Loading

The Coaching Perspective Inside the hyper-competitive mind of a coach dealing with no competition

By Danny Priest

It was Nov. 2, 2019. Pre-pandemic.

Head coach Moira Long walked off the court of Brown and Pfloker gym in Boston, Massachusetts with her Pride volleyball team having just dropped their season finale to Emerson by a mark of 3-1.

For Long and her team, the match wrapped up an injury plagued, difficult season that resulted in a 16-12 record and no hopes of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Unbeknownst to Long, the players or anyone else in the gym, that moment was also going to mark the last game they’d play for more than 700 days.

At that point in time, the coronavirus had yet to make its way into the world. The terms “pandemic,” “quarantine” and “social distancing” held no meaning to Long or her team on the hour and a half long trek back to Alden Street.

Two weeks later, Springfield College football lost a wild game to MIT on Stagg Field. The 43-40 loss left the Pride at 6-4 on the season and, as was the case with the volleyball team, no one had an idea that this would be the last game for the Pride for a very long time to come.

Chad Shade had thrown, yes thrown, for three touchdowns in the game. Still, it wasn’t enough to stop MIT from mounting a 10-point fourth quarter rally to steal the win.

It was just one day later, on Nov. 17, that “patient zero” contracted COVID-19.

Like so much else with the coronavirus , that date is unconfirmed, but right now it’s the best guess at the first case ever recorded.

It happened far from the invisible walls of the Springfield College bubble. The patient was a 55-year-old man in China’s Hubei province, which rests over 7,000 miles from campus.

His name still has not been released.

As the quiet ripples of what would become the lethal virus begin to pop up across the world, life carried on in America.

A few months later it was tournament season -- a joyous time of year for fans of basketball.

It was a Friday on Feb. 28 and the women’s basketball team was hosting Smith in the NEWMAC semifinals. As Blake Arena filled up to watch the women’s team battle, the pandemic was about to become real in Massachusetts and for the entire country.

It was that same day the Biogen Tech conference, America’s first “super spreader event,” was wrapping up across the state at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston.

The conference featured people traveling from all over the country to meet up and the coronavirus was about to burst onto the scene.

As trouble brewed cross state, the Pride lost 55-50 in a tightly contested game. They’d had an excellent season at 19-8, but much like those fall teams, they were unaware that pain of defeat would be the last competition for a long time.

Once again the following weekend, Blake Arena was packed to the brim with spectators for rounds one and two of the NCAA Div. III Tournament.

The energy in the gym was palpable. Legendary UConn Coach Jim Calhoun was on campus with his St. Joseph’s team, Jake Ross and Heath Post were seeking one more legendary run as two of the greatest basketball players in the school's history and Hobart was about to embark on the sort of Cinderella run that makes March Madness so beloved.

It didn’t matter that just four days earlier, the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts had been reported. In the early days of the virus, the country had been naive about how it could hit young people.

The case was a 20-year-old woman from Norfolk County, who had recently traveled abroad to Italy. Still, the gym was packed with hoards of people - young, middle aged and old to watch the action unfold.

No masks, no social distancing, just business as usual.

It also didn’t seem to matter that on Wednesday of that week it was reported that two executives who attended the Biogen conference had returned home to Europe and tested positive.

For at least that Friday and Saturday night, life was still normal.

President Cooper danced with students, hugs and high fives were exchanged and the support poured on until the bitter end when Hobart’s Dan Masino broke the hearts of many with a winning layup just before the buzzer sounded.

Blake Arena emptied. Students returned to their dorms. Head coach Charlie Brock praised his seniors and his team on a hard-fought season.

Life carried on as it always does. Days later spring break was extended for an extra week. Things were getting serious, but there were still far more questions than answers.

With the news that spring break had been extended and his trip to Spain with his team cancelled, Springfield College women’s soccer coach John Gibson boarded a flight to visit his mother in England on March 12.

It would be four months before he could get a flight back to the United States.

That week, everything changed. Life got flipped upside down and for Long, head football coach Mike Cerasuolo, head women’s basketball coach Naomi Graves, Brock and Gibson, they too had to find ways to adapt to their new normal as coaches.

Learning on the Fly

After the pandemic had really set in, it was clear that competition was going to halt. However, recruiting and running a program did not stop, which meant coaches needed to figure out their new routine and do so quickly.

In a normal year, Long and her staff would have been traveling to Colorado, Texas, Atlanta or other spots to watch tournaments and pursue recruits. Due to the pandemic, that changed.

Rather than discovering new recruits, they had to look back on information they’d acquired beforehand.

“It was really like, ‘let’s look back to last year, what underclassmen did we see?’ Then identifying, ‘did they have film online, can we put that into a google drive so that we can all look at it and assess,’ and then who are the kids we’ve been in touch with that are undecided,” Long said.

“How do we evaluate these players, how do we get a group of kids that we can recruit for this upcoming year and really it came down to how many names do we have? It was really scary for me, like how are you going to identify kids that are good enough for your team and I think evaluating them was our biggest concern.”

Despite the fact that Div. III does not have athletic scholarships, the recruiting process is still similar to higher levels of competition. Coaches identify recruits they like, pitch them on all the college can offer and then hope to sway them to pick their program.

When it comes to Springfield College, the campus atmosphere is a huge selling point. The kind people, the welcoming environment -- that stuff doesn’t appear as easily over a Zoom call.

A method to compensate for this was by creating videos showing off what programs had to offer -- from lively crowds, to great facilities, the video provided a quick glimpse into what the future could look like for recruits.

“We put together an outstanding virtual tour to include all that is with academics, facilities, the program, [and the] assistant coaches did a great job of presenting it,” Brock said of the new recruiting method.

Each coach had to follow this similar method to survive in the virtual recruiting pool.

“We’ve taken to the same thing, like FaceTiming with kids and saying, ‘Ok, we’re going on a walk.’ And you’re walking and you point like, Ok, this is Gulick -- which is wild. But we tried really, really hard,” Long said.

While the virtual method of recruiting is unique to 2020-2021, it can never replace the real deal of seeing a campus up close with one’s own eyes.

“The negative side is if they come here and you show them around, they’ve at least invested in getting in the car, driving here, maybe their parents have taken a day off work and they’ve taken a day off school, whereas they can sit on Zoom and it’s like watching a game on the television as opposed to going to the stadium to watch. You’re invested and you’re more committed to the whole thing if you go and watch. I think you’re more committed if you come to Springfield and look than if you just zoom,” Gibson said of the process.

Perhaps more of a challenge than getting players to know campus and the program is making sure coaches are going after the right players.

Hundreds of thousands of high school players put together highlight tapes to send off to coaches, but those provide nowhere close to the level of assessment that comes with watching a recruit in-person.

“The highlight tapes are fine, but the highlights you know, they make every basket, they get every rebound, they get all kinds of dunks - it’s just not real. For me, I didn’t watch them and I still don’t watch them. For me, I want to see a game and see how the progress is made with different situations within the game,” Brock said.

Graves, his counterpart of the women’s side of the game, agreed with the notion that scouting without in-person experience is tough.

“It’s hard because we want a match. We want to know the match all around. Parent, family, kid and it’s really difficult to do that by video and difficult to do that by phone call. How do you get to know whether this kid is really the type of kid you want? Are they high character, which is really important to me? Are they talented, are they a match, are they coachable -- all that stuff?” Graves said of searching for recruits.

The loss of actual competition to go and watch live meant coaches weren’t seeing stuff they’ve been trained to pick up on over the years.

“I think that culture part is really important. (Recruits) show themselves banging a ball, but do they transition every time, can they serve/receive...I want the intangibles. Do you cheer? I pass the ball, but you get the kill, I want you to cheer for the kill, but then if you are the hitter, I want you to turn to the passer and be like ‘Great pass’ because you wouldn’t have the kill if it weren’t for me passing the ball. That camaraderie that happens in volleyball and that appreciation for each other, you can’t see,” Long said.

Part of the solution to this issue has been calling on networks of reliable people coaches have built up throughout their careers.

“We always say find the point of influence, who’s the most influential person in that young man’s life and that’s where you’ll really find out about the kids,” Cersauolo said.

“If it’s a coach, if it’s a mentor, if it’s someone at church, whatever -- with each kid, someone is going to be a major influence in their life, so let’s try to communicate with that person and that’s where you really find out what that kid might be about.”

A tricky aspect of that for coaches is making sure they got an honest assessment of a player they’re after, and not just a response the person they’re talking with believes they want to hear.

“If I say to a coach, how tough is this kid and they say, ‘She’s so tough,’ is it because they want me to take her? I have to be very intentional and purposeful in the questions I ask to get where I need the (conversation) to go. It’s just different,” Long said.

Despite both the methods of showing off campus and evaluating recruits being imperfect, it’s what coaches have had to do over the course of the past year.

While everyone hopes for a return to normal, some of these methods may actually find their way into the future of recruiting as society continues to grapple with COVID-19.

Team Spirit

Another thing that changed for the coaches was they’ve seen their teams a lot less due to the pandemic. While no games was one thing, student-athletes and coaches have actually gone months at a time without seeing one another -- something they’re not used to given the community that Springfield College has always been known for.

“I love my team. They’re my family in a lot of ways,” Graves said of her girls. Women’s basketball, like many other teams, actually used Zoom to make a concentrated effort to stay in touch with one another more over the long layoffs and constant periods of isolation.

Gibson added, “Strangely, especially over the summer, we were probably more in contact with them than we’ve ever been before. I’ve been here 20 years and in the summer when they leave and classes end, you send some emails, you send the information about preseason and the captains call around just to check on people and then they come to preseason. Whereas, (this year) we were Zooming and interacting with them far more than we would normally.”

In addition to just missing company and human interaction, the past year has included a refined social justice movement in the country. This further allowed for Zooms to not only check on well being, but also educate student-athletes on important issues.

“There were a lot of coachable moments throughout this entire, still going on, ordeal here. Because there were a lot of things that happened in the past year, we wanted to try to touch on a lot of those different events, whether it was social justice or the restrictions of not being able to be around other people at certain times,” Cerasuolo said.

“Our locker room, we always tell our guys, that should be the most acceptable place you ever go into because there’s so many different personalities when you have a team our size. There’s going to be a lot of differences, but it’s got to be inclusive because we have one mission. No matter what anybody has personality wise, characteristics wise, whatever differences on beliefs, views, race, gender, all that other stuff is that we have one mission as a program: develop better people.”

The football team utilized the time to bring in guest speakers to talk to their student-athletes. Other teams, like volleyball, challenged other sports teams on campus to fitness competitions over Zoom.

Even though everyone was far apart geographically, teams and coaches made a true effort to stay connected with one another and put well-being ahead of all other factors.

“When the kids are gone in the summer, we might not even have any contact at all during those three summer months. Whereas last summer, because of the gravity of the situation, we were periodically together and in touch virtually with the Zoom,” Brock said.

While the locations and time spent together may have changed, the bond between coaches and their players did not.

The desire for competition and victories was replaced with a greater appreciation for one another and checking on the well-being of those around them.

Looking Forward

As the pandemic rounded into a year-long event, coaches learned many lessons while also keeping an eye towards the future.

For Long, the return to the volleyball court will be a long time coming.

“I’ve played volleyball or coached volleyball since freshman year of high school which, I’m really old, was 1986. This is the first time I didn’t have a fall season. It was brutal. People are like, you can go apple picking, who the heck wants to go apple picking - I just want to be running the slide,” she said.

Long is not used to missing the NCAA Tournament. She expects success year in and year out and she knows a big part of that is getting her real team back out onto the court.

“We had six starters all with season-ending injuries. We had kids out of position, we had kids banged up, half of my team on the bench injured. So, there’s this burning desire to get back on the court to rectify that.

“That wasn’t the team we were...now we’re going to have gone 700 days just thinking about that last match which was horrific. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth...we’re really, really anxious to get rid of that taste and get back on the court and say this is who we are.”

It’s also important for Long to pass along the biggest lesson this past year has taught her to her team.

“I think we just need to appreciate the time that we have when we have it because we just don’t know when it’s going to end. We’ve said for years and years, you take something away from every situation, win or loss, and I’ve said that my entire career and I think it’s just even more appropriate now. You take something away from every situation, what are our takeaways going to be. In life and in volleyball, I think we miss people a lot.”

For Gibson and his women’s soccer team, their return to competition will be overdue. The pandemic cost the team a trip to Spain where they had been scheduled to play exhibitions and tour the Barcelona training facility.

Through a year of ups and downs, Gibson has communicated to his team that their reaction is more important than the circumstances they are dealt.

“Nothing’s going to be perfect. I tell the players, there’s always going to be something wrong. Somebody is always going to be hurt, you can’t wear the uniforms you want, the field will be bad, the opponent will be violent, the referee will be useless, there’s always going to be something. Just focus on what you want to achieve and make the adjustments,” he said.

Mike Cerasuolo has a unique challenge on his hands leading the biggest team on campus who just missed a full season in 2020. Players such as Chad Shade and Hunter Belzo have departed, but the mentality of the program stays the same.

“It’s the mentality we have in this program that we just keep pounding the rock. It’s not the one hit that’s going to matter, it’s all of those hits over and over and over again as far as the mentality you have, sooner or later it’s going to be open for us,” he said.

With Brock and Graves, they had the luxury of competing in some of the final games on campus with humans in attendance, but proceeded to miss the entirety of their 2020-2021 seasons.

Brock will look to build off the momentum of an NCAA Tournament appearance, but he will need to overcome the loss of Jake Ross and Heath Post. Graves' team had a successful year, but they fell short of the tournament; that’s something they’ll look to change when they get back between the lines.

Beyond the wins and losses, it was important for Graves to recognize that this past year hit everyone on a human level and that will always be more important than the outcomes on the court.

“I think it’s definitely changed my approach this year with the kids. I’m much more sensitive to them, I feel closer to them because of that. There’s more time and energy spent on feelings. I think I’ve grown as a coach because of that, the goodness of the difference is that we’ve had to lean into each other more.”

For coaches, motivation, competition and the pursuit of accolades and victory will never fade. It’s inside them like with each and every one of their student-athletes on campus.

However, the pandemic had a roundabout way of bringing programs closer and in the end, reminding everyone what mattered the most.

“You don’t need much to be happy -- I think you can live pretty simply. I think all of us realized what we really need and what we really want versus I can lead a pretty simple life,” Graves said.

“I didn’t do a whole lot of shopping during the pandemic, it was really much more about simplicity. Relationships you had with the people in your bubble and you realized you just didn’t need a lot of stuff. You could live pretty simply and still be okay,” she added.

Through the recruiting changes, schedule adaptations and general craziness of the past year, the return to competition will be more than welcomed. When that days comes, these five coaches will have their players ready and their bond with them will be tighter than it’s ever been.

Created By
Danny Priest
Appreciate

Credits:

Springfield College Athletics, Jack Margaros