So much of sports is about determination and heart.
Last week, I celebrated the heart of champions, those who defied any naysayers to reach the pinnacle of their sport. They garner so much of the attention and deservedly so.
But there is more to heart than winning it all. Sometimes it is about a drive to battle back from the depths of adversity and improve daily. It is about pride and striving to compete.
I feel there are many programs locally who embody that part of athletics, but two have exemplified it above all. They were programs that appeared to be in free fall a year ago but have shown massive improvement this season that, while it may not show up in championships or a dramatic increase in victories, is very impressive.
And I’ve seen them both very recently.
The Anderson volleyball team’s season came to an abrupt end this week when it was swept by the Class 4A ninth-ranked Mount Vernon Marauders.
The Indians won just four games and, while that may not seem impressive, it was a doubling of their win total from a season ago.
But their improvement goes far beyond wins and losses.
For the most part, the Indians were competitive, far more so than last year. In 2019, Anderson had a first-year coach, who resigned during the season, and struggled to find more than 10 points in a set, much less challenge for a win. It fell to Anderson Prep in the Madison County tournament — the Jets’ first such win.
Former Daleville coach Beth Etchison took over on an interim basis, guided the team to the finish, then stayed on this year on a permanent basis.
The results speak for themselves. Not only were there more wins, there was more competitiveness, fire and enjoyment from the players.
One great example was in the third set of their loss Tuesday to the Marauders. With no doubt about the eventual outcome and trailing 18-6, the Indians engaged their far more talented opponents in a point where the ball traveled across the net no less than a dozen times.
Would that have happened for this team a year ago? No way.
The second to show this type of improvement would be the Elwood football team, under first-year coach Terry Riggs.
By now, we all know the struggles of the Panthers. By the time I saw them a couple weeks ago against Madison-Grant, they had lost 26 games in a row and were averaging a head coach per season for the last several.
Not only were they losing those games, they were a near guarantee for the second-half running clock.
That began to change this season. One-score losses to Frankton and Blackford were sandwiched around a 15-point loss to Alexandria, and all three were games the Panthers had a chance to win.
Then the streak ended against the Argylls. The surest sign of a difference wasn’t that they won, but how they won it. Twice in that game, M-G had two-score leads, but on both occasions the Panthers stormed back to take the lead before the game went to overtime. After taking the lead on the first possession, it was a defensive stand by a team that gave up 41 points or more in every game last season to seal the victory.
That’s determination, and that’s heart.
The common thread here between the two teams is they both have a new coach.
If you’ve ever spoken to Riggs, you get that he’s enthusiastic. Actually, that may be an understatement. His passion for football comes through over the phone, via zoom and, quite frankly, even his emails prompt me to get excited about Elwood football.
Etchison is absolutely in love with volleyball. It seems to me that, aside from teaching the fundamentals and skills of the game, her strongest skill as a coach is instilling the love of the game in her players as well. They are having a lot more fun, and therefore playing much better.
Both coaches are changing the culture of their programs, and that’s where it starts. If Elwood and Anderson can keep these two on board, the wins will become far more abundant.
The pride already is.