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California Area senior sees coaching from both sides

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, 10:20 a.m.
California Area High School senior Natalie Baron is a 'team leader, on and off the floor,' according to her coach, Chris Minerd. Submitted

California Area senior Natalie Baron recalls the first day of basketball practice last season, and she isn't all smiles with the memory.

“It was frustrating because I had to really get to the basics and go from there,” she said. That first day of practice had Baron shaking her head.

Due to a variety of reasons, primarily the ill-fated injury bug, Baron, a three-year letter winner and last year's team MVP, is the lone returning player who saw action in each of the Trojans' 22 games last season. Baron, Trojans coach Chris Minerd said, is the “team leader, on and off the floor. She sets the example for everyone and has a positive attitude. Her contributions, scoring, rebounding, leadership, are vital to our success. She primarily plays under the basket but can play any position on the floor. Natalie sets the example for other players.”

By season's end this year, Baron, who started as a freshman, will have earned her fourth varsity basketball letter. Last year she averaged 10 points and seven rebounds per game, the latter a team high.

She has played for Minerd from middle school through high school — Minerd also coaches the middle school team — and, he noted, Baron has missed all of one practice in six seasons and has been his team captain every year except her freshman season.

But this season Baron has an entirely different perspective on the game. But, no, she didn't accidentally put the right shoe on the wrong foot, or wrong shoe on the right foot, or is it wrong shoe on the wrong foot? Nor does it have anything to do with her laces.

Instead, as she was having a successful junior season, Baron served as volunteer basketball coach for a California Area Middle School fifth-grade girls team.

“They needed a coach, and I volunteered,” she said, matter of factly. “But I was amazed my first day coaching when I saw the skills of the fifth-grade girls. It was a real eye-opener, but I enjoyed it. Their season coincided with my high school season and one of the challenging aspects was trying to work in the practices with my high school basketball schedule. There were eight girls on the team. We practiced almost every day.”

So, having that shoe on the other foot, Natalie, what is it like being a coach?

“It was frustrating,” she said. “It made me realize what kids in all skill levels can do; and I learned as a coach you have to put forth effort to make them better, and teaching skills is so important. As a player I was so used to grabbing a ball with my team and going on the floor and playing. From a coaching perspective at that level, it's repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Put this foot here, put that foot there. You have to explain every drill over and over.”

By the time Baron reached the fifth grade, she was already well-skilled in the basics, but in having her players run plays “we went over what they had to do at least 5 million times,” she said with a chuckle. “Every practice we ran plays, and I explained thoroughly where they had to be on the floor. But come game time, they would do it wrong, and we were running basic plays.”

But adopting a familiar coaching philosophy, Baron, who, going from player to coach used skills, drills, and her knowledge of the game in instructing her players, didn't resort to yelling.

“I just explained everything again, but sometime they just didn't get it,” she noted. “This is where you have to go, what you have to do. If they didn't go where they were supposed to go, it was like playground pick-up basketball. It was a challenge with the basics of dribbling and passing.”

In spite of some frustrations, Baron did recall some satisfying time.

“We had some low-scoring games, but when we ran plays the way they were designed, the girls scored. There was so much excitement on their faces. Several caught on to what I was trying to teach,” Baron said, beaming. “Coaching taught me a lot, in so many ways. I generally never said anything to my coach and never voiced my opinion, but as a coach I wanted to hear what the girls had to say. If they didn't understand something I wanted to know. Now I'm letting my coach know, in a nice way, of course, how I feel about everything. When we aren't doing something right on the high school team, and we obviously have higher skilled players, I empathize with him and see where he is coming from with his directions. When he tells us what we are doing wrong, it's actually easier to correct because of my coaching perspective and we try harder to fix that problem.”

With a year of coaching under her belt and a new scholastic season at hand, Baron is “doing what she needs to do,” Minerd said. “I've stressed to her to play smart, improve on last year. We need her to stay on the floor, stay out of foul trouble, be a smart player.”

Besides being named team MVP last year, Baron also received the Sportsmanship Award and was named to the all-tournament team in the Jefferson-Morgan Tip-Off Tournament, as well as the California Area Christmas Tournament.

When she isn't on the Trojans basketball court, Baron manages her time to maintain a 3.3 grade average, despite being involved in a full slate of activities, including The Future is Mine program, Yearbook Staff, Student Council, SADD, and Burgundian newspaper staff.

Outside of school she volunteers at the Mon Valley Hospital as a member of the “Ask Me” Greeter Program; and last summer participated in the Serene Leadership Institute at California University of Pennsylvania and the “iLEad” Leadership Camp at Washington & Jefferson College.

Even though her senior season is under way, she still thinks about her coaching experience but would prefer older players, perhaps on the high school level eventually.

But she had one final thought regarding coaching.

“It would be nice if every player had to coach someone, sometime,” she said. “That would enable everyone to see what coaches go through.”

Les Harvath is a freelance writer.

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