The majority of high school coaches are also full-time teachers. For these dedicated souls, the world of academia does not cease once the final bell rings. True, they may trade their lesson plans in for whistles and clipboards, maneuvering from one stressful environment to the next. In reality coaches are confronted with the same pressing matter that monopolizes their time and energy during the daytime.
Any coach will tell you their greatest fear is losing a kid mid-season to poor grades. More often than not you see this cold and cruel reality check during the basketball season, one that features demands rarely seen in other winter sports.
For hockey players, they are programmed to play Friday-Saturday and maybe deal with an early morning practice due to rink availability. Wrestling meets typically run Wednesday-Thursday with tournaments held on weekends. Indoor track participants are subjected to one night meet per week before shifting to Saturdays for the more grandiose meets. Swimming? Those meets are held right after school, leaving plenty of time to head home and study.
It’s a different culture for basketball players, who sometimes scramble to keep up with their course load. Practice revolves around gym availability, meaning it could happen early or after 6 o’clock. Road games mean 4:30 departures for the 5:15 JV game, which can vary based on the destination. If the varsity game is complete shortly before 9, it’ll be 10 p.m. at the earliest before the bus docks back at school and 10:30 before heading home for a long overdue dinner. The last thing most kids are thinking about after a long day is homework.
Home contests are a bit more manageable since players typically remain on school grounds for a 7 p.m. tip. There will be your self-starters budgeting time to study. Mostly though the players are preoccupied with that night’s game. The chemistry or history test hanging over their heads gets pushed to the backburner, an assumption that’s more accurate than you think, fair or unfair.
This season we saw several local squads lose significant contributors, the result of substandard grades coming on the heels of midterm exams. No one wants to talk about abrupt disappearances because it’s a sensitive issue, one that reminds coaches that their teacher roots are never completely out of their system – even if they are miles away from the classroom.
With those developments in mind, we set out to ask coaches, both boys and girls, public and parochial, to share their viewpoints about balancing hoops and books:
GEORGE CODERRE, Woonsocket girls’ coach:
“There’s no doubt that playing basketball is difficult to keep up one’s grades. You are playing at night, practicing at odd times. The girls have to be absolutely committed. We’ve been fortunate that our girls have been diligent in maintaining their grades. At the same time we found it necessary, especially with particular students, to approach teachers in advance.
“We basically have teachers sign off to us whether or not the kid is doing their work. We won’t let them practice unless the teacher gives the okay. Some teachers appreciate that; it empowers them to hold that over the student. I’ve found that in public schools that if you give the teachers a reason to believe in the kids, they’ll go out of their way to make sure those kids get the work done. Sports are what keep some of the kids motivated to do their work. Plus no teacher wants to fail a kid.”
BRIAN CROOKES, Central Falls boys’ basketball:
“On game days you’re tied up from 4-10 sometimes, even longer if you a have a game further away. I am very proud to say that I’ve never had a kid who played in my program not graduate. I check in with their teachers on a weekly basis to make sure they are keeping up. If a kid is a day or two behind, you can make that up. If you wait six weeks and find out he hasn’t done any work, at that point something needs to be done.
“They wouldn’t be able to step on the floor if they weren’t in school. You’ll see that our attendance rates are fantastic during the basketball season. The kids are in school every day, they are getting the knowledge from class, and if they can manage a little study time after school or on the bus … they are maintaining their level. We didn’t lose anybody on the varsity level this year. We lost one JV kid, but it’s his first year and he wasn’t able to manage his time.”
TAMMY DRAPE, Tolman girls’ basketball:
“Usually I inform the guidance department to let them know who my team members are going to be. If there are any problems, don’t hesitate to reach me. I don’t care is she fell asleep in class, I need to know and I need to hold them accountable. You can’t reward them if their not fulfilling their responsibilities in school”
“I tell them that the education is the most important thing and no one can take that away from you. I talk about the different scholarships they can get for academics alone. I use (volunteer assistant) Liz Lima as an example. She was a hard worker on the court, but she was No. 2 in her class and went to (Boston University) for free on an academic scholarship.”
MATT PITA, Shea boys’ basketball:
“The idea is student-athlete first, that’s the stresser. You’ve got to get done what you need to get done in the classroom. I’m a teacher first and a coach second. I have some of my players and expect the same things on the court as I do in my classroom.
“More than anything, it’s important that they get the grades. It’s a privilege to play basketball. It’s the student-athlete’s job to get the grades.”
NINA MOREY, Mount St. Charles girls’ basketball:
“I don’t have to worry about academics because the school stresses it enough. Plus the girls are highly motivated to do well, making sure they get all of their stuff done.
“The season will affect them because they’ll stay up late. The girls will tell me they go home after the game and say up a few hours, maybe up to midnight, to get their homework done. It’s a big deal so you really have to enjoy basketball to be able to make that kind of commitment.
“The teachers are always there to help them out, and if they need to be excused from practice for academics, they’ve been allowed to do so without any consequences. Our practices normally don’t start until later on because the middle school gets the gym right after school, so they do have some time.”
MIKE KAYATA, Tolman boys’ basketball:
“Our (grade monitoring system) is done on a weekly basis. You are not allowed to play if there’s no progress report on Friday. They know that and it’s worked on all three levels. This is the first time in the 10 years I’ve been here that we did not have one student fail off varsity, junior varsity or freshman. I’m proud of that and I’m proud of our guys.
“It’s a constant battle to stay on top of grades. If you don’t have that progress report, you sit. We don’t care who you are. To me academics are more important than the sport you’re playing. Grades are what are going to get you to graduation, which is the goal. Academic success is the key to success in life.
“It helps that I’m in the school and I know the teachers, but I have limited time to chase progress reports. E-mailing has helped because instead of running down three floors, I can get a quick response back from a teacher. The teachers are very fair at Tolman; they support our athletes.”
DEB ENGELS, Cumberland girls’ basketball:
“I’ve been fortunate to have good students, and they’re fortunate to have parents who stay on top of them, because you have to. That’s how it should be because school is what’s most important.
“Most high school athletes are not going to play college ball, so you’re going to have to take it with your grades. If you can’t (manage your time) in high school, you’re certainly not going to do it in college when you have more independence and freedom and are away from your parents for the first time.”
TOM SORRENTINE, St. Raphael Academy boys’ basketball:
“You’ve got to find time to get your work done; that’s the big thing. It’s a long season and you’re putting in a lot of time, so you’ve got to take care of the academics.
“At Saints they give a lot of help to kids who are struggling. Kids will tutor kids and the teachers are pretty good at helping them keep up with the work. We didn’t lose anybody off our team, which is a good thing. But you’ve got to stay on top of guys.
“It’s much tougher when you’re not in the school every day,” added Sorrentine, a longtime SRA teacher who retired in 2007. “I go into the guidance office every so often and ask about the kids, or they’ll tell me this kid is not doing this or that. The players will tell you, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing great.’ That’s why you’ve got to check.”