NEW FRANKLIN Good coaches have to have a game plan, one that makes sense and they can follow, step by step.
They have to be proactive, not reactionary, making the first move before anyone else has a chance to do so. In that way, then, they can take control of any situation.
They have to be effective as communicators. They must get their message across clearly and completely, yet concisely, so as to not confuse anyone.
They have to be salespeople. They have something – a philosophy, a way of going about things – to sell, and they have to get their players to buy into it fully so that the game plan can be carried out to fruition.
And they have to be honest – not brutally so, so as to use the truth as a club to hit people over the head with, but firmly so in a fully transparent manner. The truth is always the right choice. It works every time it’s tried.
Shawn Zavodney was at his best in all these regards when he was named head coach of the Manchester High School girls basketball team about two months ago. He knew he had to be at the top of his game, for his professional livelihood – and that of his team – were at stake.
Indeed, the inaugural season under the new coach could have gotten away from him and the Panthers long before they played any games that counted in the standings.
The Manchester program was in a state of turmoil, swirling in controversy and uncertainly – and still is, to a great degree, in fact – after Tucker Pappas was let go as head coach in the days just before Mother’s Day, May 14.
"He wasn’t fired," Manchester Schools Superintendent Dr. James Robinson pointed out. "No coach gets fired. Coaches have supplemental contracts lasting one year, and if that contract doesn’t get renewed, then the coach doesn’t return. That’s what happened in this case."
However it is termed, Pappas was out as coach after 13 seasons, and 23 years overall in the program after also serving a decade as an assistant.
There is a lot of consistency at Manchester High School, especially when it comes to head coaches in sports. Jim France has been coaching the football team for all but one year since 1971. This fall will mark his 46th season. To put that into perspective, his tenure has covered the terms of nine different presidents.
Gene Schindewolf has been the boys basketball coach since 1985. How long ago was that? Players were still wearing short shorts then.
So when there’s change at Manchester, it’s a huge deal.
But when that change comes seemingly out of the blue, and there is no official reason for it, it makes it just much more significant.
According to Pappas, he’s no longer the coach because of issues with some parents. Robinson refuses to divulge why the move was made because, as he said, "This is a personnel issue, and I don’t comment on those. They are private."
To further cloud the issue is the fact the Panthers were incredibly successful under Pappas, winning the Principals Athletic Conference championship in each of his first nine seasons before finishing second two straight years. It’s one of the best runs for any school in this region during that time, or just about any time in the 40-plus years of girls basketball in the state.
Certainly, there is more to high school coaching than wins or losses, but the success is what everyone notices. What wasn’t so successful, apparently, and the reason for the change, is shrouded in secrecy.
To say, then, that Zavodney stepped into a whirlwind is an incredible understatement. He has been with the district’s girls basketball program for 17 years, the majority of it as a successful coach at Manchester Middle School – the Panthers won five league titles there – before moving up to the high school as junior varsity coach the last two seasons.
But even with all that, Zavodney says he was "caught completely off-guard" by what happened. A very young-looking 50, he was suddenly feeling his age.
"When Doc (Robinson) told me that wanted me to take over as coach, I didn’t say no but I had a lot – a lot – of reservations," Zavodney said. "After all, I had been with Tucker for a long time. I like him. I didn’t want to be the head coach."
Then, after getting over the shock of the coaching change, and the possibility that he might end up being part of it – the other shoe to drop, as it were – he started thinking about things more thoroughly.
"The girls were upset with Tucker being removed, and it became clear to me that if I didn’t take the job, the four seniors – including my daughter, Tristan, the ones I’ve been coaching as a group since the second grade – might not play for Manchester next year," Zavodney said also in reference to Jordan Campbell, Ashley Forret and McKenzie Ferguson.
"Two had their papers ready to transfer, and the other two were going to stay at Manchester but not play basketball. With this being their senior seasons, they deserved the chance to remain at Manchester and play basketball with some continuity in terms of coaching (he had already figured that if he took the job, he would ask Jay Anker to stay on as an assistant and would ask former Panthers star Kayci Krynowek to join the staff).
It was time for the game plan, and to be proactive.
"I told Doc I’d take the job – I really appreciate his confidence in me – and the first thing I did – that night, in fact – was to call all four seniors, including my daughter, on the phone," he said.
It was time to be honest.
"I told them I didn’t know any more than they did about why the coaching change was made. I was in the dark," too," Zavodney said.
It was time to be a salesperson.
"I told them that I didn’t want them to leave, that I wanted them to stay here, and to play basketball," he said. "I told them that we were having an open gym the next night, and I asked them to come.
"They all showed up, and so I let the younger kids play in the gym while I took the seniors into the team room to talk."
It was time to be a communicator.
"We talked for a solid hour," Zavodney said. "We got everything – and I do mean everything – right out in the open. No one held back."
By the time it was over, all four seniors were not only staying at Manchester, and not only were they committed to playing, but they were determined to stick together and become winners again after two straight losing seasons, the first for the Panthers in nearly 25 years.
According to Zavodney, the ice was broken in the meeting when Ferguson shouted, "We’re tight! We’re a family!"
When the new coach heard that, he heaved a sigh of relief.
"I knew we were good. I knew things were good," he said.
He quickly added, "That meeting, along with the phone calls I made to the seniors, were crucial. If those girls hadn’t stayed, we wouldn’t have had much of a program left."
Pappas said that if he had remained as coach, he thought that with the four returning seniors, plus the addition of talented freshman guard Karli Anker, the coach’s daughter, the Panthers had a good chance to get back on track and have a good year after last season’s 5-18 bottoming-out record.
Zavodney shares that opinion, and said that in his brief time as coach, he has seen evidence of that transformation starting.
"The girls have done everything we, as a coaching staff, have asked them to do, and more," he said, pointing that the Panthers went 4-2 against all bigger schools in a summer league in Barberton in June.
Zavodney said the Panthers will not be afraid to use their familiar formula of an up-tempo style of pressing and trapping and creating turnovers for easy transition baskets, while firing up a barrage of three-pointers. Manchester has done that for over two decades.
"That’s the way I like to play," he said. "But I believe in fitting your style to the talent you have, not the other way around. When I was at the middle school, that fast pace is the way we almost always played. But there were a couple years when we didn’t have the people to do that, so we played differently. I won’t hesitate to do that again now.
"But one thing that won’t change is how hard we’re going to work. We’ll work as hard as we’ve ever worked, and be as dedicated to attention to detail as we’ve ever been."
Zavodney loves his staff.
"It’s not me making the decisions, but rather the members of the coaching staff making decisions together," he said. "I have two good basketball minds helping me in Jay and Kayce, and when you have good basketball people putting their thoughts together, a lot of good ideas come out of it."
Zavodney will also involve the players. They will have input in all aspects of he team, just as his players did when he was coaching at the middle school.
He hopes the "all in" approach helps the Panthers become a real player again in the league title race.
"We want to win. We want to win the championship," he said. "Make absolutely no mistake about that.
"At the same, though, high school basketball is not the be-all and end-all. This is going to be about much more than just basketball, or winning. We’re going to include some life lessons that these girls can take with them. We want these girls to have fun. We want them to have a great experience, and for the seniors to have good memories to end their high school careers with."
Sounds like a good game plan, which is how all this started in the first place.