Teaching a culture: Create a varsity importance before athletes get there

I was considering writing a letter or proposal to the six athletic directors and principals of the six high schools that will constitute the new United Kansas Conference – Leavenworth, Lansing, Basehor-Linwood, Shawnee Heights, Turner and DeSoto. (Then a slow weeek this week made me decide to just write a column).

The letter would be to make a pitch to design the conference to really take up the mantle of giving freshman, sophomore and junior varsity teams something more to play for than just a varsity spot.

This is born from my previous life’s experience coaching a few sports – mainly basketball – and which included three seasons of sub-level varsity experience where I saw the benefits of having something to play for – a team trophy for the best team in your conference.

Sure, the UKC will battle with the pragmatism of either having a league race or just a season-ending tournament depending on if all six teams are represented at the start of a new campaign.

If only three schools have a freshman softball team it would probably benefit them to just have a nice little round-robin tournament at season’s end.

I spoke to some admins in our coverage area who have told me they do have a few tournaments here and there, but then I have also thought about my experiences and would like to share why I believe that having a freshman, sophomore and junior varsity conference race has some merit, a reality that could help all varsity programs going forward.


1. Why do it?

The things I have heard over the years – not just in Kansas – is how ill-prepared so many athletes come in fundamentally and competitively.

The fundamental issues are mostly about the feeder system coaching and then the high school staffs’ ability to make things turn around.

But at least the area of competitiveness and getting what the varsity level is really about can be learned via the underclassman conference championship route.

With the continued growth in players – usually delusional ones – who quit playing because they didn’t earn a varsity spot they (erroneously) believed they earned, why not give those players extra incentive to stick around?

A title to play for.

Yes, as one of our local athletic directors told me, the motivation for playing should first and foremost be to enhance one’s playing ability to earn that spot they don’t deserve at that moment.

I get that.

But then you have the flip side. How do you prepare varsity athletes to think like a varsity athlete when you prepared them in ways that are not even half-respective to what they need to get there.

It’s no different than America’s incessant ridiculousness of calling 17-year-olds “kids” to only throw them out as “adults” a year later.

When do the training wheels come off? Where is the middle ground?

In high school sports, is it any wonder why so many players get up to the varsity level and then lack the mental fortitude and sense of weekly purpose to go for key wins, league placing, etc., when they have not had any of that emphasis in a smaller form for two years previously? For their entire career?

How can they focus week to week on a prize when for four months of their previous two prep seasons, they played games that didn’t stand for more than self-improvement?

How do you teach players to play big in those big moments of those big games when they have had zero preparation before stepping on a court for a coach like Larry Hogan?

2.What I think could happen

People/kids are different than they were 25 years ago when I began coaching and did so during my youthful 20s, but I still believe that athletes are athletes and competitiveness can be taught and learned under the correct conditions.

Humor me if you will.

My first-ever team was a freshman team at a small, private school. A powerhouse for years, the program had fallen over the previous half-decade.

We had a great tryout of 50 girls (out of a school of 550 kids), kept 14 on our freshman team – six more went up to the sophomore team – and we could see we had a lot of potential greatness at hand.

Ultimately, we went 9-1 in conference, winning the title game by 20 despite all but three girls (and myself) battling either the flu or pneumonia, and doing so by thumping a hated rival.

I remember how focused each week they were.

“Where are we in the standings?” “What needs to be done?” “How do we prepare for this week?” “Are we home or away?” Every game had a central purpose, their focus was razor sharp.

They wanted that trophy.

When they got it, the reaction was special. Sure they won the title plaque, but in the locker room our incredible captain and all-time legend of a leader said, “We are happy we won and beat those girls, but this a stepping stone. We want more. This just shows they have to go through us to get where we want to go.”

The second freshman team was less talented by far, but we had talent. They also had a chip on their shoulder to prove that they could do just what the previous squad did. They wanted to prove they belonged, that they were worthy and that the class ahead of them could count on them too when they reached the varsity level.

We had our struggles and that was due in part to our promoting our best player up to sophomores. But once we figured it out, we too went on a bender, winning nine of our last 10 games, going 9-1 in conference and winning at that same rivals’ home floor to claim a second straight title.

Two years later as seniors and juniors, they won a collective 20-plus games and advanced further in the Illinois state tournament (which was two classes then) than they had in almost 10 years.

They learned how to want for something, work for it, earn it and parlay it into the big picture.

A few years later, at a public school, we took over a group of kids that were 0-for-middle school. Three years of no winning and 30-point losses.

We pulled a 9-9 season out of them and finished fourth in the league.

The top three teams were really good, but using the standings as motivation, we wanted to be the “best of the rest” in year one, and play spoiler for the top three. 

Mission accomplished. We beat two of the top three and then the champs had to beat us on our home floor and we made it difficult despite playing with an injured roster.

They learned their place on the food chain, appreciated their evolution, but knew what they had to do to move up it.

Two years later, some of those girls would be on a state tournament team.

3.There are counterpoints

Not all teams have the best freshmen on them. I get that.

But it’s not about who is or who is not on the teams, but preparing for what is in front of you, accepting the challenge and meeting that challenge.

A well-coached team will always emphasize that, sure they won a conference title, but there is always someone out there lurking, out to get you and you must be prepared for everyone’s best shot. 

Keep them hungry during the process of progress.

Now, do you start firing coaches who led a team to last place in the freshman conference race? No, not for losing. That’s not the main objective.

The main objective is to develop the skills and not abuse the players. A coach could go 0-18 and we can see improvement. A lot of times, high school programs are victims of their feeder schools and how good or bad they set those kids up for secondary school sports.

So this suggestion isn’t about winning, but giving them more of a competitive focus.

The top teams learn to prepare to take everyone’s best shot and take care of business weekly.

The second-tier teams (like my second freshman team) can push themselves a bit more to get what some might not have done.

The struggling teams can still use standings as a chance to prove something. We had the perennial last-place team for three years and hoped to finish toward the top, took fourth, and it was a springboard for later successes.

It is simply a mental test to give these kids something not only attainable, but to give them a mini snap shot of the process.

I am curious if the UKC did this, just how much more competitive the varsity races would become and how that would bleed over into regional and state competition.