Making the Cut

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.11, November 2006,

Southeast Polk High School in Runnells, Iowa is becoming crowded. With enrollment increasing by about 200 students each year, its population is approaching 1,400 bodies cramped into too-little classroom space. And Southeast Polk’s athletic programs, especially volleyball, haven’t been spared the overcrowding, as Head Coach Matthew Parker saw over 70 girls come out for his teams this August.

In response to the growing population, the district scrapped its no-cut policy this year, and Parker was forced to conduct volleyball tryouts at Southeast Polk for the very first time. “Cuts are hard to accept at first, for athletes, parents, and myself,” he says. “But we have space issues from seventh grade on up, so we really had no choice. Trying out for a spot will eventually become an expectation for athletes here.”

The high school has four volleyball squads—freshman, sophomore, j.v., and varsity—and Parker decided to institute cuts only at the varsity level. “As I explained to the parents and my athletic director, I have some issues with cutting at the freshman level,” he says. “They’re still very young and they’re still learning their bodies. But by the time they’re juniors and seniors, volleyball is really competitive and it’s time for them and us to take a serious look at their interests and what they want to do.”

This fall, just over 30 students came out for the freshman team, which Parker says is a manageable number because they can be split into two courts and get enough practice in. About 15 came out for the sophomore team, an ideal number of girls to work with. And Parker had six seniors make up the core of his varsity squad. But 23 juniors also tried out this year—and that was just too many.

Instead of having an official tryout date, Parker and his coaching staff observed players for the first two weeks of the season. “We had them do a lot of individual skills drills like run-throughs, passing, setting, serving, and hitting,” he says. “I sat down with my staff and compiled names, then made my decisions.”

Parker didn’t have an issue with making the cuts, as it’s now part of his job description, but he was concerned about finding the right way to tell the girls. “I’m definitely opposed to a posting a cut list,” he says. “That’s the easy way out, but I don’t think it’s good psychologically for girls this age. So I had individual conferences with each girl who tried out, starting with the seniors and working my way down. With those who made the team, I said, ‘Here are your strengths, here are your weaknesses, this is what I think your role on the squad will be, and this is what I think your goals should be this year.’

“With the players I cut, I was also straightforward,” he continues. “I said, ‘Here are your strengths, here are your weaknesses, and unfortunately I don’t see a position for you at this point. But work on your weaknesses, don’t give up, and I hope you’ll come back next year.’ I think having individual conversations worked really well.”

In general, Parker is in favor of cutting players, citing a baseball analogy. “When the players throw the ball around the horn,” he says, “if there’s a weak link and the second baseman drops the ball every time, how does that affect the chain further down? You hate to say a girl is weak, but that’s the competitive nature of this sport. The cuts will be hard to accept at first, but it will become an expectation that the girls will have to work hard to secure a spot.”