A resurrected program is joining the established winter sports of wrestling, boys basketball and girls basketball this season at Van Horn.
For the first time in 34 years, Van Horn will offer girls swimming. Trevor Tomney, who also runs the William Chrisman and Truman programs, will coach the Falcons.
“We’re very excited to be starting it back up,” Tomney said recently.
No doubt, Falcons wrestling coach Jeff Tolbert understands what Tomney is experiencing – and will experience – in reviving a program: Several years ago, Tolbert got Van Horn’s wrestling program going again after a long absence. Tolbert’s advice to Tomney is to approach his task with the mindset of “taking baby steps.” He also believes working hard and pursuing objectives will be vital to Tomney’s quest to reestablish swimming.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Tolbert said. “I know, for me, it hasn’t been easy. It’s been rewarding, but definitely, it’s been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
What makes reinstating or maintaining a program at Van Horn difficult are the challenges coaches face there, according to Tolbert. It’s difficult to develop “a program that has some credibility” and to recruit students to participate in sports, he admitted.
“That’s going to continue to be a problem, I think, in our school because of all the different things that draw our kids away from athletics,” Tolbert said. “It’s sometimes difficult to tell a student … ‘You should be an athlete, rather than help your parents pay bills and get a job.’ There are just some things that we deal with that I’m not sure you see at a suburban school. And so, trying to create some continuity and trying to create a legitimate program under those circumstances can sometimes be difficult.”
Van Horn boys basketball coach Daniel Bieser has some reasons to feel hopeful about this winter, too. One of them is the quality of the Falcons’ preseason practices.
“They’ve gone really well,” Bieser said. “This is the hardest working group I’ve had all four years that I’ve been here.”
In addition, Bieser is seeing a level of unity he hasn’t seen during his three previous seasons.
“It’s been really fun to come in and see these guys (and) the joy that they bring to practice every day,” he said.
Those guys include seniors Michael Payne and Anthony Winningham and junior Isaiah Gotsis. Bieser is counting on the threesome to lead a team that’s inexperienced overall.
Specifically, he’s counting on Gotsis and Winningham to bring much-needed experience to the point guard spot – a position that has gained importance with the trend in offense that high schools are following.
“It’s no longer walk it up and pound it inside,” Bieser said. “It’s more an up-tempo style. So if you have a good point guard, you can get a lot of things done.”
But there’s at least one area that concerns Bieser: Van Horn’s defensive play. Bieser has spent between 75 and 90 minutes each practice working on defense, he estimated.
“Hopefully, they take what we do in practice and put it to (use in) the game on Dec. 3,” he said.
Van Horn opens today against Metro Academy in the Eagle Invitational at Summit Christian Academy.
GIRLS SWIMMING AND DIVING
Tomney is keeping expectations modest for Van Horn’s first season back in the water.
“We’re just basically trying to build a foundation (for the program) to build on in the future,” he said.
That foundation involves developing “a core group of kids that have the basic skills” that can lead to aspirations of qualifying for the annual state meet in a few seasons, Tomney said. That’s because all the Falcons are rookie competitive swimmers, according to Tomney.
“There’s so much learning when you’re a first-year swimmer that it’s going to take a little bit of time,” he said.
Coaching rookie swimmers takes considerable patience, Tomney admitted. However, it’s a good emotional investment, he suggested.
“It’s fun to work with them,” Tomney said. “It’s fun to see them develop over the course of the season.”
So far, it’s been fun for Tomney to see the Falcons’ desire to swim.
“They want to be here, and they’re working hard to achieve some … personal goals of just learning the strokes and becoming a competitive swimmer,” he said.
Some coaches might feel some fear mixed with their excitement over the chance to turn rookie swimmers into competitive ones, but not Tomney.
“Every success that we have is going to be a success that was not there before,” he said.
Coach Tolbert has high expectations for Van Horn’s wrestlers: If all goes well, “between three and five kids” could qualify for February’s Class 2 state tournament in Columbia, he estimated.
“Now, saying that, that number could also be zero if things don’t turn out the way they should – if we get injuries or any of the other variables that can take place during the course of a season,” Tolbert said. “But we feel pretty good about some of the kids that we have this year.”
Tolbert feels good about something else: the Falcons’ chances of occupying all 14 weight classes this season. Unlike the past few seasons, the Falcons don’t have “a logjam” of wrestlers in the 126- to 145-pound range, he said.
“Two-thirds of our team was at those weights,” Tolbert stated. “We’ve got a little bit more of a diverse group of kids (this season), in terms of weight. And so, we might be able to fill all the weight classes.”
Chances are, Tolbert and his assistants, who include former Truman coach Steve McGee, will find out where their strongest weight classes are tonight, when the Falcons compete in the Independence City Championships. The field includes Fort Osage, a perennial state team power.
“It’s not going to be a smooth, easy transition (into the season),” Tolbert said. “We’re jumping right in, feet first.”
The Van Horn girls basketball team, which finished 7-18 and fell to Liberty North in the Class 4 District 15 semifinals last season, has a new coach in Scorpio Horn.
“We’re starting at level A,” Horn said. “We’re teaching them the fundamentals, the basics. One thing I do like about the Van Horn girls (team) is that they’re willing to work hard. It is a good school.”
Cierra Sua leads a group of six returning letter winners, including fellow guards Hannah Birshop, Erikka Harris and Malaea Ortiz, plus forwards Kim Chacon and Morgan Wasleski.