Same level, different game plan

Junior varsity squads find themselves in unique situations

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— Junior varsity is about strengthening fundamentals and fostering an attitude that prepares the younger players for varsity.

It isn't necessarily about the final result or the overall record. Success is measured in on-field or on-court improvement and lessons.

Take the Steamboat Springs JV football team. A lack of overall numbers at the beginning of the season forced the JV coaches to forfeit most of their sophomores to varsity practices. The reps those young kids would have had with their even younger teammates has cost the JV squad timing and continuity and ultimately games.

Now, a steady flow of injuries at the varsity level has permanently removed the sophomores from JV, usually the gathering point for undeveloped, still growing 10th-graders. Freshmen have even started practicing with the varsity to simply give Steamboat enough bodies to simulate game situations.

The Sailors JV team is under .500 so far this season.

Coach Mike McCannon said the kids he practices with every day are taking it in stride. He and coaches Mike Appel and Aaron Finch have the opportunity to work closer with the freshmen they do have.

"The freshmen are getting a lot of playing time in JV games," McCannon said. "It's good because they do get a better player-to-coach ratio. Sometimes the downside is without the older kids that have been there, it's hard to visualize the right way to do it. If there are two of them there and they are both making mistakes, there's no one to show them how to do it right. We've been trying to concentrate with these younger kids, and come next year they'll be improved."

Things couldn't be more opposite for coach Rory McElhinney and the Steamboat JV volleyball team.

McElhinney has six juniors on her 14-person roster. She's had those same girls for two years now and they have no shot at playing varsity, barring injury or illness to a senior locked in her spot.

But McElhinney said all her girls knew that coming into this season. Problem is, several of the juniors could likely start at several other schools in the league.

McElhinney said they know that, too.

"I've had to change my coaching philosophies to keep them working for something," McElhinney said.

So the Steamboat JV team has broken one rule of junior varsity. It expects to win.

Last year, the JV team had three losses. This year, with nearly everyone returning, the girls set a goal to be the first undefeated team in Sailors volleyball history varsity or junior varsity.

With one match left against Glenwood Springs next Saturday they are 18-0.

"Instead of playing at the same level this year, I knew I could run the team at the level of a varsity program as much as possible without pushing them past their limits," McElhinney said.

That doesn't mean it isn't hard. Steamboat's JV starters, like their varsity teammates, are often a lot better than the competition. The difference is the varsity is guaranteed two games. The JV starters often get one. If the game finishes at 15-0 or even 15-3, most Sailors didn't even get to the service line. In the second game, McElhinney has to play the rest of the JV squad.

"Unfortunately, they don't get the competition," varsity coach Wendy Hall said. "The situation this year is that I've got seven seniors that are so good that we've got kids worthy of playing varsity ball playing JV. Several of the kids playing JV would be starting other places, but guess who they are scrimmaging against? We have some great practices. That helps my kids a lot."

In fact, the seven seniors are the main reason the juniors haven't soured.

"It's kind of hard," Hannah Gary said. "But I wouldn't want any of the seniors to go. I love every one of them. I'd rather sit and watch them kill people."

So she sits. And Shelley Dunlop joins her. Also a junior, Dunlop said she would rather be a part of a winning program than start at another school. She repeats what McElhinney has stressed to her older girls.

"In practice we get to play the varsity," Dunlop said. "We feel like we're a varsity team."

So much of what makes the Steamboat varsity team great is its mental desire to dominate. McElhinney said all her juniors have room for improvement, and the mental aspect is one area. Seeking to win and play at a high level, even at JV, is part of developing that toughness.

"We've told them they could either look at it as a negative and feel bad for themselves or you can look at the positive side," McElhinney said. "Playing time is limited, but you're playing against one of the best teams in the state."

Steamboat JV soccer coach Danny Tebbenkamp said his team has dealt with issues over playing time as well.

Fifteen kids make up the JV/freshman team with eight suiting both JV and varsity. Tebbenkamp said some of those players feel they should be exclusively on varsity receiving playing time, so coaching philosophies have changed a little.

No one on JV is guaranteed a varsity spot unless it's earned. It seems fair and it seems to have worked.

"It has helped," Tebbenkamp said. "The process has evolved to the point where it's been more effective in getting kids to produce. We are losing some seniors and we will need some of them to pull their weight."

Unlike past years, the overall number of participants is down this season, Tebbenkamp said, forcing raw freshman players to team up with juniors also getting varsity minutes.

"It's a pretty wide range," he said of his and assistant coach John Cardillo's roster.

This season, with the Sailors JV squad hovering around .500, Tebbenkamp said the importance of team chemistry and consistency has been stressed.

"Our problem has been playing two good halves," Tebbenkamp said. "We're trying to find consistent play where the kids give 80 minutes of soccer. We want them to know they can come away knowing they left everything on the field. Whether they won or lost isn't the big deal."

And the effort is the most important aspect for the JV players, Tebbenkamp said. People earn spots in practice by playing hard and showing commitment to the team, but they are still expected to have fun.

"We just stress the basics of technique," Tebbenkamp said. "More, their attitude and work ethic."

And those are lessons beneficial for any level of player JV or varsity.

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