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Coaches Corner: The Starting Lineup - A Coach's Nightmare

Coaches Corner: Jeff Ryan

For high school athletes it’s a thrill. It comes after attending every practice and enduring countless conditioning drills. It comes after seemingly endless trips to the batting cage.  And it comes after mastering the football or basketball playbook. Finally it’s here - the moment has arrived. You are about to enjoy an experience five players in basketball, 11 in football, and “starters” in every high school sport deeply cherish. And it goes something like this...“Starting at guard, a senior, #24 John Smith.” The introduction blares over the public address system. And, as if on cue, your classmates respond to your announcement with raucous enthusiasm. Your Mom and Dad stand and applaud, and your grandparents, unable to stand, beam with pride as their grandson emerges from the bench, slapping the hands of his teammates and coaches, as he jogs out onto the court. However, this feeling of euphoria experienced by the athlete, his family and friends is not a shared one. For thousands of athletes, hearing the echoes of your name announced during pregame introductions remains a dream reserved for the backyard or the basketball court in the hay mow. And why is it just a dream? Why is this moment - one that brings so much exhilaration and excitement - reserved to so few. One reason, one person - the Head Coach. It is the Head Coach that turns in the lineup card at home plate, identifies the starting five at the scorer’s table, or delivers player introductions to the football press box. It happens every game. It happens every match. It happens every meet. It isn't easy, and for any head coach it shouldn’t be. The starting lineup? It’s a coach’s worst nightmare. 

Coaches, players, and fans alike all understand that high school athletics have changed. The emergence of fourth grade traveling teams, year round AAU Tournaments, and hundreds of “elite camps” have enticed some parents into spending an increasing amount of time and money in the hopes their son or daughter will experience success at the varsity level. Parents bring players to Wisconsin Dells to participate in a volleyball “Showcase Tournament”. Mom and Dad line up hotel rooms for an overnight stay in Brown Deer after the 5th grade traveling boys team tournament on Saturday. And Dad brings Tim to Southern Wisconsin to have his baseball skills evaluated by college coaches and scouts. These sacrifices of time and money made by parents are seemingly endless and for the athlete the hope is these sacrifices pay off for the athlete and the parent on the court, the diamond, or the field.  

Undoubtedly there is a feeling of accomplishment when a high school athlete receives their first varsity uniform. Perhaps the jersey contains your favorite number, perhaps not, but you will remember the number for the rest of your life.  

As a sophomore you make varsity. You are ecstatic and simply “happy to be on varsity.” Your family, friends, and teammates share in your happiness. Your varsity fairy tale begins as the Head Coach puts you on the kick off and the kick return teams. You dirty your uniform every Friday night and even get some 4th quarter playing time in four games. “Not bad for a sophomore” says Dad. “I didn’t play varsity until I was a senior”, says Uncle Bill. For you, next year can’t come fast enough. 

Heading into your junior year expectations are high. You’ve attended summer basketball camps, participated in summer shoot-a-thons, and spent a significant amount of time in the weight room. You were brought up as a sophomore near the end of last season to “have a varsity basketball experience”. And you did just that. You cheered your teammates on as they marched through regionals and joined in the mob at mid-court as your team qualified for the state tournament. With two seniors gone to graduation you and your parents believe your sophomore “basketball experience” will morph into real playing time. It does. In about 10 games you are the fourth person off the bench. The highlight comes when you score a career high 6 points in a 51-35 win over your conference rival. Your parents smile ear to ear when they see your picture adorning the sports section of the local newspaper. The Head Coach continually lauds your performance in practice in front of the team and in the media. Although you never start a game, you are an integral part of a team that finishes the regular season five games above .500, but fall in the regional championship to the team that eventually qualifies for the state tournament. You await your senior season with baited breath. 

Your senior season is finally here. Four years of learning and eating school lunch went by faster than you could ever have imagined. Excitement best describes your feeling as you enter the final high school athletic season of your preparatory career. You have been playing in summer leagues for the past five years and were a part of winning teams at the Freshmen and Junior Varsity level. You recognize you are not most talented player on the team but are hopeful that your athletic swan song will be filled with experiences you will remember for the rest of your life. You discuss your role with the coaching staff and are relieved the Head Coach and the Assistant Coaches all concur that you will have “a significant role on varsity this season and will get a lot of playing time” this year. Magnets secure the varsity game schedule on the refrigerator door and upcoming games with times and locations flood friends and family on social media. As always, Mom and Dad attend all your games. They clap vigorously when a teammate of yours lines a single to left, and their cheering reaches a crescendo when you enter the game to pinch run. You steal second, and score the winning run on a base hit to centerfield. You are mobbed by your teammates at home plate, while Mom and Dad receive congratulatory handshakes and back slaps from fans in the stands. The team is doing well and you, and your parents are happy. At Easter you travel a couple hundred miles to visit relatives, among them are grandma and grandpa. Both retired, your grandparents revel in the academic and athletic successes of their grandchildren. They hear about you scoring the winning run and promised next Friday they will drive up to see you play. Uncle Tom and Aunt Mary say “Let’s make it a family affair. We’ll drive up too.”  

Friday’s game arrives and so do Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Mary and Uncle Tom. It’s a big game. Your family is seated right behind home plate cheering on the team like they always do. Your family cheering section, including your proud Grandparents, await your game appearance. It never happens. The only time you leave the dugout is to offer support for a teammate or as you exit the dugout to congratulate your opponents on their 3-2 victory. You and your parents are two ways. One the loss, and two, for grandma and grandpa. They drove over 200 miles to see you play and it didn’t happen. While visiting with your grandparents after the game you find out they will not be able to attend any more games and that they will “see you at your graduation party in June.” You are heartbroken.  And they are too. The season goes on and your role remains “significant.” You have fun, but not as much fun as you would have hoped. Once the season ends, you realize in all these years of playing high school sports you were never a “starter” on varsity. Not once did you hear your name announced as a starter over the loudspeaker. You think just one time would would have been nice. Just one time would have been great. Just one time would have been a thrill.

But you never experienced that thrill. And who is to blame? The Head Coach. They determine the starting lineup. They pick the starters. It’s their decision alone. Head Coaches bring joy to athletes and families. And Head Coaches also bring great disappointment. Picking the starting line up is not easy. It shouldn’t be. If it is, I think it’s time to stop being a head coach. 

It should be an excruciating choice for any Head Coach who chooses five players out of roster of 15 to start a Tuesday night basketball game. It should be a painful choice for the Head Coach to choose 6 players out of a roster of 15 to start a Thursday volleyball match. And it should be an equally tortuous choice for the Head Coach to choose 11 players out of 40 to start a Friday night football game. 

Thankfully, most coaches recognize that providing playing time to athletes that have shown commitment to a program is an earned reward and that giving varsity time to student athletes is absolutely necessary. Bravo to those coaches.  

However, getting playing time is one thing, being announced as a starter is another. There is something to be said for having your name announced as a starter in your high school gymnasium. It’s your gym. It’s your ballpark. It’s your Madison Square Garden. It’s your Fenway Park.  

For Head Coaches, deciding who starts should be an agonizing decision. It should be agonizing for so many reasons. Knowing your decisions will disappoint many family and friends each and every game is quite a burden to bear. High School Head Coaches are constantly chastised and lambasted by some parents for starting lineup choices. Derision-filled commentary from the stands directed at Head Coaches is common, as are anonymous letters mailed to coaches laced with personal attacks and playing time tirades. Sad. 

When it comes to determining a starting line up, I ask that we all take a moment to pause and understand who is impacted by this decision. There are so many parties involved:  Players, parents, coaches, assistant coaches, friends, family, athletic directors, principals, superintendents, and community members. All are connected. So, Parents and Head Coaches it’s not an easy decision. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply wrong. Determining the starting lineup is not an enviable task. It is difficult. It is strenuous. It is painful. It’s not fun. Knowing that you - the Head Coach - are making a decision that brings smiles to some players and disappointment to others isn’t a dream. In fact, it’s a nightmare. And as a Head Baseball Coach I have that nightmare no less than 26 times a year.

Written by Prescott baseball coach Jeff Ryan. With a career record of 317-87 in 18 years, he was the WBCA Coach of the Year in 2013, a three-time District Coach of the Year, and led the Cardinals to the 2012 Division 3 state title.

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