Being from Michigan I guess I am biased to my own state, but with that said, I must say that it definitely isn’t easy for any program to get started from the ground up in any area that already has powerhouse teams. Well, that’s just what Nick Zoroya, the head coach at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan took on when he became the coach at the new high school. The school was built to relieve some congestion in the schools in the AA area, A deuce, Double A, A squared, whatever you want to call it, we have all kinds of name when your from there for the Ann Arbor area. If you had ever been to Pioneer High School in the early 2000’s like I had been to visit numerous times, it seemed like you had to crowd surf through the hallways just to get to class if you were not one of the lucky ones that was able to walk on the floor. Thus, Skyline was built and still held to the high, and maybe even higher academic standard that many Ann Arbor people have come to know and respect. I took some interest in the Skyline lacrosse team after seeing them improve over the past couple of years, so I took some time out to chat with Nick Zoroya to see how things have been going.
How hard was it, initially, to get the program started when the school first had the lacrosse team form?
Skyline opened in 2009 and only had freshmen at the time. I was hired one week before the season started, so I didnt have any time to recruit new kids but was lucky enough to have 14 kids already signed up to play. Of these 14, 4 of them had played organized lacrosse before. When I came to school on the first day of the season I found myself in a room with 35 kids, the original 14 and pretty much the whole football team. From a numbers stand point the program was healthy, only 9th graders in the school and our JV program had 35 kids. Eventually through grades, injury, etc. that team ended the season with 28 players. The school had all the equipment we needed including helmets/gloves/elbow/shoulder pads so the only thing kids needed was a stick/cleats/cup. This made it easy for me to keep the new kids because the cost was so low to them. That team ended up with one win against Huron’s JV team at the end of the season, tough year for me as I wasn’t used to losing.
In 2010 we we’re lucky to get 7 more kids with lots of experience and they started immediately. Our team now had more skill than ever before. Most of the kids from the previous year stuck around, some starting swimming year round so we lost a few kids, our team ended up with 27 that year, half sophomores half freshmen. With the more experienced team we decided to have some fun and get ready for the varsity level in 2011. So we decided to play 8 varsity games with no upperclassmen going 4-4, and playing 11 JV games going 7-3 for an overall record of 11-7.
2011 marked the our first varsity season, we had try-outs for the first time and now roster 32 players on JV and 24 on Varsity. Still no seniors and we’re up to 66 players. We have 4 games left but right now we’re 9-5 and enjoying some success, but we’re quickly learning how much work needs to be done to go from mediocre to elite.
What was the learning curve for you, as a coach, when you first started, and how has your ability to coach changed over the past couple of years in your opinion? Have you attended any coaching seminars or any other elements to gain some insight on how to become better?
When I first started I looked at everything from a players perspective. I was a head coach at 19, my oldest players were 15, it wasn’t always easy to demand the respect a coach deserves, but because the guys saw that I knew what I was doing they learned to listen. Three years ago the players we’re more little brothers than players, but now as we’ve grown as a program, so has the relationship between the players and I. They prefer a younger coach that can relate to their lives, rather than someone their parents age. I attended the level 1 US Lacrosse clinic to learn how to be more of a coach than a player, with that clinic and lots of hands on experience I began to become more of a coach than a friend, and the team has benefited from the increased discipline and organization.
When the program first started did any teams from the district, region, or state not want to play you at all because you were so new because of a competition issue, as they were afraid they would, in other terms, blow you guys out?
The bigger teams in Ann Arbor didn’t take us very seriously at first, we had to earn their respect, something I assumed would happen from day 1. The team uses it as motivation today to prove the other schools wrong, that we may be new but that doesn’t make us less talented. We haven’t upset anyone yet but the gap closes every year, and coaches often tell me that they see the growth in our program.
How much has the team changed in the couple of years you have coach the team? Obviously the record has improved, but that is only one element. How has the overall mood, sportsmanship, IQ, stick skills, and other elements of the individual and team skills improved in your eyes?
The first year we had a lot of athletes that played lacrosse, but as time went by they decided to make lacrosse their number one priority. In 2009 every kid played football in the fall, today only 4 of the varsity players continue to play football. The other 20 have either switched to another sport, or lift and play fall ball for lacrosse. Then everyone who doesn’t play hockey also plays indoor in the winter. The commitment level has grown immensly, and with that increased commitment comes increased exposure to the game. I’ve noticed a significant growth in the Lax IQ of the players compared to year one. The stick skills have improved more with some players than others, but thats expected as some kids commit themselves more than others. We’ve gone from athletes playing lacrosse, to athletic lacrosse players.
What is the buzz like from the schools perspective on the team this year, and what has the administration said about the team for the future? Normally the teams from Ann Arbor do pretty well each year, so is there any pressure on you to build a team quick to compete here soon with everyone around you?
To be honest I don’t feel any pressure on the team to succeed in terms of wins and losses. Our school puts a huge emphasis on academics and for that reason we have study table two days a week. Our team GPA is a 3.27 which is above average for the spring sports. The school is supportive of our sport, but since lacrosse is relatively new in the midwest (to the public), and especially at a new school, we still lack the student body support at games that we want. We eventually want the school to treat lacrosse like football, and get big crowds out to games.
To keep things fresh our team likes to go grab a bite to eat, have a bbq, play some video games, or just play a big game of soccer. Over spring break when numbers are down we have a giant varsity vs. jv soccer game, it’s a great way to keep the kids active but give them a small break from practice.
At practice do you guys ever talk about what you saw online on a website like Lacrosse Playground that was amazing?
Our kids are constantly scouring the web for the latest and newest things in lacrosse. Whither it be the score of a local hs game on laxpower, some new uniforms from some random school on LPG, or video highlights from lax.com, our kids are driven by what they see online. If they see a cool play, they want to try it, if they see a cool shirt, they buy it on the spot. They all buy into the lax bro mantra and do what they can to keep of with lax culture.
What does the future look like for lacrosse at Skyline?
The future of Skyline lacrosse looks like 75 guys working towards a regional title and being competitive with Pioneer and Huron every year. As our program grows so does the depth of the talent, and the drive to succeed.
What are some of the biggest obstacles that your team faces right now that you can think of?
Having no seniors our team lacks leadership, the juniors are doing they’re best but nothing can replace a strong group of senior leaders. Also, with our youth comes a lack of experience. Our players often think they cant beat a team just because the team has a good record. They don’t understand that any team can win on any given day. With time and experience, they will eventually realize that just because a team seems unbeatable, doesn’t make it so.
One of the requirements to get a letter on the lacrosse team is for each player to participate in our community service event. Last year we prepared and served food to the less fortunate, and this year we helped a health clinic move their office from one building to the next, acting as movers.
Obviously with coaching kids you know they love video games, so with this new website, MyLacrosseVideoGame.com, what do you think of the concept, and do you think it could work out to benefit not only the sport, but deliver a product that everyone can enjoy?
I think the idea behind the site is genius, even if it doesn’t work out the site is promoting the game, the development of a video game, and bringing together people in the lacrosse community. I think that with some help it could create a quality product. There are some very smart lacrosse fans out there, and I know there are enough to get a game made.
What made you want to coach at Skyline, and how rewarding has it been for you?
When I transferred to UofM from Oberlin College I had a huge void without lacrosse in the spring. I was working at the Ann Arbor Pioneer athletic department as an intern when I was made aware of the opening at Skyline. I applied and the next thing I knew I was a head lacrosse coach with a brand new program. My passion for coach stems for my passion for the game. I love the sport of lacrosse and people who know me say I’m obsessed, being a coach just gives me a great avenue to spread my passion.
Thanks to Nick for taking the time to discuss his team with me, and best of luck to the Ann Arbor team in Skyline in the future as they continue to improve. This is not only great for the state of Michigan, but a tremendous step forward for our sport!