Prep Rally | Coaches must find way to motivate during long non-district schedules

jlembo@bradenton.comApril 12, 2014 

Southeast head coach John Harder instructs the Seminoles in the fourth quarter of Saturday's championship game of the Willie Clemons Holiday Classic at Benjamin "Buzz" Narbut Gymnasium at Southeast. TIMOTHY R. WOLFRUM/Bradenton Herald

The most critical job for a prep sports coach goes far beyond the basketball courts and baseball and softball diamonds.

It doesn't require a clipboard or Magic Markers, nor does it require a playbook that could choke a dragon.

Instead, it's about what goes on between the ears of the players and it boils down to one phrase: Keeping them interested.

The Florida High School Athletic Association allows baseball and basketball and softball and volleyball teams to play 25 games during the regular season. That's the max, and most take advantage of it.

The rub?

Say you're in a four-team district and you only play your district foes once. That means that of 25 games, 22 really don't mean anything.

That sounds fine on the surface -- win three games and you may host a district final -- but it takes some zest away from the schedule. Games are always fun, sure, but it's much more interesting and intense when two teams take the field with more than just pride at stake.

"We played 21 non-district games," said Bayshore baseball coach Ron Hirst, whose Bruins compete in Class 5A-District 10. "Seeding is just crazy."

The closest thing to a fix is for each team to play each other twice. That's what Manatee, Riverview, Palm Harbor University and St. Petersbug did to put a little spice into Class 8A-District 8. That not only doubles your number of meaningful games but gives each team a chance to host district games and allows you a mulligan should the first game not go your way.

But that's entirely up to each district and puts teams such as Bayshore and Southeast at a disadvantage. Those two are in 5A-10 with three teams from Pinellas County, home to limited scheduling options as well and the Pinellas County Athletic Conference, which includes its own tournament that takes away a chunk of a team's open dates.

If the majority wants one cycle of district games, you're getting one cycle of district games.

So teams do their best to fill the gaps. They play in tournaments during spring break; they schedule out-of-state teams; they let their kids play a game at McKechnie Field, which is what Bayshore and Saint Stephen's did last week.

There are some positives. A big number of non-district, no-pressure games gives coaches a chance to try players out at different spots, experience with the lineup and give their best pitchers plenty of rest so they're available for the nights that really matter.

They also give the non-starters plenty of game time to help keep them sharp. Deep benches do wonders in the postseason.

"You never know when you're going to need a pinch-hitter," said Manatee coach Rob Viera, "when you're going to need a defensive player."

Competitors live to compete, so the best teams and players want to win just because there is an opponent waiting on the other side. You play to win the game, right?

But it's always more interesting when there is something on the line. And keeping a long season interesting is the biggest challenge a coach can face.

John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLembo1878.

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