High school athletes often enjoy sports because they are an escape from the classroom.

High school athletes often enjoy sports because they are an escape from the classroom; a chance to put the books aside and be active and competitive.

Still, the two worlds have plenty in common and the learning curve for the Springfield boys basketball team has defined a season of ups and downs as the program heads in a new direction. With a 5-11 record and 2-9 Portage Trail Conference mark through their first 16 games, the Spartans have sent an extremely young roster up against a difficult PTC schedule and seen both growth and a few setbacks.

First-year head coach Tim Cole and his staff have done their best to get a squad with six sophomores and three freshmen ready to compete on the varsity level, but it hasn't been easy.

"The experience has been challenging because we have many kids who are between levels of competition. We have some kids that need to develop on JV and they are in our regular rotation on varsity," Cole said. "That means we have to count quarters and put some eclectic lineups together on JV. Our focus is doing the right thing for the kids and helping them develop into varsity basketball players, but that is easier said than done when they are needed to help make us competitive on the varsity level."

Having so many young players competing at the varsity level for the first time has placed big demands on the team's few juniors and seniors. Cole noted that the experience has provided the chance for those veterans, such as leading scorers Jordan McLean, Andrew Hanna and Ronnie Dawson, to learn how to be leaders.

To fill their roles, those players have had to both hold themselves accountable for their play on the floor while also providing encouragement and input to their younger teammates. Figuring out how to motivate and direct others has been a process in its own right, both in practices and games.

As the players have learned what's needed of them, their coach has gone through much the same process. As a first-time varsity head coach, Cole has learned his own lessons about how to handle different situations and the best way to approach each part of his job. The first step, he explained, was coming to grips with the reality of "the process," a term used often in sports.

"It’s the dreaded cliché that everyone uses when they begin a program, however, it’s exactly what’s required in order to do things the right way. There are no shortcuts; there are no easy fixes," Cole said.

Although the Spartans very much want to get back to their success of a few seasons ago, they've had to own the fact that getting there will take time. Developing young players means letting them go through rough patches and picking out lessons from those struggles, all while making sure that those players don't become discouraged by what they're going through.

Another important facet of learning what it means to be a varsity coach has been finding good assistants to fill out the staff and allowing them to do their thing, according to Cole. The team's assistant coaches run many of its drills and sessions focusing on specific skills, giving the players a variety of insights beyond the head coach.

Through it all, the Spartans have tried to make honest assessments about who they are and where they are as a group. Although there are other quality programs in the PTC Metro Division, the coaching staff wants their players to seek out their own identity.

"We don’t spend any time trying to be like other teams or worrying about who isn’t here," Cole said. "We have our group of guys and that’s who we’re going to compete with. It’s up to us to find the best way they can compete and adapt our coaching style and philosophy to fit them."

Asked if there are any decisions he would like to do differently, Cole said there are some situational, in-game calls he might change, but in terms of how he and his assistants have handled the year, he's happy with their choices.

Much of the focus has been on balls skills and those efforts have yielded positive results in terms of dribbling, passing and shooting. As players have gained a better understanding of how to create scoring chances for themselves and their teammates, the offense has improved and with it, team chemistry has as well. One of the program's goals is to create an atmosphere in which players enjoy the everyday reality of being part of the team and Cole credits the parents and administration with supporting that mission.

Although the record isn't sparkling, the first-year coach believes that a closer look at the picture shows that Springfield is actually ahead of where he expected it to be as the season nears its end.

"I thought we’d be further behind in understanding how to play basketball. It’s a steep learning curve trying to learn how to play at the varsity level, but we have some kids that are catching on quickly," Cole said. "We have put several things in conceptually that I didn’t think we’d get to for another season or so, and it’s good to see them making strides - even if there have been bumps along the road in the process."

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936 or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB