Reagan Smith was among over 60 Lakeview volleyball players at the first practices of the season on Wednesday.
Smith has established herself as a solid player in her two varsity seasons, so going through the opening day drills and measurements was less about earning a spot on the team and more about the start of what she hopes is a successful senior season.
“I’m really excited for the season to start,” Smith said. “It feels like (summer) is kind of over, but we still have some time before school starts. I’m ready to skip to next week to when we are actually playing — but you have to get through this.”
This week is the start of the Michigan High School Athletic Association 2015-16 school year, with practices beginning for approximately 110,000 student-athletes taking part in eight sports in which the MHSAA sponsors postseason tournaments. Football practice for more than 40,000 players began on Monday, followed by first practices for all other fall sports on Wednesday.
BUILDING ON PAST SUCCESS
The St. Philip volleyball team is coming off a state-record ninth consecutive Class D state championship and its 14th straight state finals appearance.
The Fighting Tigers only feature five returners, so Wednesday’s two-a-days practice was a varsity tryout for 20 girls who want to help continue St. Philip’s winning tradition.
“I like getting everybody back in the gym and seeing how excited they are,” said St. Philip head coach Vicky Groat. “They understand the tradition and want their shot at it. For us, school is right around the corner. We’ve been doing some summer stuff, scrimmaging… You can definitely see the ones who have been touching the ball and attending the summer scrimmages. The ones who haven’t been here, you can tell they’re struggling a little bit. With a a tryout, it is 2-3 days to make an impression. Someone who has been working all summer has upped their game makes the decision easier on us.”
Lakeview head coach Heather Sawyer also said the individual preparation done by the players in the offseason is pretty evident when it comes time to decide who will play varsity, junior varsity or freshmen volleyball.
“We have physical training two mornings a week they are expected to be at,” Sawyer said. “If you are on summer vacation I get it, but this is here for you and you should probably take advantage of that.
“We’re lucky if half of our team plays on travel teams. The years where we’ve done better — and it’s the same for all sports — if you are doing your sport more than what you do for your high school season, your high school team will be more successful.”
Like St. Philip, Harper Creek is coming off a historic volleyball season in which the program advanced to the state semifinals for the first time.
“Everything is the best part of Day 1,” said Harper Creek coach Terra King. “All the girls were driving through the parking lot, yelling out the window, ‘Volleyball starts today!’ It felt like Christmas morning here. A few of the girls actually spent the night at my house last night because they were really pumped to get going.”
As part of conditioning, King had players split up into groups before being timed on a mile run. The catch was that each group had to carry a watermelon.
“The ultimate goal is to get everybody to run together and help those girls who are finishing at the end,” King said. “They just have to pass the watermelon throughout the group. They like it. Then we eat it later.”
For Battle Creek Central first-year volleyball coach Lacee Boone, Wednesday offered a chance to evaluate what kind of talent she has to work with.
“For the first practice, I’m just interested in who showed up because not everybody can show up for summer stuff,” Boone said. “It’s nice getting to know some of the girls, since it’s my first time coaching varsity. But I’ve been lucky to work with these girls before because I was the freshmen coach for the past two years.”
KICKING OFF THE SEASON
Along with volleyball, Wednesday marked the first official practices for boys’ and girls’ cross country, boys’ tennis, girls’ swimming and diving, girls’ golf and boys’ soccer.
Most varsity programs do a sign-up at the end of the previous school year to gauge interest. But until the players show up for the first day of practice with their physical forms, coaches don’t know what kind of numbers they will see.
“We do a lot of conditioning practices through the summer, so you get an idea by who is showing up and doing things,” said Lakeview boys’ soccer coach Ciaran Byrne. “You can see right away the players who have put in time during the summer and those who haven’t. Just watching them play you can see who has an understanding of how to play and what to do with the ball once you get it.”
The Battle Creek Central boys’ soccer program has seen a resurgence in recent years and is coming off a winning season. Head coach Brad Yoder believes the team success can play a role in helping improve the high school’s declining enrollment.
“I like to think — with school of choice and everything going on — it’s helped to keep kids here,” Yoder said. “Earlier on, a lot of those kids were going to Lakeview because they didn’t want to play for a bad soccer team. Coaches can’t recruit, but kids are going to want to go to a place they can win.”
The Bearcats were on to their second official practice by Wednesday afternoon, officially kicking the season off at midnight.
“We came out and turned the lights on at midnight, set the timer and as soon as it hit midnight we got the balls out and scrimmaged for about an hour and a half,” Yoder said. “There was a lot of excitement and it was a real cool event. It just flowed into today because everybody was just itching to get out and prove ourselves.”
The Pennfield boys’ soccer team doesn’t have the numbers to field a junior varsity team this season, so head coach Steve Kipp used the first practice to help identify which newcomers can fill a role.
“I have a general idea because I know all the returners that played last year, and some have stepped it up a bit,” Kipp said. “This year, it might be a case of 3-4 newcomers that fit into the starting lineup. The next three days, I’m going to put them in scrimmages and just watch them. You can tell their level of nervousness and their skills.”
MAKING THE CUT
Most coaches will have an idea by the end of the week about who will make the varsity, junior varsity, or freshmen teams — or who is not cut out for their program.
“It’s very hard (making cuts), but I started coaching when I was 17-years-old, and one of the things I learned through playing is to never keep a kid that you are not going to use,” said Pennfield volleyball coach Amanda Zima. “Some kids are OK with being on the bench and being a practice player and they can handle it — they just want to be a part of it and it doesn’t hurt their self-esteem… In the end, you want the girls to grow from the experience, you want them to have self-confidence and you don’t want to hurt their self-esteem.”
For players, Wednesday marked an opportunity to show coaches what they can bring to the table this season. For some, the grueling conditioning and drills served as a reality check.
“Those tests and numbers give some people a little fire under their butt,” Boone said. “They need to know where they stand. And if we have to make cuts, we can show them and their parents where they are… I try to be honest with people because I would have liked that when I was a kid. Don’t tell me I’m going to be an asset when I might not play.”
Zima added, “There’s always so much drama, especially some of the girls who want to be asked to come out or begged to come out. We want to see who wants to play for Pennfield. We want to see who wants to come out and play.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at email@example.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter: @NickJBuckley