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Brian Boyd, Editor, Shore Publishing/Zip06.com
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Jack Steinman, who will captain the North Haven football team as a senior this fall, routinely participates in early morning workouts during the summer. Offseason conditioning is just one of the many things that keep high school student athletes busy during the course of a year. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Like many student-athletes, Olivia Datre has a lot on her plate. One of the things that motivates Datre to work hard is the fact that she wants to come through for her teammates on the Branford softball squad. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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I started working at Shore Publishing as an intern during my senior year at Qunnipiac University in December 2011. Since then, I’ve covered multiple games and interviewed numerous athletes and coaches. I’ve learned about the hard work they put in both on and off the field as they sacrifice several hours a day for the good of their teams.
I’ve heard high school athletes speak about how they manage their time between academics and sports. I’ve listened to coaches talk about the preparation that goes into every season. I’ve also talked with athletic directors about the effort they put in toward ensuring their programs are among the top in the state. All of this got me thinking: What goes into the day-to-day operations of high school athletics?
In this story, we take a look at what grinds the gears of interscholastic sports and the role that athletes, coaches, and administrators play in that process.
Forming a Game Plan
Athletic directors are at the forefront of formulating their teams’ regular season schedules. There are numerous factors involved when it comes to piecing together an ideal slate, such as taking into account legislation from the state’s governing body of high school sports, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC).
“With coming up with the initial schedule, we have to also consider the CIAC’s season and weekly limitations [with games]. We also have to look at the school and school district limitations,” said Kevin Rayel, the athletic director (AD) at The Morgan School in Clinton. “We then come to the initial schedule, which is a two-year schedule that can change annually due to changing of league members or due to which sports are added or subtracted from an individual school’s athletic program. We then work with the school’s Student Council advisor, band director, drama department, and other school and district activities advisors. We finally have a mutual agreement on scheduled games with our athletic directors for our league opponents and our out-of-league opponents.”
Craig Semple, the AD at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, said that ADs have to consider the impact a packed schedule has on their athletes, as well as the other obligations young adults juggle alongside sports.
“I look at [CIAC] season and weekly limitations as it relates to the amount of preparation a team needs and keep in mind the physical and mental stress the athletes endure weekly and during the season,” said Semple. “Obviously, we work around holidays, SAT. PSATs, ACTs, and school-related functions,” Semple said. “One example includes that we have many athletes that play sports and participate in the marching band, so I do my best to keep games off of Friday night, so they can participate in both activities. Another major factor in scheduling has to do with athletic training and medical staffing.”
A Coach’s Life
Of course, coaches play an integral role in high school sports and not just in terms of implementing strategies, but also with how they teach life lessons to their students. Ultimately, a high school coach’s workload is never finished.
Anthony Sagnella is the head coach of North Haven football who also teaches 10th-grade health at the high school. Sagnella said he officially assumes the identity of a coach once the final bell rings, but added that he’s always carrying that title with him in some form.
“At 2 p.m., I change hats into a football coach, but I never really take it off though during the day. I’m dealing with recruiting items and taking calls from colleges for players, plus I’m also helping players with any issues they may have. You’re never disconnected from football,” Sagnella said. “Typically, we spend 2 to 3 p.m. going over game film and then practice from 3 to 5:30. We debrief and then the coaching staff meets. I usually come home, take a break, and then prep for the following day. I usually review practice tape and I can also email coaches and players film clips from it. The beginning of our week, usually Saturday through Tuesday, there’s more of this. Then by Thursday evening, we usually have a team pasta party with a speaker that was a former North Haven player, who talks about how they saw football as a part of their life.”
Even during the dog days of summer, Branford softball skipper Chuck Reale is already putting the pieces in place for the next season. Once March hits, it’s all hands on deck with a heavy agenda nearly every day for the next few months.
“Starting around March 20-21, it’s a six-days-a-week schedule,” said Reale. “We have Good Friday and Sundays off, aside from a day off here and there due to weather. Yet they know that they are committed to it Monday to Saturday.”
Whether the Weather Will Cooperate
No season goes off without a hitch and, quite often, inclement weather is the biggest hitch. In the fall of 2012, the Southern Connecticut Conference tournaments were pushed back several days due to Hurricane Sandy, resulting in SCC finals being played in the same week as first round State Tournament games. Then there was the nor’easter of February 2013 that canceled the SCC Wrestling Championship.
Jon Rivera, who coaches cross country and track at Guilford, saw the impact those storms had on the Indians’ schedules. Rivera said the most-effective way of dealing with the reshuffling is communicating effectively, while taking advantage of the extra practice time.
“The blizzard totally altered [the State Championship class meets] and State Opens of the indoor track season that year. One class was negatively affected, but it also messed up the training for all the teams,” said Rivera. “The hurricane wreaked havoc, too, so being organized and getting in touch with the captains and setting up safe places to meet the team and get some training in was the key.”
On a smaller scale, athletic directors have to make the call on whether games will get postponed as a result of lesser storms that happen on a more-regular basis.
“Dealing with weather goes with the territory. I use many websites and actually learned to read radar on the Internet to pinpoint the exact time we would get inclement weather. The main issue with weather is, you want to play the games, but you can never risk the safety of the kids and the fans that are driving to the athletic contests,” said Semple. “I work with my principal, superintendent, and facilities director to determine what’s in the best interest for our athletes when it comes to the decision to play or postpone.
“We try to make the call before 1 p.m. announcements,” he continued. “We walk the fields, we talk to our opponents, and we collaborate with our leadership. When we make the decision, that’s when the work begins— communication via email, Twitter, White Board, announcements, and E-Notify are all communication tools we utilize. We call our officials and bus companies, booster representatives, event staff, and media.”
In a campaign that features a short time frame alloted for regular season contests, bad weather can create stretches where teams have three or four games in as many days. Consequently, it requires a lot of quick and concise cooperation between administrators and coaches to find a way for all the games to get played.
“We do our best to reschedule games as soon as possible. The CIAC opening up Sundays as a possible reschedule play date has alleviated some stress on these situations, although we use that day as a last resort. Our students and parents have been very understanding with rescheduling games due to weather. It is a situation that cannot be controlled and everyone does their best to make it as smooth as possible,” said Lynne Flint, the head of athletics at Haddam-Killingworth. “This may mean playing games on back-to-back days or playing a doubleheader in sports where that would be appropriate. The HK coaches are excellent at being flexible with weather situations. They are very helpful to me in problem-solving scheduling issues that come up. At the end, it is all about safety and creating a safe environment for students, parents, fans, officials, and game staff.”
Student-Athletes: A Double Life
Much like coaches, student-athletes have obligations outside the sports world that include studying and other extra-curricular activities. With so much going on, they have to wisely budget their time to get things done in every arena.
“I just try to pay attention in class to help make the homework easier. I take advantage of every second I have and get work done during study halls because I know I’ll have practice late or even a game until 9 p.m.,” said recent Guilford graduate Chris Rogers, who played basketball and baseball, while also participating in Unified Sports and the Interact Club. “In the fall, I have baseball in the afternoon and then basketball later, so you just have the right mentality and know what you are going into.”
Even when the school year ends, athletes often keep at it during the summer to make sure that they stay in peak physical condition. One of those athletes is Jack Steinman, who will play quarterback for North Haven in his upcoming senior year. Steinman participates in non-mandatory workouts at the crack of dawn, while fighting through the heat of the preseason.
“We work out every morning around 6 a.m. during the summer. They aren’t mandatory, but recommended agility drills and lifting. They help us not be out of shape when the season starts,” said Steinman. “At the beginning of the season, it’s always hot and humid. It’s one of the harder parts of the season with giving all our energy in 95-degree weather.”
High school athletes are no stranger to the early mornings and late nights. East Haven’s Tori Carlson said that having the right plan in hand is the key to handling so many responsibilities.
“During soccer season, we had practice from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. during the year, but I thought it was always a good way to unwind after some stressful school days,” said Carlson, who played soccer, basketball, and tennis and was also in the marching band before graduating in 2015. “In basketball, we would have practice from 2 or 3 until about 6:30. It was intense, but worth it. With tennis, we had about a 1 ½- to two-hour practice, but they were relaxed and I quickly got into the routine.”
At the End of the Day
Looking at all the time and effort that goes into this process, one might wonder how everyone keeps pushing themselves through the non-stop grind that runs for 365 days a year. For many, the motivation stems from making their school, town, and family proud.
“My family motivated me to do it all. I was motivated by giving them the chance to brag about me. There were times I didn’t have much rest, but my family kept saying how proud they were of me and keeping busy,” Carlson said. “It was nice to say I almost did it all. I think athletics helped me stay on top of things with school more.”
People like former Guilford cross country/track standout Ben Siciliano put their best foot forward to increase their chances of finding success at the collegiate level.
“For me, it was about setting my sights on college with running and academics,” said Siciliano, who graduated this year. “I’m always looking ahead to running a certain time to impress college coaches. It’s all about looking ahead.”
Some athletes simply do it for the love of the game and the person playing next to them.
“We’re always going one way or another for softball. We start with fall ball with practice once a week, plus I play travel ball with conditioning and softball practice once a week,” said Olivia Datre, who will captain Branford softball as a senior next year. “My teammates definitely motivate me through everything. I know I have to get my homework done, but I know I have to give 110 percent on the field because I know they are doing the same.”
From the coaching perspective, Sagnella said it all boils down to a passion to educate the athletes, while strengthening their character.
“You have to enjoy what you are doing and I enjoy the entire process. For me, I’m a product of all the experiences and people that influenced me,” said Sagnella. “My parents and coaches lit a fire in me. It’s my duty to help young people in North Haven become better people. I want to show them they can achieve their goals.”
Coach Reale echoed Sagnella’s sentiments by saying that it’s all about what’s best for the kids and serving as a positive influence who helps them grow into A-plus adults.
“Anybody doing this does it because they love it. I love doing it and continuing to see the progress from the players from the beginning of the year to the end,” said Reale. “If the kids see you are committed as a coach, it makes things easier. You hope to give 100 percent to them as a coach and role model.”
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