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Chesapeake's Banner Athletic Year Starts With Unique Coaching Philosophy

January 15, 2016

Chip Snyder, the athletic director at Chesapeake High School in Anne Arundel County, has begun to take a different approach to hiring head coaches. 

One of the main criterions Snyder has been using is how connected a coaching candidate is to Chesapeake High School, as well as Chesapeake's Lake Shore community. To be specific, Snyder doesn't just want residents of Lake Shore to be coaching at Chesapeake, but individuals who are active in the community's sports at lower levels and who also take pride in coaching at the school.

The philosophy has begun to work, as Chesapeake has seen programs, which have historically struggled, enjoy banner seasons in 2015. 

"I think the big reason for our success is we are looking for people who are involved in the community," Snyder said. "It helps to have talent, but that talent needs to be developed at the youth level. That's something we're finally seeing the dividends of."

The three programs that have seen their fortunes change the most are girls' basketball, field hockey and football. 

Issue 217: Chesapeake Girls Basketball 2015
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Julie Persell

It's difficult to pick which sport had the best season in 2015. Chesapeake's girls' basketball team, whose regular season started Nov. 24, 2015 and runs until Feb. 19, is off to a 6-3 start, as of Jan. 11. The field hockey team won its first county championship, as well as a Maryland Public Secondary School Athletics Association regional title. The football team finished the regular season 7-3 and earned the first playoff berth in school history. 

All three head coaches -- Maria Gray (girls' basketball), Joan Johnson (field hockey) and Rob Elliott (football) -- are active in their sport at the youth level in Lake Shore. 

Gray is determined to make the girls' basketball team into a consistent contender. She couldn't have gotten off to a better start, coaching the Cougars to a .500 record during the 2014-15 season, her first year as head coach, after the team had won just one game the prior season.  

Gray has been coaching for Lake Shore Basketball, the team's feeder program, for 11 years. For the past six years, she's been the organization's president. 

Since taking over as Chesapeake's head coach, she's been doing her best to create a culture in which young athletes get excited about getting to play for the Cougars.  

Issue 217: Chesapeake Girls Basketball 2015: Brooke Worrell
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Julie Persell

This has led to different activities that incorporate both the girls from LSB, as well as Chesapeake's team, including having players from LSB come to Chesapeake games and play a quick game on the court at halftime. 

"That has been a big thing, having a strong feeder system between Lake Shore and the school," Gray said. "Before this season, we had 50 high school players at Lake Shore for a clinic with the younger kids. We're starting to reap the benefits of putting the effort into the feeder program and how that can translate to high school."

It's all part of a bigger, long-term plan for Gray. 

"I'm entrenched in the community," Gray said. "I didn't start at Chesapeake thinking I would be here for a little bit. I'm here until we get a state championship banner hung in the gym. I'm in it for the long haul."

Johnson, who is an alumna of Chesapeake, has taken the same approach with the field hockey program. In addition to having youngsters from the Lake Shore Athletic Association come play at halftime and hosting clinics for them, the team has a rec league night when younger players get to be ball girls for the games. The team also has younger girls walk out with the high school team when starting lineups are announced. 

Johnson has coached in the LSAA field hockey program for four years, where many of her current players first played for her.

"We have a great feeder program at Lake Shore," Johnson said. "Coaching a kid prior to high school gets them comfortable with you and vice versa. By the time they get to Chesapeake, they know what to expect."

It's all done with the goal of getting the younger girls excited to play under the lights in a high school game one day. With the season the field hockey team just had, it shouldn't be too difficult to get younger players involved. The team finished 13-3-1 and clinched its first county championship. 

Coming into her third season as head coach, Johnson admits she did not have the county championship as a team goal. She knew her team would be strong this past season, but Anne Arundel County is a hotbed for field hockey talent, with schools like Severna Park and South River not just dominating county play, but at the state level as well.  

The team got off to a fast start, and after it beat Severna Park, 4-2, Johnson knew her team could win the program's first county championship. The Cougars clinched the championship on the final day of the regular season. 

Having coaches from the community also helps because the coaches won't view coaching at Chesapeake as just another job -- someone who has pride in coaching at Chesapeake will raise the commitment level throughout the program.  

Elliott, who is a graduate of Chesapeake, knows all about having to bring pride back to a program. The football team's record for the three years prior to him being named head coach was 3-27. Before Elliott, the program had mustered just two winning seasons. 

Issue 217: Chesapeake Football 2015: Rashawn Shields
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Sullivan

"It's always been Chesapeake will never succeed and will be the worst in the county. Our players were embarrassed to wear a Chesapeake football shirt in the community," Elliott said. "I didn't come into high school coaching to build a resume -- I came in to change the perception of Chesapeake on the football field."

During Elliott's five seasons as head coach, the Cougars can take pride in how they've played. The team has a 27-24 mark, having registered two winning seasons and two during which it finished .500. The Cougars' seven wins this season matched the most the program has ever recorded in a season.

Elliott said not being rigid in his approach to football strategy has been crucial. During the offseason, Elliott analyzes his players and adjusts the way his team will play the following season.  

Issue 217: Chesapeake Football 2015: Tim Steele
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Sullivan

"Be flexible, build your system around your players," Elliott said. "We've run multiple formations during my time at Chesapeake, which allows us to take advantage of our talent from year to year. You have to be able to adjust."

Elliott's commitment to ensuring that Chesapeake will be put in the best position to win next season is something Snyder looks for from all his coaches. Even though high school coaching is a part-time job, the school needs people who are prepared to work hard to make sure their program represents Chesapeake as best they can. 

"We don't want coaches who are here for just three months out of the year, then leave, and don't show up until the first day of the next season," Snyder said. "All our coaches are committed to Chesapeake and do this year-round, which has made a huge difference."

Issue 217: January 2016