Behind the ball


March 29, 2006, midnight | By Lois Bangiolo | 14 years, 3 months ago

Blazers try out for sports for the first time


Junior Matthew McClain is an accomplished athlete, having played soccer and basketball for Blair. But when he appeared at the first day of lacrosse tryouts, he had held a lacrosse stick only a handful of times. And without a junior varsity (JV) lacrosse team at Blair, he had no choice but to try out for the varsity team.

Photo: Junior Matthew McClain attends lacrosse practice to gain experience in a new sport.

With the start of the spring sports season, Blazers like McClain are showing up at tryouts for sports they never played before, with no JV team to provide the training necessary to form a competitive varsity team.

Just want to play

McClain wanted something to do in the spring, the off season for his other sports. "I figured it would be a good way to spend time," he says. "I'm just doing it for fun." Playing the sport for fun means that it isn't too important to him whether he makes the team; he always has his other sports to fall back on, he explains.

Neil Mendhiratta is another junior trying a new sport. His choice: volleyball. Like McClain, Mendhiratta was "really into sports" and wanted to play another one, he says. Besides, he wanted to be with several of his friends who were playing. Never having played seriously before, he was apprehensive on his first day on the courts. "Considering that volleyball isn't just athleticism — it takes more skill — so I was pretty nervous," he says. He says that he is picking up the game fast, with his "natural athleticism" making up for what he lacks in experience.

"Athletic enough"

Though McClain had never played in a real game, he figured that he was "athletic enough" to learn the skills he needed to be a lacrosse player. McClain had learned a little about lacrosse through a clinic in middle school and through some friends "who took me out and showed me some of the basics" right before tryouts, McClain says.

When selecting inexperienced players of any age, coaches look for the players' athletic potential. If players don't have the skills, then they need to have the ability to quickly learn the skills or stand out in some other way. "I have to assess whether they have the athleticism and aptitude to make them into a competent player," said Robert Gibb, coach of the boy's lacrosse team.

On the boys' lacrosse team, learning the skills fast is essential. Gibb gives the boys a grounding on the basics but then "throw[s] them out there" to see how well they play. "For many of them, the first game that they played in is the first game that they saw," Gibb says.

Missing JV, missing experience

Having a JV team gives the coach freedom to take on more players and gives them the all-important playing time they need before reaching the competitive varsity level, but for sports like lacrosse and boy's volleyball, JV teams do not exist. Coaches for these teams must carefully balance experienced players and newer players so that the team will have experienced players when the others graduate.

Junior Tim He joined the volleyball team in his freshman year never having played the sport before. Without the opportunity to be on JV team, he did not even attend games because he knew that he wouldn't play.

Like He, many inexperienced players that do make the team probably are not going to get much playing time. But just being on the team gives them practice and prepares them for the next season, giving them the experience they need to play in a game. "You're working out, you're training. It's development for next year," says co-ed volleyball coach John Mott. Yet he recognizes that showing up every day for practice and working hard can be disappointing when players do not get a chance to show off their skills. To remedy this, he tries to put in people who haven't played. "If people don't play, then tend to get bummed out," he says.

This year, after two years of riding the bench, He will be starter on the volleyball team. "It's not like I suddenly became amazing; it was all the work of my coaches finally coming together," He says.

Experience was crucial in He's success. "It comes with age, unless someone is a natural; most [players] only get good [during] their upperclassmen years," He says.

But as an upperclassman, McClain faces a greater challenge in gaining a spot on the team, having lost those years to learn the sport. According to girls' lacrosse coach Michael Horne, if coaches are going to take a player with limited experience, they are more likely to choose a younger player who has more time to learn the game and contribute for the team. "[Being older] certainly wouldn't rule out anyone but it's harder, because as a coach, you have to plan for the future," Horne says.

Boys' lacrosse coach Gibb agrees. "The older you are, you better at least be a good athlete that I can train by the early part of the season," he says.

McClain does stand a chance for lacrosse because there are usually fewer younger players trying out, which could possibly be attributed to a missing JV team, says Gibb, questioning the effect on football if it also did not have a JV. "It's a contact sport… if there was no JV football team, how many ninth graders would try out?" he says. For lacrosse, the answer is not that many. "It takes guts [to try out]. I get a lot of sophomores because they've finally worked up the nerve," he explains.

But losing that year hurts the team, says Gibb. "They're behind the ball. It takes a good season to understand how the game is played," he explains.

For this reason, says Horne, Montgomery Blair will never be competitive at lacrosse until there is a JV team. "Definitely, we've been pushing for it since year one," says Horne. In the meantime, coaches increase their roster and choose a few inexperienced younger players to train. "We try to carry a larger squad to look to the future and that's what we're going to have to do until a JV comes along," he says.

According to Dr. William Beattie, coordinator of high school athletics, a lack of money prevents teams from having a JV. "Monetary and budgetary factors are one significant reason that there is not a JV team in some sports," he said. Other factors are numbers of participants, lack of facilities and in regards to the boys' volleyball team, gender equity. "For instance, if we created a JV boys' volleyball team, then we would upset the balance between girls' and boys' sports (we would be adding a boys' team without adding a girls' team)" violating Title IX, Beattie explains.

Practice, practice

Several days through tryouts, McClain knows he is "still not quite there," but thinks he is "learning pretty fast" though he admits he still does not know all the rules. He did learn enough to make the team and play in the second line in the first game, though he did not play as well as he had hoped. "I wasn't really happy with what I did in the game," he says. "I wasn't contributing to offense. I was still picking up on how to position myself on the field." He believes that he will play better next time after some additional scrimmage practice before the next game, though he knows that he still needs a lot of practice. "I'll be learning for the rest of the season," McClain says.




Lois Bangiolo. Lois Bangiolo was born on March 14, pi day, an auspicious date as she is now in the math-science magnet. In addition to writing for Silver Chips Online she runs track and is secretary of the MBHS Key Club. More »

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