Monday, October 27, 2014

Influential Coaches #10: Micah Hartman

Previous entries: Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)
June: Michael Minthorne (strength & conditioning)
July: Steve Radotich (football)
August: Tessa Paganini (volleyball)
September: Lynn Seitz (swimming)

October is smack in the middle of volleyball season, and so in honor of that we are going to take a look at Micah, who was a co-assistant coach with me for two years and an assistant under Tessa and I for one, all with NCS volleyball. During those three years, Micah's coaching provided a significant piece of the foundation for the 2010 Cathedral volleyball team, which remains the best season-long experience that I have ever had as a coach.

Micah was a sophomore (I believe) at American University when we first started working together in the fall of 2007. She was the assistant coach for the JV volleyball team, and I had a strange role (in retrospect) that involved being an assistant for both the JV and varsity teams.* She had been a high school player herself in Florida, and while not a college-level player herself, quickly proved very adept at communicating basic fundamentals to girls who were not that much younger than she was.

*I was in essence allowed to float between practices (although I spent probably 75% of my time with the varsity), and I sat on the bench for both matches, mostly taking stats.

That season we had an interesting mix of girls try out for volleyball, with nine freshmen and juniors but no sophomores and only four seniors. The then-varsity coach opted to leave all of the freshmen on JV together, even though one or two of them, talent-wise, pretty clearly deserved a spot on varsity. The head coach of the JV team was a guy who had, several years ago, played for the Brazilian national team, one of the best national volleyball teams in the world. But he didn't always have the patience to really teach and break down skills for the group of not-always-coordinated ninth and tenth graders he was given. For that year, at least, Micah was a godsend.

JV practices typically involved lots of playing, with David and Micah (and sometimes myself) against the regular JV lineup. Whenever something needed correcting or explaining, it was Micah who stopped practice and made sure that the girls got it, or drilled them on proper form and mechanics. As a result, there was real growth on the team throughout the year, and everyone contributed in one way or another.*

*David worked out a rotation with the nine players whereby three of them stayed on the court for the entire game, and the other six were split between the back row and the front row, always subbing in and out for the same player. It was consistent, and easy for everyone to remember their roles; the only problem was that the team's second-best player was one of the part-timers.

The following year, Micah joined me as a full-time varsity assistant, on a vastly different team. Instead of nine raw freshmen, there were seven seniors and three sophomores, and five of the seniors were four-year varsity players. With them, the focus was a little less on development and more on focus and motivation, which waxed and waned occasionally throughout the season. Still, Micah in particular helped bring along the three younger players, all of whom responded more positively to her coaching than to our head coach, and by the end of the season one in particular was playing a major role on a very good team.

In 2009, our last year of working together, we reverted to having a young and inexperienced team that needed a lot of direction and development, with the bonus that most of the new players had experienced her coaching earlier in their careers on JV. Again she took the time to break things down, slowly if necessary, and often played good cop to Tessa's or my bad cop when performance didn't meet our expectations. She also worked hard to help the newer players ditch the bad habits that some of them had picked up the year before without the benefit of her daily instruction. And it showed; despite returning only three letter-winners and having, quite honestly, a difficult preseason, our team made a strong showing from day one and continued to get better.* Even with a small roster (so small that a couple of girls shuttled back and forth between varsity and JV) that was hit by an "itis" in mid-season to reduce it further, and no seniors, the team managed to place as high in the league as they had the year before with a loaded, senior-laden roster.

*Here's a fun story. During the middle of a match at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, we switched setters, inserting a girl at that position who had maybe practiced at it twice in two years. During her first set out there, Micah noticed (but thankfully the referee did not) that we were throwing up a triple block on their outside hitter. She called Meredith over during a timeout and gently explained that no, she could not block at the net when she was in the back row. Meredith had previously been either an outside hitter, a middle, or a front row-only opposite, and thus had never been as close to the net during the rare times when she was in the back row, and didn't know that she couldn't do that. But after Micah explained it, she never let it happen again.

I think that the single best asset Micah provided as a volleyball coach at NCS was her ability to relate to the players. For one thing, she was pretty close in age (just 20 during our first season together, I think) and thus was able to build plenty of trust with the players, especially with the younger ones, many of whom were trying to figure out if they liked volleyball enough to continue playing it. Nor was Micah as intimidating as a giant guy like myself or David, or a veteran of an elite college team like Tessa. No, while she was very knowledgeable and able to articulate that knowledge for the benefit of the girls, she had been a good high school player who didn't play in college, which was all that most of them aspired to be. And she had a gift for knowing when to be friendly, when to be comforting, and when to be stern and demanding with any given player on the team, which was a skill that I certainly have attempted to emulate myself.

Micah hasn't coached since she left NCS after the 2009 season, but she's done some interesting things, the most interesting of which is to recently move back home to Stuart, Florida and (with a couple of friends) start a new venture, a farm/kitchen/event space to help provide a more vibrant community atmosphere called Ground Floor Farm. Her hometown will be as lucky to have her as the Cathedral volleyball program did for three great seasons.