our team. (By comparison, more than 120 tried out for the boys team.)

It wasn't what I expected after leaving Ardrey Kell High, where I had been an assistant for two seasons following my first 4-year stint as a middle school coach.

I've since been told that the CH girls program has been down for a few years -- and that we're trying to change the culture to make it a more fun and rewarding experience.

Hopefully, this season will have been a major step in that direction.


Oh, and of course, I can't wrap up a post of The Baldest Truth without putting up a pic of Jack and Logan, my terrific (and terrifically cute) grand-twins.

Happy, 6 Month Birthday, LoJack!

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