High Schools Address the Cruelest Cut

Flip Olsson
Severna Park High School sophomore Filip Olsson, far right, gets cut for the second straight season despite his best efforts to make the team. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005

He arrived 10 minutes before his fate, so Filip Olsson stood outside Severna Park High School and waited for coaches to post the cut list for the boys' soccer team.

Olsson, a sophomore, wanted desperately to make the junior varsity, but he also wanted justification for a long list of sacrifices. His family had rearranged a trip to Sweden so he could participate in a preparatory soccer camp; he'd crawled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for two weeks of camp and tryouts and forced down Raisin Bran; he'd sweated off five pounds and pulled his hamstring.

Finally, a coach walked by holding a list, and Olsson followed him into the high school. He walked back out two minutes later, his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his eyes locked on the ground.

"It felt," he said later, "like a punch in the stomach."

Thousands of area teenagers suffered similarly last week during high school sports tryouts, an increasingly high-stakes process both coaches and players abhor. As more families invest money into year-round club sports and intensive summer camps in an effort to propel their kids onto top high school teams, the pressure has increased on what remains a subjective tryout process. Because a spot on a varsity or junior varsity team can dramatically impact a teenager's self-confidence and social status, there is little tolerance of mistakes.

In an effort to better explain cuts to players and parents, coaches have started to record player evaluation grades. Few coaches, though, agree on how to decide which players are cut. Fewer still agree on how to cut those players. Only one thing, coaches said, can be universally agreed upon: Tryouts are as imperfect as their punishing end result.

"The day you have to cut kids is the worst day at the school all year," said Andy Muir, the field hockey coach at W.T. Woodson. "Everybody is trying hard to do the right thing -- the kids to make the team, the coaches to pick the right team -- and everyone ends up devastated. It's heartbreaking."

Olsson, 15, tried hard not to think about that possible endpoint when he arrived at Severna Park at 7:30 a.m. last Monday. He had enough to worry about. As the coaches took attendance for the first time, Olsson stood out awkwardly from the other 48 aspiring junior varsity players. At 6 feet 2 inches, he hovered more than a foot above many of his freshman and sophomore counterparts. His long, wavy hair -- a style that befits his rock-and-roll guitar playing -- stamped him as unique amongst crew-cut soccer players.

Even more unusual, though, were the circumstances of his tryout. Of the 48 players competing for about 22 spots, only Olsson had been cut the previous year and chosen to return. "Kids who get cut as freshmen almost never come back," said Stan Malm, coach of the junior varsity team. "Nobody wants that pain twice."

Severna Park players never touched a soccer ball for the first two hours last Monday, the first day Maryland public schools were allowed to practice. Instead, they ran timed 40-yard dashes and shuttle runs, a result of a trend that has overtaken high school tryouts.

Because of increased complaints from parents, many high school coaches now strive to make cuts more scientific. Until she retired last season, longtime Eleanor Roosevelt girls' soccer coach Kathy Lacey made her players run 1.5 miles in less than 12 minutes to make the team. Mike Bossom, the volleyball coach at Centennial, scores players with a number -- 1 through 5 -- for each drill and then logs the scores on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

For the first time this season, Severna Park Athletic Director Wayne Mook required his coaches to record running times and player evaluation grades, then hand in that paperwork to him. It is an arduous process that many coaches find tiresome, but Mook instituted it for a reason: After a player was cut from the girls' lacrosse team last spring, the family hired lawyers to meet with the school.

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