Can I Make Varsity?: How Andover Athletes Have Made the JV to Varsity Transition

Leaping into the air over several NMH defenders, Kene Adigwe ’14 headed Andover Boys Soccer’s tying goal home into the far corner of the net with just eight minutes left on the clock last Friday night. Garnering an uproar of cheers from the Phelps Stadium crowd, Adigwe’s skillfully placed goal not only continued his team’s undefeated record, but it also served as a testament to his incredible athletic career that began three years ago at the lowest level of Andover soccer.

Entering Andover as a Junior from Lowell, Mass., Adigwe played on Andover’s fourth and least competitive soccer team, Junior Varsity (JV) 3, completely under the Varsity radar. During his Lower year, Adigwe competed on the JV1 level, and only tried out for Varsity as an Upper.

“I don’t remember hearing a thing about Kene as a JV player,” said Bill Scott, Head Coach of Boys Soccer. “When he tried out for the [Varsity] team, frankly, I thought he’d be on the bubble, whether he’d make it or not.”

“Within two weeks of his Upper year, not only did he make it, he was starting. Kene was a kid who’d played some soccer [that] I didn’t even know about, but he grew, he got fast and he’s a fantastic player,” said Scott.

While Adigwe’s case may seem like an anomaly, his journey is not the only success story. Having begun her volleyball career at the JV level, Kate Wincek ’14, now Co-Captain of Andover Girls Volleyball, leads her team on and off the court. Andrew Yang ’14, who played JV Water Polo, now upholds the role of Co-Captain and has led Boys Varsity Water Polo to a six-game win streak and a winning record for the first time in three years.

Adigwe, Wincek and Yang are just a few examples of the outstanding athletes with humble JV roots who have the skill and capacity to play on a highly competitive level today. One hundred and fifty-five players across the 25 Varsity sports in the Winter ’12-’13, Spring ’13 and Fall ’13 seasons have JV experience, demonstrating the mobility between JV and Varsity teams at Andover.

In a survey completed by coaches and conducted by the Andover Athletics Department in 2011, the estimated number of JV athletes promoted to Varsity increased from 46 players in 2006 to 61 players in 2011 across 21 surveyed sports.

The survey also showed that matriculation varied greatly from sport to sport. While about one fourth of Andover’s Varsity teams consistently promoted six or more players from JV to Varsity in a given year, each year showed other sports that had no movement at all. In 2009-2010, a peak of five sports, compared to three in the years before, had no promotion at all.

“There is no doubt that matriculation from Junior Varsity to Varsity teams is sport-specific,” said Michael Kuta, Director of Athletics. He attributed this upwards mobility from Junior Varsity to Varsity to a number of factors.

While personal improvement can certainly affect mobility in sports, moving up from JV to Varsity is also affected by the availability of positions, seniority and physical size. Although each sport faces different situations each season, such qualities generally affect the mobility, or lack thereof, between different levels of sport.


**Relationship between JV and Varsity**

Boys Varsity Lacrosse, with nine of 25 Varsity team members having played JV, is a prime example of the success that a strong JV program can yield.

“While I try to recruit student athletes with Varsity potential, the reality is that most talented youngsters are not quite ready for Varsity as ninth graders,” said Steve Moreland, Head Coach of Boys Varsity Lacrosse. “They lack either the skill, physical attributes or lacrosse IQ to compete for meaningful playing time in Varsity games as Freshmen.”

To better train and educate players, Moreland has tightened the relationship between JV and Varsity. A strong JV program will give these players the proper instruction, practice and game time essential to shaping a Varsity player, instead of taking away from valuable game experience on Varsity, said Moreland. “To ensure consistency between skills and systems being taught at Varsity and JV levels, we communicate frequently amongst coaches, and I invite select members of the JV team and their Head Coach to practice with Varsity two days per week,” said Moreland.

“This year, I am counting on several members of last year’s JV squad to be a big part of the Varsity team’s success,” he added.

Standout players with JV experience include last year’s Captain Connor Light ’13 and starters Stephen Fehnel ’13, Jack MacWilliams ’15, Clark Perkins ’14 and Will Young ’14.

“I used [the day I got cut] as motivation for my hard work during my freshman season and the off-season that followed,” said Young.

“Coach Moreland saw some potential in me, and that truly made the difference in my lacrosse career,” he continued.

“Will Young is testament to the merit of the system,” said Moreland. “Three years ago, he was an athletic ninth grader with very raw skills and lacrosse IQ. After a year of development on the JV team, Will was a role [model] on Varsity as a Lower and then had a breakout season his Upper year.”

Instead of handing down old Varsity uniforms to JV teams, the Athletics Department will also begin to purchase the same uniform for select sports teams regardless of the level.

“There are some sports where it makes sense to slide kids between JV2 and JV1 or JV1 and varsity. This practice worked well in boys’ lacrosse last spring. To enable ease of change from game to game, and to reinforce the look and feel of being part of a program, we made the decision to purchase the same uniform for the teams,” wrote Kuta in an e-mail to _The Phillipian_.

Having swingers, players that practice with Varsity but play JV games, is also a popular method of preparing JV athletes for Varsity teams. In Softball, Kayla Thompson ’15, EJ Kim ’15, Ravenne Nasser ’15 and Mackenzie Bradford ’15 were all Varsity swingers for their Junior year but dominated the diamond as starters their Lower year, aiding the team in its second New England Championship.

Football regularly allows younger, newer members on the Varsity team to play with the JV team on Wednesday games to increase their game experience, including John Belluche ’16, Matt Whalen ’16, Elijah Aladin ’15, William Humphrey ’16, Dylan Norris ’16 and Justin Williamson ’16.

Varsity Ultimate, a team that does not typically draw recruits, depends on the JV team to serve as a feeder program, said Scott Hoenig, Varsity Ultimate Head Coach.

“For the past three seasons we have had good coaching continuity within the program, including at the JV level, and coaches have had good experience playing Ultimate, and therefore have been able to be pretty effective in training new players,” said Hoenig.

He said that a strong JV team is one that communicates frequently with the other teams and maintains consistency in the way each level is coached.

“I felt good about having kids playing at the JV level, knowing that I would be able to then make the transition to the Varsity team maybe the next year or years down the line not too difficult to make,” he continued.

Some sports, such as Cross Country, in which 36 percent of the the team has JV experience, and Crew, in which most rowers have raced in at least one or two JV races, are conducive to level mobility. These sports are largely based on players’ times, rather than players’ ability to work with one another.

“The way that it works for Crew is different from other sports, like Football or Field Hockey, where you need experience through your childhood years and lots of years of practice in order to be good or eligible for Varsity. Sports like crew, Cross Country and Swimming [are] mainly [about] strength and endurance and you pick up techniques along the way [and] it’s a lot easier to elevate your standing on the team very quickly,” said Alec Kingston ‘14, who started on G5 but moved to G1 by the end of the season during her Lower year.


**Recruitment of “Varsity Ready” Players**

Recruiting by Andover coaches plays a large role in the way each program uses its JV program, as some coaches actively recruit potential Andover students and talk to the Admissions Office, decreasing the availability of Varsity positions.

The choice to pursue older, developed players or younger players with potential is difficult and risky, but Coach Scott’s decision to take young players with strong academic backgrounds has worked well for the Boys Soccer Team.

“If we’re going to take a chance on a student, let’s take a chance on a ninth grader who we’ll have four years with and really have the opportunity to give them a good education rather than take a chance on a PG who is iffy academically,” said Scott.

Recruiting in the case of Boys Soccer is not necessarily meant to place players straight onto the Varsity team. Because of the sheer number of students who express an interest in soccer, not every “recruit” will immediately land on Varsity. Given time on JV, however, Scott has found that they will excel.

On the other hand, Clyfe Beckwith, Head Coach of Girls Volleyball, does not actively recruit, but his team has been extremely successful.

“If an applicant indicates interest of volleyball during their admission process, we talk to to them and encourage them to consider [Andover], or discourage [them] based on their experience and position played,” said Coach Beckwith. “For instance, I have advised PG libero applicants that it’s not in their best interest to apply to Andover since we already have established players in that position.”

Another factor in the competition for positions is the early specialization in sports that has grown popular in the past few years.

“There is a sense that the kids have to be, in quotes, ‘Varsity-ready’ when they come here,” said Kuta. “Kids are making Varsity teams younger. They start to specialize; either you make it or you don’t at a younger line.”

In a survey conducted by the Athletics Department in 2011, the number of Andover students who played three interscholastic sports, regardless of level, decreased from over 20 percent of Juniors to barely over 5 percent of Seniors.

The number of students who did not play interscholastic sports increased from from 15 percent in the Junior class to over 45 percent in the Senior class.

“Sports specialization leans on those numbers, and it skews those numbers in two ways: because athletes are playing year-round, they’re specializing and in ninth and tenth grade they can make Varsity teams, but if they don’t make the Varsity team, they quit,” Kuta added.

“That’s the bottom line: decisions are being made at a younger age, and a lot of these kids would make our Varsity teams if they stayed with the program, but they’re doing other things. Maybe they’re putting all their eggs in one sport instead of two or three for a college pursuit,” he said.

**College-Level Athleticism**

An avoidable reality, players on the Varsity level must compete with others who will go on to compete at the collegiate level.

“When I do my tryouts, the biggest thing is: first of all, can you make a layup, and if you can’t make a layup nine times out of ten with nobody guarding you then you can’t play on my team,” said Head Coach of Boys Basketball Terrell Ivory. “Exeter had five or six Division One players, and if you’re not a borderline D3 player then it’s hard for you to compete at the level I want our teams to compete at, just because of how talented the teams in the league are.”

“My goal is to at least have D3 players. A majority of my players can play at the D3 level, but then have three to four players that are D1 athletes. They’re definitely D3, they’ll play D3 in their sleep, but they are borderline D1 players or better,” he continued.

Head Coach of Girls Varsity Soccer Lisa Joel said, “Varsity players blend high technical and tactical ability as well as a tremendous athleticism, strength and speed, [which] truly matter at the Varsity level—the game is fast and the players are powerful. Our top competitors, almost every opponent we face, have multiple players who are college-bound athletes.”

All six Seniors on Andover Girls Soccer will continue their athletic endeavors in college, with five in soccer and one in lacrosse.

The jump between Varsity and JV is still possible. “Those who are likely to move on to Varsity soccer are working hard out of season to make this a reality, training when no one else is watching on the track, with a ball, in the summer at a high level. It takes tremendous desire, focus and discipline,” said Joel.

“For basketball, playing outside of school helped me a ton,” said Howell, who has become a starter on Varsity Basketball since playing JV Basketball as a Junior. “I played on an AAU team every spring and summer, and I definitely improved because of that. It helped me to stay in basketball shape and keep my skills sharp in the offseason.”

Carolyn Nigro ’13 played JV2 and then Varsity Girls Soccer before moving on to be goalkeeper at Trinity College. Anna Fang ’10, who advanced from JV2 to Varsity as well, was named Class A New England Prep School MVP during her Senior year and played Yale Women’s Club Soccer. Caroline Shipley ’16 played JV1 Girls Soccer as a Junior and moved up to Varsity the next year. Although JV did give her a season of more playing experience, she realized she could not be complacent in order to compete at the next level.

“On days off I would workout, and over the summer I felt like I had to kind of get back in it and work a little harder than I might have before so I could kind of get back into things,” said Shipley.

Kate Dolan, Head Coach of Varsity Field Hockey and Varsity Girls Lacrosse, said, “If you can develop athleticism and speed, then you increase your chances. Speed is important and stick skills can be learned in practice, but athleticism is the most important part.”


**Physical Limitations**

Physical size is another key difference between Junior Varsity and Varsity athletes, as some sports depend more on the size of its players more than others. Students’ physical growth during high school allows for great mobility in sports like Football, which lists a slew of current Varsity players with JV experience on its roster. Many of these players did not make Varsity their first few years largely due to lack of the proper physical qualifications.

“The Seniors and the Post-Graduates are men, and you can’t put ninth graders out there against them. You just can’t do that. Therefore, in Football, virtually everyone starts off on JV for at least a year,” said Leon Modeste, Head Coach of Boys Football.

“You have to be big. You have to be physically able to play Varsity football, and it takes guys a while to mature,” he continued. “You look at some of our best players that have been here for four years, Will Young [’14], Alec Tolentino [’14], Jake Howell [’14], Mike Delaus [’14], all played JV and now they’re starting on Varsity.”

He added, “They worked hard and physically matured, and they went from being little boys to little men, and that’s what happens. That’s why the big physical sports are a little different. Even if you’re really, really good, but you’re still a kid, you can’t play—you’re going to get hurt. That’s why they all played JV.”

“One of the beauties, one of the things I love about working with high school athletes, is how much they improve from ninth to tenth grade,” said Kuta. “You see a kid who has not hit their growth spurt yet, you see some raw skill, but you just never know where they’re going to end up.”

A JV veteran, Howell has aided Varsity in its undefeated season, scoring three touchdowns and tallying 333 receiving yards. “The biggest difference between JV and Varsity is the physicality and size of the players. That was the toughest thing for me to overcome,” said Howell.

The issue of physical size is noted by the Athletics Department, and special measures are taken to ensure that players are matched with opponents similar to them in size and skill level.

“When the numbers are down, that’s when safety becomes a bigger issue because you don’t have enough kids to sustain a program, and you unfortunately have to take your best players [on JV] who are not really ‘Varsity-ready’ yet, just to sustain the team,” said Kuta.

**The Value of the JV Experience**

With increased pressure to attend top-notch colleges and tailor extracurriculars to future goals, players often play JV sports solely in the hopes of advancing to Varsity. When players fail to make Varsity in their Junior, Lower or Upper years, they often drop the sport.

“One of the things I think we make a mistake of in our society is that the goal is to move up to Varsity. What’s wrong with enjoying the JV experience itself?” said Modeste, who is also a Boys JV1 Lacrosse Coach.

“There are many JV kids [who stay on JV teams] and they’re a delight to coach. They’re doing it because their friends are doing it and it’s a fun time. Sometimes they’re Seniors, but they just love playing, and in some ways that’s the purest form of athletics left: the JV kid who’s just playing because it’s fun; it’s not a mission,” Modeste added.

“I tell girls all the time that if they love the game of soccer, they should play the game, on whatever team they can,” said Girls Soccer Head Coach Lisa Joel. “These days of competitive sports quickly pass us by and nothing compares to being on a team, representing your school and playing with your best friends and teammates.”

“Sports at Andover, at all levels, provides a unique opportunity, and I do wish that more kids appreciated the sport experience no matter the level,” added Joel.