Because of the ever-changing challenges related to dealing with adolescents, coaching requires adaptability, compassion and creativity.
For first-year coaches, the importance placed on those three skills increases exponentially. Now try to imagine the challenges a coach taking over an athletic program faces during a pandemic faces.
Megan Hanichak is three-for-three, she’s hit the COVID-19 coaching trifecta. The 26-year-old resident of Myerstown is a coach, a rookie head coach and five Coronavirus months into heading the Elco girls’ volleyball coach.
Not sure if Hanichak fully realized exactly what she had signed up for when she took over for Paul Dissinger in May. But coaches overcome, they adjust and they comply, it’s what they do. And Hanichak is a coach.
“Tell me about it!,” said Hanichak. “There have been days when I’ve sat back and laughed. As crazy as this preseason has been, it’s going to make the next one seem so easy. I wanted to be a coach all my life, and I knew there were going to be these challenges coming in. I think so far, I’m doing OK. The girls are happy. At this point, it’s full steam ahead. With COVID season, there’s less time to dwell on losses. It’s game after game after game.
“I think it’s (flexibility) the most important thing coaches need to have,” continued Hanichak. “You’re dealing with high school girls. My focus needs to be on those girls, and everything else has to stay outside the gym. For two days out of the week, some aren’t even physically in school. They’re at home in front of computers taking classes, and then they’ve got to switch gears and find the motivation to get to practice. But at the end of the day, it’s (coaching) one of the most rewarding things you can do, so it’s worth it.”
Before taking over the Raiders’ female volleyballers, Hanichak assisted Dissinger, who started the program in 2008, for a couple of seasons. Though her main volleyball experience came from playing four years at Pottsville High School and four more at Wilkes University, nothing could’ve prepared her for this.
“Volleyball wasn’t a part of my life any more,” said Hanichak, who works in the Elco school district as an Accounting Supervisor. “I told Coach Dissinger that I wanted to be part of the program. When last year ended, Paul notified me of his intention to retire, that it was time to pass the torch. I put in my application and went through the hiring process.
“I loved volunteer coaching, but everything changes when you’re the head coach,” continued Hanichak. “I consider myself to be organized, and I sort of like being in control. When you’re a volunteer, you only get the fun aspects of coaching. It’s kind of like you show up and teach the girls what you know.”
Hanichak took over as head coach in May, at the height of the pandemic. After COVID-19 cancelled summer indoor practices, the crisis also delayed the start of Elco’s season and condensed the Raiders’ 15 official pre-season workouts into 20 days.
Hanichak and Elco opened their season on September 24th, with a home loss to Northern Lebanon.
“Our summer work was cancelled,” said Hanichak. “Then July hits and they tell us, ‘You can have workouts, but you can’t have them in the gym’. So we set up a practice area in the grass right outside of the district office and we used it for two weeks to get the girls in shape and work on fundamentals. They had lost a lot of their volleyball skills. Some of the girls hadn’t touched a volleyball in a year.
“It definitely wasn’t ideal,” Hanichak added. “For getting the girls in shape and working on fundamentals, it was a curve ball, but we dealt with it. We did what we had to do. It definitely would’ve been easy to say, ‘I have no gym. How can we play volleyball?’ You had to work out at that point. To me, there was no other option.”
Girls’ volleyball is the only local scholastic sport played indoors in the fall. Because of Governor Tom Wolf’s restrictions on public gatherings, no more than 25 people can be together in the gymnasium at one time.
That restriction created a totally different set of difficulties for Hanichak.
“For our Northern Lebanon match, our athletic director (Doug Bohannon) cancelled the JV game,” said Hanichak. “You could have eight players and one coach. I couldn’t have one girl (who usually plays varsity) that night, and no assistant coaches. That’s 25 exactly. That’s it. No one taking pictures and no spectators. This is hard for parents too.
“It helps that Doug Bohannon is doing a great job of getting everything to run smoothly,” added Hanichak. “I would not want his job. But everybody felt comfortable. It was quiet in the gym of course, we want spectators. But the big picture is that the girls get to be in the gym playing the sport they love. They get to have their season. They get to be together and play. Three months ago, I didn’t think we’d be in this gym playing volleyball.”
For the most part, the Raider players have warmed to Hanichak. There is always this adjustment period that takes place between players and a new head coach, but there’s this real feel around the team that everybody is going through something unique together.
“At this point, all the girls on the team were on the team last year, except one,” said Hanichak. “I knew all of them going in. I’m running my practices with all the players together, so I expect my JVs to be ready for the varsity level. It only makes them better. With 13 girls, I need them to be ready at any point. I’m a very hands-on coach.
“Goal-wise, I want to hit .500,” continued Hanichak. “I think that’s a realistic goal, you set it, and if you meet it, then you go from there. I want the girls to stand out and get some all-star recognition. They fight every time they’re on that court. I also want these girls to leave this season with either new friendships or stronger friendships. You want to leave the season thinking you made some new friends and that you were a good teammate.”
But perhaps most importantly, this season has been a learning experience, for both the Raider players and Hanichak. It’s the type of learning that can only come from facing and overcoming adversity.
“I see the struggle more for the seniors,” said Hanichak. “It’s a little more immediate for them. They’re very realistic. We’re on the same page like, ‘we’re in here playing and we’re happy about that.’ Things are changing constantly. They’re all very good with their masks and they social distance.
“I think they get it,” Hanichak continued. “They saw what the outcome could be. They lost the end of their school year last year. The lost their spring (sports) season. If things get worse, we’re going to be right back where we were. We want to stay in school. If we do what we’re supposed to do, maybe we can somewhat get back to normal.”
Because the new normal beats the heck out of the alternative.