Attention non-basketball male athletes at Lake Zurich High School: boys basketball coach Billy Pitcher wants you! And he would be happy to work around your schedule.
"We have a hard time getting guys who play other sports to come out for basketball, particularly football and baseball players," Pitcher said. "In fact, in my eight years, we've never had a varsity baseball player play varsity basketball. And we've had only five football players play varsity basketball.
"These are kids who are very good athletes and we're not getting them. That definitely hurts us."
The dog days of the long high school basketball season are upon us. Injuries are piling up. Illness is making its way through many teams. Fatigue also is becoming a factor.
At this point in a season, basketball coaches usually see depth as a challenge, and as they walk through the halls of their schools, they see athletes from other teams who could help their cause, but those athletes never even came out for basketball.
"You also think about how much more competitive your own practices could be if some of these kids were on your team," Pitcher said. "Kids who are good athletes in other sports bring a certain competitiveness to anything they do. And we're missing that in some ways."
Of course, this is not a problem unique to Lake Zurich.
And it is not a new story that the multiple-sport athlete in high school is a dying breed. That's been happening for years, and athletes who specialize in one sport and play that sport year round through school and travel teams are becoming the norm.
But what's new for Pitcher, and likely many other high school coaches in the suburbs and around the country, are the expectations about how strictly multi-sport athletes should be dedicated to any one sport.
Pitcher, whose team consists of just three multiple-sport athletes, none of whom are starters, would like to entice other multiple-sport athletes to come out for basketball by offering up increased flexibility.
"When I first took over the program, I was like 'We have to do this and we have to do that, and in the summer, we've got to have the kids do all this stuff and be here for everything," Pitcher said. "I've definitely backed off of that. A lot.
"Forcing kids to be at everything and make them feel guilty when they can't just pushes them away. That can be overkill for any of the kids, but especially for the kids who play multiple sports. Kids need breaks and they also can't do everything.
"For kids who play multiple sports, I'd start with, 'Hey, just give us the four months during basketball season. Let's start with that.' Then you communicate and work with them during the off-season to see how much they can do, while being very flexible to accommodate their other sports. We can't penalize kids for playing multiple sports.
"I'm hoping that a 'less-is-more' approach may be more appealing to these guys."
And yet, Pitcher is resigned to the fact that there are some athletes from other sports he just won't get. Some athletes are convinced that the ticket to a college athletic scholarship is to bury themselves in their preferred sport year-round. Others don't love their second and third sports enough to put up with the demands from those sports, demands that can still be heavy even with a "less-is-more" approach.
Joe Heffernan and Tyler Sarvady are not two of those athletes.
They are two of the three multi-sport athletes on the Lake Zurich basketball roster this year. Heffernan plays soccer and Sarvady plays volleyball. The third, football player Nick Mastrusz, is a reserve guard for the Bears who is new to the program. He had been trying out for years and finally earned a spot this season as a senior by impressing Pitcher with his perseverance.
Heffernan and Sarvady, who have become the Bears' first two players off the bench, say they would still play basketball no matter how flexible or inflexible coaches are. They love it that much.
"It's difficult to be a multi-sport athlete in high school. It's difficult on the kid and on the parents. It's a lot of time, and it's hard to succeed in multiple areas, and you pretty much can never get a job," said Heffernan, who earns money sporadically by baby-sitting and doing yard work for neighbors but could never find the hours to hold down a job at an actual business. "And then you have to juggle in school. In the summer, you might have six or more hours of practice or games each day. I might be at soccer in the morning, basketball in the afternoon and then I'd have (summer league) basketball games at night. It's a lot, but it's something I've done all my life, and I'm used to it. And I can't pick a favorite sport because I love them both, so I keep playing both.
"I could never give up one to focus on the other."
For Sarvady, band is also in the mix. In the fall, he's in the football marching band, and throughout the year, he plays in school concerts when he can. His instrument is the tenor saxophone.
Sarvady also has never been able to find time for a job.
But the hecticness of all of his activities doesn't frustrate or discourage him. Like Heffernan, Sarvady thrives on it.
"Playing more than one sport when you're younger isn't too hard, but when you get to high school, it's a lot," Sarvady said. "It's a lot of juggling, but I'm glad I do it. I've met so many different people doing basketball and volleyball and also band. And I like it that just when you feel a little burned out with one sport, it's time to move on to the next one and do something new. It's great to get that break."
An athlete's joints and muscles appreciate the break, too. Different sports work different muscles and different areas of the body, and that is one of the many benefits of playing multiple sports. Another is the versatility multi-sport athletes show college coaches.
"I can't tell you how many college coaches tell me how they like kids who play more than one sport because they like athletes with (multiple skill sets) and they like athletes who are big competitors."
Last year, the coaches from the football, boys basketball, baseball, track and wrestling teams at Lake Zurich got all the male athletes at the school together to talk to them about some of these benefits as a way to encourage kids to be multi-sport athletes.
"We talked about transferable skills, like how playing basketball can help you with your speed and footwork in football, we talked about enjoying multiple experiences in high school," Pitcher said. "As coaches, we have to be more flexible with these kids to make it more enjoyable for them to come out for multiple sports.
"We want them to play other sports. It's good for everyone when they do. But these (multi-sport) kids can get very busy and we need to work with them to find a balance that works for everyone."
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