New school, new sports: Odessa High fall coaches let players set culture for first season
Katy Hoffecker's theme for this season was "making history."
As the Odessa High School freshmen cheerleaders took the sideline at the first home game in November, they did a cheer with the kickoff of the game that she plans to make a tradition for years to come.
"When you step into an established program with any sport, you have those traditions ... and it's fun to keep those traditions going, but what's really fun about starting a program like this is you get to create your own traditions."
She drew inspiration from her time as a Middletown High School cheerleader and as a coach at MHS for the past six years, where there is cheer designated for certain parts of the football game.
"I wanted to start something like it, but that is our own at the same time," the cheerleading coach said.
Odessa High School — Appoquinimink School District's third high school — finished construction earlier this fall and opened its doors to freshmen students in October for hybrid learning. Even with only freshmen students, the school is offering sports programs.
Football, cheerleading, cross-country, field hockey, boys soccer and volleyball are the first fall sports at the new school, competing at various levels from freshmen to varsity.
Odessa's head coaches are building programs from scratch during a pandemic, with a season that was uncertain to happen this calendar year. While the coaches and players said it has been an exciting time, the season didn't come without some challenges.
Creating a culture
Ali Kern, head JV field hockey coach, said one of the aspects of team culture she missed is not having the seniors for the freshmen to look up to and learn from.
"I think that leadership-wise we had to have the more experienced players and guide us in the right direction. That was a challenge with them all being the same class," she said.
Grace Barnett was one of those players.
The freshman field hockey player, who has been playing for four years, said it was fun getting to help some of the players who had never played before.
"Being in more of a leadership position and being able to help them out, it's kind of cool. You get to witness them getting better and better as the season goes on and as the years go by," she said.
It wasn't always easy though. Barnett said the team did not perform well this season — not winning any games — and that wasn't always good for team morale, but they could still have fun.
While some of the Odessa teams missed upperclassmen leadership, cross-country coach Amy Moores appreciates the rare opportunity to start with a blank slate.
One of her favorite parts of building the team from scratch was letting the runners set the culture of the team — the only Odessa High teams competing at the varsity level. With no upperclassmen, they got to decide what the tone of the team would be.
"They have really stepped up. As a group, they have become very cohesive, and they really stepped up to push each other," she said. "It will be a good group to build off of for next year.”
Aiden Conover, one of the soccer captains, had to be a leader for the team of freshmen. He said there are a lot of areas to improve on but that will come along as the team gets older and bigger in the number of players, but it was still fun to be a part of a brand new team.
"My favorite part is meeting new people and building from the group up and having a good time and connecting with them and having fun with them," he said about being a part of a new program.
Head JV soccer coach Bill Willoughby said he was certainly playing to win this season, but his main goal was to make sure the experience was enjoyable for the players.
"I want them to learn to love the sports and rely on each other and to make friends. I think if we can stick with the strong fundamentals of the game and just learn to have fun. I think these guys will play better when they are enjoying it," he said.
He is hoping the team will be competitive by the 2022 season.
As for freshmen football coach Dan Pritchard, he has taken things he learned from coaching high school football in Georgia to set the culture, focusing on three things: being humble, hungry and smart.
"I told the kids we don't want to be the same as everyone. We want to be different. We want to be better. We want to do things at a high level," he said.
Pritchard lived in Middletown for 12 years, helping coach the first graduating class of St. Georges Technical High School students in 2010, before moving to Georgia. He moved back to Middletown last year. He used his experience with coaching a new program at St. Georges to create the right culture for his team, which included home visits with nearly all of his 31 football players.
"I actually went to their houses and stood in their front yards and talked to parents about who we are, the other [Odessa football] coaches came with him from time to time. I wanted to see where they lived, how I can help them," he said.
Not enough players
As with any new program, there will be some kinks but one many of the teams faced was being short the number of players.
Kern said her field hockey team was short one player the whole season: she had 10 but needed 11. While it was more complicated, she said the girls still did their best.
They were able to make it work, but Barnett said it was difficult and tiring.
"It was hard sometimes because you either had to play down on a big field, which is exhausting, or we had to borrow players from another team. It still works, but it's not as good as playing with just your team," the freshman said.
Willoughby's JV soccer team had 11 players, just enough to have a goalie and fill the field.
"We had a couple of injuries, so every time we lost a guy, we were down a duck," he said, laughing. "It made it hard for them out there," he said. "As we continue to grow, we will get more and more players involved in the program and we will have more depth on the bench and navigate them more going forward."
On top of not enough players, both of these teams were competing at the JV level, making their teams of freshmen younger than other schools they would compete against.
Jacob Wilczynski, one of the soccer captains, said facing teams that had more and older players made games more difficult.
"It was challenging because the opposite teams were a lot bigger than us, but it was fun," he said.
Willoughby said the age gap "made for some interesting pregame talks," telling the team at almost each game that it would be a challenge.
"They stepped up to it," he said. "They showed a lot of life and a lot of grit, and those will be some valuable lessons for us as the competition gets tougher."
Logan Ament, a cross-country runner, said he is proud to be on the first varsity team for Odessa, but it has been a struggle — being on a team of four boys runners — competing against teams with more runners.
"It's kind of intimidating. It makes us feel like the underdogs. It kind of gives me the motivation," he said.
The girls team had six runners.
Moores, the cross-country coach, said running against upperclassmen has given the team something to aspire to.
"If we were just competing against freshmen, I don't think they would have realized what they could potentially get to," she said.
Although head volleyball coach Jennifer Engels' freshman volleyball team had enough players with 13, she said only 10 of them had ever played organized volleyball — and only three had ever done it competitively.
With about 135 female students at Odessa High — and more to come in future years — she wants to see the team be larger.
"I would like to see increased interest in volleyball from current and potential students. It’s imperative for my staff and I to provide opportunities for students to grow academically, athletically and socially outside of the DIAA volleyball season," she said in an email.
The teams faced a number of problems this season, but COVID-19 ended up causing the most.
Kern said starting a program is a difficult task, regardless of the situation of the year, but the late start to the season made it "a little trickier."
"We tried to stress the importance of building a team and being a team player and learning to know your teammates a little better. I think that brought our group together. I think it made the season a little bit more enjoyable," she said.
Engels said the uncertainty of what the season would look like with COVID-19 restrictions made it hard to prepare for the year.
"Each student-athlete having to adjust to a new virtual/hybrid schedule and later dismissal times was the first piece of adversity that our athletes overcame with incredible resolve, inclusivity and competitive manner," she said in an email.
Hockeffer had started making plans for her cheerleading squad back in January and February, with cheer camps and team-bonding nights, but the pandemic canceled all the plans she had.
With the football season being limited to five games — with only two at home — the girls were also preparing for a season when they would only get to cheer twice. But then one of those home games was canceled, only allowing the girls to cheer at one game.
The soccer and football teams faced some issues of getting equipment and uniforms on time.
Pritchard said the manufacturing of equipment slowed down, so his team didn't have footballs and other equipment needed for workouts the entire summer.
"We were holding our breath whether things were going to get in. When they switched back to the fall, it really was full-steam ahead. We scrambled to try and get everything together," he said.
Although the logistics of getting corner flags, balls and goals are important, Willoughby said he wished he would have focused more on enjoying the moments with his team.
"We are going through all of this, it’s a really great opportunity and experience," he said. "At times, I found myself very focused on doing everything right that, sometimes, looking back on the season, maybe I should have taken a few more times to kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, look at what we’re doing.'"
Because cross-country doesn't require equipment, Moores said, most of the problems came from the uncertainty around the fall season and restrictions have made some aspects of running harder. Her runners are required to wear masks at practice and are racing about three weeks later in the fall — when it's colder — than they normally would.
"I am sure there would have been growing pains regardless. We had runners get lost on the trails, that may or may not have happened," she said. "We didn't have as much competition this year as we would have in normal circumstances. They got a good taste of it and [they have] a lot to build on."
Varsity play for most teams is expected to begin next year for all programs. Eligibility for the DIAA tournaments will start in the 2021-22 school year for some sports.
Fall sports records for Odessa High School’s first year:
Varsity girls cross-country: 4-4
Varsity boys cross-country: 2-6
JV boys soccer: 2-3
JV field hockey 0-3-2
Freshmen volleyball: 3-6
Freshmen football: 1-3
Cheerleading does not participate in competitions.