Coach: Each high school spring sport has it's own unique atmosphere
OK, the madness of March basketball is almost over and the spring sports season is now officially upon us.
As a complete sidelight, anyone who claims perfect brackets after all the amazing upsets, or worse yet gives you a "Yep, I had the Final Four called perfectly," should be sent immediately to sports purgatory -- which ideally would include something like 48 hours in a closed room watching nothing but referee replay reviews.
Getting to the topic at hand, if you happen to meander onto the athletic websites of any of our local high schools, you will notice the number of fall and winter sports available pales in comparison to this time of year -- the spring awakening.
Badminton, baseball, boys track and field, girls track and field, boys gymnastics, girls soccer, boys volleyball, boys water polo, girls water polo, girls softball, boys tennis, boys lacrosse and girls lacrosse all going on at the same time during the busy spring season is enough to keep any athletic director up at night.
What I find interesting is that each of these sports have their own unique routines, skill sets, strategies and, maybe most important, atmosphere surrounding them.
"Atmosphere" is a little hard to quantify, of course, but we will do our best in the sport-by-sport breakdowns below:
High school badminton is noisy, active, with multiple matches going at the same time. As a fan watching, it is a little hard to keep track of who exactly is winning, especially in the big invitationals with multiple teams, where there can be a confusion quotient strikingly similar to traffic with lane closures during a busy Chicago rush hour.
But the competitors are serious here. This is not your neighbor's backyard fun version of badminton, but instead a classic combination of mental strategy, skill level, psychology and court awareness.
What I love about high school baseball is the unpredictability. When you watch major league baseball, a fly ball or a ground ball are usually pretty routine. Not so in high school baseball, where the teams that win make those plays, but the youth of the players means those plays are far from "routine." This unpredictability adds to the suspense and enjoyment of the games.
Also unique to the setting are the "fence birds," the many fans and parents, (and struggling sports journalist) who lean on the fence and stand up to watch the entire game. It's often a better choice than sitting on the cold-conducting metal bleachers, and also kind of fun as fans bond while watching the game over the wire fencing.
I never cease to be amazed by the combination of skill, strength and dramatic presentation from high school gymnasts. The flair, expertise, balance and power with which these guys perform is so impressive. And they dog it all by their lonesome, as there are no doubles or team events in gymnastics. (Although, come to think of it, doubles competition on the rings or the parallel bars could actually be a pretty interesting concept.)
One final thought on gymnastics: I can't imagine the pressure to perform in a state or conference competition. Each participant has only one chance, one routine. If you slip or mess up, you are out. Compare it to basketball, where you can miss a shot, or baseball, where you can strike out and still have many more opportunities for redemption. No such luck in gymnastics.
The spirit, the physicality, the camaraderie, the gamesmanship all are seen in full display in high school lacrosse, arguably the fastest-growing of all sports at the high school level.
Lacrosse has its own unique atmosphere. The athletes tend to have an edge to them, thriving on the physical nature of the game, and the rivalries between schools have grown really intense over the years.
Add to that the occasional discomfort of parents from both teams standing on the same sidelines watching the action in close proximity, which only adds to the color and sometimes even the volatility of this sport.
The athletes in this sport have to be quick and precise to be successful. The bases are short, so on a ground ball, one tiny bobble or slipup often means the runner will be safe. There's no room for error.
Likewise for batters trying to hit off top pitchers who fire the ball from the way-too-close distance of 43 feet. A quick bat, precision eye contact and tremendous eye-hand coordination are all required just to get bat on ball.
The fan following in the stands for girls softball can be loyal and intense -- but also cold in those early season games!
Mark me down as a big fan here. High school soccer is among the most underrated of sports. The girls game is played at such a high level these days thanks to so much off-season work, club play, travel teams, etc., that it really is fun to watch.
There's not a lot of deliberate, slow passing like we see at the World Cup soccer level. Instead, most high school girls soccer games are up-and-down-the-field, free-flowing affairs. Fans especially enjoy the action from the stands, buoyed by the fact there are very few stoppages of play in soccer.
Track and field
Underrated and unsung as a high school sport to watch. Yes, the meets can last longer than a Senate filibuster, but the raw athleticism, purity of competition and variety of events make it one of those "Try it, you'll like it!" kind of sports.
Each event has its unique skill set, from the power and speed of the sprinters, the competitiveness of the middle distance runners, to the long-term, grind-it-out nature of the distance runners, not to mention the almost acrobatic combination of speed and skill of the hurdlers.
Here you'll find fast-moving, quick, intense games with a wonderfully delectable combination of quick-reflex athleticism (think diving to save well-placed, about-to-hit-the-ground shots) and power (the spikes, the blocks!).
Usually drawing pretty good crowds, game action is fast-paced and intense, and the spirit from the players is nonstop. After every point -- win or lose -- players will get together for a quick huddle, encouragement etc. The boys game has grown in both skill and popularity by leaps and bounds in recent years.
Still trying to figure this sport out, but I do know the crowd and atmosphere tends to be low-key and mellow -- almost too well behaved. Maybe it is because not a lot of the parents know all the rules and strategy, so it is hard to yell at the players, coaches or officials.
Also note, the aforementioned "mellowness" and well -behaved part of this sport starts and ends on the line where the water tops off. As we all know (or have heard), the below-the-surface action in water polo is a whole other story. That is where the sportsmanship and camaraderie takes a slight step to the rear, and the "anything goes" physical nature of the sport takes center stage.
Fans and players have to endure the cold and wind of the early matches. Huddles of tennis parents are often seen keeping warm under blankets and other coverings. The fans in tennis are usually very sportsmanlike, clapping and cheering on good shots by either side.
Tennis spectators, interestingly, are a little more removed from the action because of how they are separated by fencing and are often viewing a match somewhat far from the court they may be watching.
Whichever and whenever, most of these great spring sports are well under way, so here's your strong encouragement to get out now and watch these hardworking athletes. It won't be long before the way-to-soon coming of prom, graduation, and end-of-year activities takes hold and our attentions turn elsewhere.
So enjoy the sports focus while you can.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.