When Nick Likens was cut from the Northside basketball team as a seventh-grader, he thought about giving up the game.
Likens is glad he didn’t.
Deciding to give the sport another try, he began working with former Indiana University player and assistant coach Joby Wright at Foundation For Youth. Likens then made the team and became a starter as an eighth-grader. He ended up as Columbus North’s starting point guard as a junior and senior.
“At first, it definitely was hard,” said Likens, now a junior at Ball State. “Getting cut is never fun. At first, I never wanted to do it anymore, but I talked to my parents and decided to keep working at it.”
Not everyone who gets cut from a sport, however, ends up sticking with it. Some gravitate to another sport, while others give up on athletics entirely.
Freshmen twins Betsy and Margy Force were cut from the volleyball team at North this fall. Now, they swim for the Bull Frogs.
“I was kind of heartbroken,” said Betsy Force, who is considering throwing the shot put for the track team in the spring. “I gave all the time into it and I tried my hardest, but I got cut.”
The Forces, who are also thinking about playing PAAL volleyball, have played the sport since fifth grade.
“It was a disappointment because of all the time you put into it and all the commitment, but it also leads to good things like swimming,” Margy Force said.
Sports such as swimming, football, wrestling, cross-country and track typically don’t have cuts. But in others like volleyball, basketball, soccer, golf and tennis, it is usually necessary, especially at big schools such as North and Columbus East.
“The good news is, we have 20 high school sports to find their niche,” East athletics director and football coach Bob Gaddis said. “There are a lot of kids who are involved in track. There are a lot of kids who are involved in swimming. There are some sports that can have more numbers. I think it balances out so that most students can find a sport to participate in athletics.”
Basketball is one of those sports where big numbers aren’t optimal. Most coaches keep 10 to 12 players on the varsity or 18 to 20 in a varsity/junior varsity pool.
“You’re trying to put together a team, and there’s only so many minutes in a game,” East boys basketball coach Brent Chitty said. “You try to put your best team out there, and unfortunately, that eliminates some individuals. That’s the tough part about it.”
Some coaches keep more at the lower levels. Northside eighth-grade girls coach Brad Hamilton kept 17 a couple of years ago and has 14 this year. He didn’t have to cut anybody last year, but cut four this season.
“I always draw on my personal experience as a basketball player,” Hamilton said. “I was really passionate as a kid. I got cut as a seventh-grader and came back and made the team as an eighth-grader and made it all four years of high school. I always tell that to my players at the start of tryouts, that it does not have to spell the end of your career if you get cut at some point.”
The selection process can be difficult, especially after an intense and competitive tryout period. The North girls are defending Class 4A state runner-up.
“Part of it is a subjective evaluation, which creates differing opinions,” North girls coach Pat McKee said. “We try to remove the subjectiveness and be as objective as we can; but at the end of the day, there are people who are going to perceive subjective natures into it. That makes it really hard. The other coaches can tell you how I labor over it.”
North Athletic Director Jeff Hester said he sometimes indirectly hears complaints from parents of kids who are cut from a sport.
“Cutting a kid is the hardest thing coaches have to do,” Hester said. “No coach enjoys it at all. We try to do it in a way that’s not humiliating to a kid. Back in the day, coaches would just post a list on a wall to see. I don’t allow that here. I require that if a kid is going to get cut, coaches talk to the kid.
“It’s a tough thing for the coaches to have to go through. We try to make it as soft as possible and help the kid where if they want to try out in future years, they can.”
German exchange student Kathi Trame tried out for the North girls basketball team and didn’t make it. But she agreed to stay on as a manager and went through conditioning with the Bull Dogs.
“It was important to be a part of the team,” Trame said. “The girls are so great. They’re pushing me in conditioning, and it feels great. American team spirit is totally different than in Germany. It’s great to be a part of a team, and it’s OK for me to not play because I understand they’re really good, and I hope they will win state this year.”
McKee said while it isn’t required that kids play basketball in the summer in order to make the team, it’s best if they do play in the offseason.
“Being on the floor and developing your skills and being in shape and developing team chemistry and all that is important and certainly a factor, and all things being equal, a kid who does that is going to be ahead of the kid who doesn’t,” McKee said.
And it’s not just basketball. It’s the same in other sports, as well.
“With the things we can do year-round with our kids, we know who’s working hard,” Chitty said. “I think if a kid is going to compete in a sport, they’re going to have to do strength and conditioning, and you’re going to have to skills development. The baseball guys are hitting year-round. The football guys are throwing and catching. If you’re a three-sport athlete, you have to find time to practice.”
“Our coaches are very good at explaining the expectations of a sport, and in most cases now, the rules allow us to develop kids in the offseason,” Gaddis said. “There’s several opportunities for strength training and open facilities. There will be a lot of athletes that kind of lose interest or won’t spend the kind of time it takes to train anymore, and maybe they will put their efforts into another sport.”
Or, in the case of Likens, they keep trying at the same sport.
“I’d just tell kids ‘Never give up and keep working as hard as you can,’” Likens said. “If things don’t go your way, you just have to keep working hard and putting the time in, and things will go your way.”