By Bill Burt
---- — If you heard a huge sigh of relief a few days ago, you were not hearing things.
It probably came, collectively, from many area basketball and hockey coaches, most of whom are thrilled the first official week of their seasons is over.
While many local fans would expect their favorite coaches to have sleepless nights during the upcoming Christmas tournaments, rivalry games and later, the state tournaments, for most coaches those pressure-packed experiences don’t compare to what they had to endure last week.
Boys and girls had to be informed, most face to face, that they weren’t good enough to play a sport at an area school this winter.
“Cut Week” is tough on kids. Apparently, it is just as tough on coaches.
Nobody knows it better than the elder statesman of area coaches, North Andover High boys basketball coach Mike McVeigh.
“You might have coached their older brothers, or in my case, their uncles,” said Coach McVeigh. “You get to know their families. And then during the week of tryouts, you look in their eyes and say, ‘Boys, we have 14 spots.’ It is the worst week of the season.”
Coach McVeigh has lots and lots of company ... as in almost every coach in the area that coaches a sport with few spots.
Here are a few comments from local coaches:
“When I took over from Chris Gurry 13 years ago, he told me this will be the toughest part of my job,” said Phillips Andover Academy hockey coach Dean Boylan. “Man, he was right. It’s very, very difficult to tell a young person that they’re not going to be part of team.
“You would figure after some years it would get easier ... but it hasn’t.”
“It’s definitely the worst part of the coaching experience,” said Methuen boys basketball coach Matt Curran.
“I’ve stayed up nights with the decision as to who is going to make the team and how I’m going to have those conversations with those that didn’t make,” said Brooks boys basketball coach John McVeigh.
“No question this is the most difficult part coaching for me,” said Haverhill High girls basketball coach Bob Mellilo. “I spend hours internalizing who should make the team.”
. “And believe me when I tell you that selection week isn’t any easier for a veteran coach than it is for a new coach to the school system. In fact, the opposite may be true.”
“Cutting kids is by far one of the worst parts of my job,” said Notre Dame of Lawrence basketball coach Zach Lebow,
Logically speaking, it isn’t supposed to be so tough. Everybody, including kids and parents, is supposed to be on the same page, that this isn’t Little League or youth soccer where everyone gets a participation trophy when it’s over.
But the tears tell a different story. This really is, for a lot of kids, their introduction to the real world.
“This is often the first time in their young lives that these players are being told they are not good enough to make a team,” said North Andover High boys basketball coach Mike McVeigh, whose son John coaches Brooks.
John McVeigh has more experience with this issue than you could imagine. He coaches in the winter at a private school (Brooks) and in the spring at a public school (Andover High). And at Brooks he coaches boys (basketball) and at Andover he coaches girls (lacrosse).
He not only teaches at Brooks but he and his family reside there as well.
“It’s a different dynamic for us is that we sometimes live with the kids we cut,” said John McVeigh. “For instance, there’s a boy in my dorm that has been cut the past two seasons. It definitely has a different dynamic for both him and me. And just in general, even if they’re not in the actual dorm, they live on campus so we see each other all the time at classes, dinner, on the street, etc.”
As for the Brooks vs. Andover experience, the Andover girls lacrosse program is one of the best programs north of Boston, which means he has to cut players that would no doubt make it in most other towns.
Another tough part for the “prep schools” is that most of the kids are boarders, which means the parents aren’t around for support.
“They’re not going home to mom and dad,” said Boylan. “They’re going back to their rooms. There are certain times we notify the house counselors.
Whittier Regional has sort of circumvented this inherent problem at virtually every high school in America. Whittier doesn’t cut kids in any sport.
It can make for some interesting practices, particularly when 50 or so boys or girls show up for freshmen basketball.
“You don’t want to turn kids away. That is a great concept,” said Whittier Regional boys basketball coach Tom Sipsey. “But we have to figure things out in terms of spreading the kids out, some lifting, some running and some scrimmaging. Then for games, there will be a group of kids. Not everyone plays the same amount. But everyone gets a chance to be part of the program.”
What’s the best way to break the news the kid being cut?
According to a few coaches contacted, honesty and face to face on cut day, is apparently the best policy.
“Nobody has come up with way that is comfortable and easy,” said John McVeigh. “It’s disappointing news. Nobody likes to hear or give disappointing news. There is no magic formula except telling the truth.”
“I speak to each kid who I do not have a spot for,” said Sanborn Regional boys basketball coach Bob Ficker. “I let them know I appreciate them trying out for the team and what they can work on to have a better chance next year. I also make sure each kid knows that I saw him at tryouts and that any failure was not in his effort.”
Methuen’s coach Curran has seen partook in some tough cuts during his reign as a freshmen, JV and varsity coach at the school.
“Having to cut my cousin when he tried out for the freshman team I was coaching was really tough,” said Curran, who took over the head job on the varsity last winter. “It’s not only family. You’re cutting kids you know from schools, camps, families, etc. ... This season when we had 72 kids try out for the freshmen team and we had to first narrow it down to 25. But then we had to cut nine more kids who in most other years would have made it.”
The hope for all coaches is that level heads will eventually prevail, including theirs.
“You urge the ones not selected to open another door — be an indoor track participant, be a manager of our team, join another basketball group,” said Mike McVeigh. “And above all, you hope they leave you with no ill feeling, knowing that they tried their best to make the team, and they believe that you, as the coach, did the best you could to be fair in all regards to the team selection.”
But the real fact is that coaches are glad that this part of their job is over.
Let the games begin.
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.