Staying in the game

The most burdensome hurdle high school teams must clear to ensure continual success comes every June, when a fresh group of seniors graduate. Seniors are often the best and most experienced athletes and graduation leaves a hole that can be difficult to fill.

Rebuilding a team is a combination of careful scouting, offseason preparation and a little luck. There are several different techniques coaches use to keep a team’s numbers and skill level high.

Coaches must create a sustainable program that competently trains younger athletes, manages limited player numbers and prepares players for varsity level competition.

“The number one thing for you to have sustained success is to have kids who are playing at an early age and playing competitively,” Alpena boys basketball coach John Pintar said.

Pintar has been a varsity basketball coach for the last 14 years and has seen his team struggle when unprepared JV players move up to varsity.

“We’ve gone through some stretches where we just didn’t have the same caliber of player and we struggled a little bit. That’s the natural ebb and flow of a high school team,” Pintar said. “You get a certain group of kids that maybe worked a little harder, put in a little more time and they were more ready to go.”

Spotting and fostering talented JV players is one of the key elements of rebuilding a team. Knowing when to bring these players up varies from coach to coach.

“My philosophy is that if a younger kid is going to be on varisty, they’re going to need to play. Playing time is the most crucial aspect to your development. If I believe a player is going to be in my top seven and they’re going to be playing top minutes, I’ll bring them up,” Pintar said.

Coaches must be adaptable to the talent and playing style each player brings to the team. They need to know how to best mold that talent to create strategies that maximize team effectiveness.

“I guess your biggest thing you hope is that through summer camps and (underclassmen) years that you’ve been able to have kids develop that are able to fill those roles,” Pintar said. “But the thing is, you’re not going to have the exact same kind of player or players every year so you have to be prepared for that.”

Bringing up players and adapting them to a varsity team while they’re young is one of the most effective ways to rebuild a team after the graduation problem hits. It creates a winning atmosphere of constant improvement and success that influences the way a team thinks.

The Alcona football team’s recent rebuilding efforts illustrate just how effective creating a winning team atmosphere is when trying to produce a continually successful program.

It also illustrates the issues graduation can create.

The offense of the 2013 Tigers was tightly constructed around the four-pronged running attack generated by seniors Nathan Fettes, Josh Mead, Garrette Norling and Cody Franklin.

Although Alcona has other talented players, these four were the offensive and defensive cogs and their departures could create a big gap in Alcona’s capabilities on both sides of the ball.

“Every program is going to face that kind of thing, especially if you develop a group like we did,” Alcona coach Dave Schneider said.

Schneider took over the Tigers in 2010 and helped rebuild the program before leading Alcona to an undefeated 2013 regular season and its first ever playoff win.

“As a new coach, the first thing you have to do is make sure you create an atmosphere. If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll have the same result,” Schneider said. “Trying to turn around a program that hasn’t been successful requires creating expectations and an environment where the kids feel like something is different.”

Creating that atmosphere of success requires a careful reconsideration of the core skills provided by each player and maximizing their abilities to create tangible success. A winning atmosphere can create confidence in each player and for the team as a whole.

This newfound confidence can help to inspire the younger players to work harder at the elementary and JV levels and cause them to devote themselves more fully to a sport.

“Hope springs eternal with athletes. Year after year, kids show up and hope for the best. You have to put a demand on the kids and try to get them to invest,” Schneider said.

This lesson is not lost on Posen football and Rogers City baseball coach Wayne Karsten.

“It’s about setting the tone for a program and getting the kids to buy into the way you do things and to create a successful mindset. That’s really the best way to do it,” he said.

Posen has a small pool from which Karsten can pull athletes. This didn’t stop his team from having solid eight-man success in the early part of the 2013 season before injuries took their toll.

“(With a small squad) you’re going to you have to work with what you get. The numbers don’t matter as much as getting kids that are strong leaders and getting them into roles where they can do what they need to bring a program along,” Karsten said.

Karsten focuses heavily on getting his returning players working in the offseason. Often, his players are more than willing to put in that extra time.

“You have to be ready to jump on those moments when they want to do that work. If they give you a call to throw the ball or get in the cage, you make yourself available to do that,” he said.

Successfully rebuilding a team is not just a regular season concern. Coaches often spend the whole year scouting, interacting with and helping players improve their skills.

The best high school coaches understand this demand and actively embrace the investment of time and dedication that is necessary to keep their teams competitive year after year.

“The process as a high school coach is different every year. You don’t get to go out and recruit, so you count on them going through summer camps and coming up through your ranks so that they’re ready to go by the time they hit (varsity level),” Pintar said.

Eric Benac can be reached via email at ebenac@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.