Click here to listen to the Orange and Blue podcast with Coach Leigh Sears and SID Alan Babbitt.
Alan Babbitt [00:00:03] Welcome to the Hope College Athletics Orange and Blue Podcast. My name is Alan Babbitt, sports information director here at Hope College. I am looking forward each week to bring you my conversations with our Hope college coaches, administrative staff and student-athletes as we go inside Hope Athletics, especially during this interesting year so far. Our student-athletes and coaches and teams have been making the most of their time together this fall as they prepare to compete, hopefully very soon. With me today is head women's soccer coach Leigh Sears. The Flying Dutch have been busy practicing this fall and just recently found out what their schedule is going to be like for this spring. So finally, some games to look forward to. Hopefully, we'll be able to see them in action at Van Andel Soccer Stadium. Welcome coach, glad to have you here today. Now, let's talk about what you guys have been trying. I mean, normally we'd be in that probably get ready to kick off league play. around this time after playing a pretty challenging non-league schedule. Obviously, this year is different with the pandemic and really just focusing in on practice. Take me through what you guys have been trying to do to improve this fall.
Leigh Sears [00:01:23] We tried to make this fall as much like a normal season as possible, so we decided early on, unlike most teams we're practicing six days a week because we would be playing on Saturdays anyway. Obviously, we don't have to travel, which gives us more time, but we're maintaining a similar schedule. We have team dinners on Friday nights. We have Saturday activities instead of playing games or actually we've been scrimmaging on Saturdays and then they have an activity. We're trying to keep them busy so they don't have to interact with the general population too much because we're trying to keep them healthy. But we wanted to treat it like a normal season. I think we also decided early on that without the pressure of the season, without pressure of starting time and playing time, it was time to kind of focus on individuals. We set our goals as individual goals as opposed to a team goal just for the fall. How can each player get better? And we kind of figured if everybody gets a little bit better, we'll be that much better in the spring when it's time to compete.
Alan Babbitt [00:02:27] Obviously, there's a lot of different ways to prepare for a season like this for you. Why was keeping it like what a season would be important? How do you think that can help them when you start competing again?
Leigh Sears [00:02:43] I think partially, our incoming freshmen lost their senior high school season, then they lost their freshman collegiate season. We wanted to put them through as close to a season as we could so they knew what the expectations were. So now, when it comes time for the spring, they know exactly how we operate and what the core values are and kind of, how this team just does things day in and day out. I think it's going to help us in the long run. I think right now it's basically kind of midterm time and you can see the stress starting to pile on even without the travel. We've cut back a tiny bit, but we just wanted to show those freshmen what a season for us would look like the best we can even without games.
Alan Babbitt [00:03:30] What have you seen from them as they have adjusted, obviously getting now with the midterms? How have you seen them kind of grow so far as they acclimate themselves to college soccer and to the Hope College?
Leigh Sears [00:03:41] I think our freshmen are doing great. Sometimes it's the upperclassmen who struggle with the when it comes mid-term time a little bit. The freshmen are playing really well. They're doing a great job. They're fitting in nicely. I think without the pressure of travel for them and even starting or playing time, it's easier on them this fall. But they've done a great job.
Alan Babbitt [00:04:07] With having everything lost last spring not only for them but also the high schoolers. Your team in general, losing that opportunity to compete, what have you seen from your players just having the chance to be together to play on the field, whether it's drill work, I know drill work can be kind of monotonous at times, but it's still it's better than having to not play at all. What have you seen as far as the enjoyment of just being around soccer again?
Leigh Sears [00:04:32] I think they were so excited the first two weeks to be together that they couldn't stand it. They didn't they could care less that it was skill and drill. It was exciting. And then it got old. Then we we were able to play contact and they were so excited. The first time we scrimmaged was absolutely horrible because everybody was so excited and they knew it. It's just like, wow, that was not pretty, but it was fun. They've gotten better every single time we've played. And I just think this happens even when we compete, we're at the point of the season where it's just school gets hard. So it's just hard right now. But with only three weeks left, I think they're trying to just enjoy it as much as they can. It is the monotony of day in and day out without playing somebody else. But we keep telling them, think about the spring sports. They practiced one day and just got sent home the next day. We're thankful for what we have. We're trying to make the most of it. I'm not sure how the spring's going to work. I've never had to do this in the spring. So it's you know, it's one thing at a time. Let's just have fun.
Alan Babbitt [00:05:37] You talked about the team bonds and the team camaraderie that you have together. I know that is something that's really been utmost importance to you as far as building that chemistry and that trust among everybody coming in and your upperclassmen. How have you tried to develop that among these unusual times? And where did that root of that being really a foundation value for this program come from for you?
Leigh Sears [00:06:05] That's a great question. When I came here 20 years ago, they already had what they called specials, so we pair up an upperclassman with an underclassman. I don't know where the name came from, but we kept it. We always have these pairs. And it probably wasn't until. I can tell you the people, but I can't tell you the year, I mean, it's been over 10 years that we sort of figured out that relationships are super important for the women's team. The more we know each other, the better bonds we have, the better we play together. It just makes being on that team easier. I think we started this after the school shut down. We knew some of the kids coming in and we paired them up right away with an upperclassman, so they had somebody like an accountability partner and somebody to check in with them. They had open fields over the summer, so they were able to kind of get together and play. We just kind of continued it every Friday night at dinner, they have a different activity or somebody tells her story or they somehow kind of try to share somebody's story so they get to know each other better. We'll just continue that throughout the winter and the spring.
Alan Babbitt [00:07:10] To do that, you've had to have great buy-in over the years to have that become a tradition. Talk about that and what that's meant. It's one thing for a coach to say we're gonna do this. It's another when there's a buy in and there's just a different level that's completed there. What have you seen from the players over the years that they really gravitated to this and made it something that's a priority and a truthful one?
Leigh Sears [00:07:35] When you try to change a culture, you don't have 100 percent buy-in and you can tell. Some kids love it, some kids hate it. I think it takes time to recruit the right kinds of kids. Once we figured out what the culture was, it's in every recruiting meeting. I explain how we do things. And I say, if you don't like this and you probably shouldn't be here. At the risk of losing a good player, if they're not going to fit in, to me, it's not worth it. The upperclassmen are totally bought in and it's kind of their job to sell it or teach it to the freshmen when they come in. That's part of like the Friday dinners. I've got so many little things that I make them do, like lists of questions about the answer and then share with somebody else. It's just trying to get them to realize that it's OK to be vulnerable and talk to your teammates. I think it's helped us in the long run in terms of even just mental health, being able to get people to help they need. Are kids feeling free in our locker room to say what they need to say where on some other teams they might not do that.
Alan Babbitt [00:08:35] On the field with some of the drill work you've been doing, what have you been working on to try to develop that individual talent for everyone this fall. Take us through like a practice or a week's worth of practices, the different drills you might be doing to kind of build this team's skill level?
Leigh Sears [00:08:54] I don't think great teams have to do something extraordinary. They have to do the little things really, really well. We don't have to do something over the top. Our practices are pretty basic. It's a lot of skill and drill. If you know us you know what it is. We do a lot of passing squares. After last year's shooting troubles, we shoot an awful lot trying to put the ball on frame. We always have one competition day a week as the team split into four separate teams. We compete every week. We keep a running total of points for that to keep the competition going. But since we've gotten contact, we right now we get exactly 40 minutes, so we're trying to make the most out of that between small sided and a big sided. Sometimes for me, it's easiest to teach while they're playing big and I can just stand right in the middle of them. We've done a little bit of everything to try to keep them just interested. Last Friday, we played kickball, soccer and tennis. We just needed them to have some fun because it had been a long week..
Alan Babbitt [00:10:01] Everyone's having to be nimble as we navigate through the pandemic or as you mentioned, the amount of time that you have and that kind of building up and changes and all these different things. How does that challenge you and Elliot and your coaching staff, just to try to maximize the time you do have together? It has to be obviously unique but challenging on top of that.
Leigh Sears [00:10:32] We thought we were going to have a season and then the season changed to just a conference season, and then that got changed again and all the sudden you have nothing. As all this was going on, we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to do things differently and make it feel like a season. Even if that meant we have life classes on how to change the oil on your car or, and we haven't done that yet, but things like that, just going to help them in the long run, that's what we wanted to do. So many teams just focus on playing, and I'm not saying playing is not important because obviously, it is, but it's what can we offer them in this time when they weren't playing games? I took a lot of backyard meetings as school is starting and just lots of changing and. I feel like I never know what's going on right now. Every day is the same, but it's highly different.
Alan Babbitt [00:11:22] At least now we have some games scheduled to look forward to it. You will open up two matches at home to start the season, March 23 versus St. Mary's and then March 26 with Calvin. A single round, then a MIAA Tournament after that. Take me through the schedule and having something to look forward to and kind of what you think this spring may be like when you guys get a chance to play?
Leigh Sears [00:12:05] I'm excited to have the schedule finally, all the players have it. We don't have all the times set, but we're excited to play. But like I just keep saying, it's just so different. You don't have a pre-conference schedule to get fully prepared. I'm not sure we can even have a scrimmage to get prepared like the first time we play somebody else since last fall, so year and a half ago, we'll be St. Mary's. We're excited to do it. I think it's going to be maybe a little bit more pressure because you really can't you can't afford to mess up right now if you want to be in the top four. How the spring goes, I feel bad for baseball and softball. I don't know how they do it. Like, we're gonna come back in January and like, I'm don't even know how we'll practice. The high school kids or the college freshmen will probably be easier because they're used to playing their high school season in the spring. Like, I'm not sure what to do when we have snow on the ground. So it's like how much practice? We have plenty of time to practice before the schedule starts. But the logistics of everybody playing in the spring and field space and facilities, it's, we'll be ready, but it's just gonna be a whole it's gonna be different. Just different.
Alan Babbitt [00:13:25] I imagine that carrot of getting to that top four and a chance to be MIAA champions will probably motivate everyone. You obviously had some great seasons and have a great tradition in the league. Regardless, it seems of whatever the schedule format is, What's important when it comes to league time? As far to be that team that rises to the top?
Leigh Sears [00:13:49] I think some of it for us is just hard work and fitness. I mean, soccer is one of those games where the best team doesn't always win on that day, but sometimes it's the team who fights the hardest. So who's mentally stronger? Who's going to work till the very end? And for us in the spring, that's gonna be the challenge of can they maintain their fitness over the winter so we can actually compete like we want to in the spring? I'd say that's kind of the biggest part of it for right now.
Alan Babbitt [00:14:19] Your captains will continue (leading) after you guys finish your practice and then you have your downtime first semester and then when you come back. Talk about your captains and what you've seen from them, where you're looking from them as they lead you through the season and the school year.
Leigh Sears [00:14:34] We have seniors, Audrey White, Maria Egloff and MeKenna VanKoevering and junior Sarah Mikesell. The hard part for me is that they're all nurses. That's good for us. But with clinicals and then being older, three of them aren't at practice on Monday. One comes late on Tuesday. That's fine. That's how we do it. But it's that leaves pressure on the other seniors to make sure they're leading well all the time. That's kind of how we operate. We have captains, but we also depend on senior leadership. These four have been great. I had a few zoom calls with them over the summer. Lots of texting. They had everything organized. I would put up a workout and they would take care of everything else for me. They ran all the stuff in the summer and they've been great this fall. I think the biggest burden our team falls to to the captains and the seniors, because if I'm coming after somebody, it's going to be on them and they're gonna have to straighten it out. They've done a great job.
Alan Babbitt [00:15:36] Part of those exceptional seniors led to another United Soccer Coaches Team Academic Award just announced here last week. 13th time overall and the third year in a row. Talk about that honor and what's it mean to you guys to earn that distinction?
Leigh Sears [00:15:56] I think it's awesome because I think kids first start looking at Hope for academics and some come because of soccer than they realize how much we emphasize academics. I'm not saying other schools don't. But it's a major part of kind of how we recruit kids. We track their grades for two years. They have to fill out a book from me for two years. We get mid-semester grade semester grades. They know why they're here. They know they're not going to be a professional soccer player. They know they're going to be a nurse or a teacher or something else. They take it really seriously. I stay on top of them because I'm also in the classroom and I have a lot of them in my class, which is always fun usually. But they know why they're here. It's a really it's a big honor. And honestly, if we haven't won the award, I think we could have won it every year. I've just sometimes forgotten to fill out the paperwork and missed the deadline. We're doing OK!
Alan Babbitt [00:16:55] With having your players in class, describe what that's like? And obviously, it's fun. I mean, still a professor, it's a little different role.
Leigh Sears [00:17:12] I think last fall I might have had four of them at the same time. And the rule in my class, you have to sit in the front row so, you know, everybody in a classroom walks straight to the back and I keep the front row for them. So they have to come in and sit there. It's a lot of fun because, I mean, it's easy for me because I know their name so I can pick on them. When nobody else wants to talk to me, I can always talk to them or make them try to answer questions so they keep it lively.
Alan Babbitt [00:17:40] You've had some tremendous support, I know this past six months has been a challenging time for you personally with a successful fight with breast cancer and now a breast cancer survivor. Take me through your journey. When did you find out that you had something you had to contend with it in the process to get you here to today?
Leigh Sears [00:18:06] I think I knew something was wrong in mid-March and then the second week. I don't know the date, but right before spring break, I think the second week before spring break, I went and had an ultrasound and the mammogram and they said, well, something doesn't look right. So two days later, I had a biopsy. And then that Monday, right before spring break, they actually called me in between classes. So I lectured. I went to chapel, took my phone with me. I had to leave because the phone was ringing. And then I find out, oh, you have breast cancer. And then I had to teach a class. Then we had I think we had fitness that afternoon. I didn't tell the team that. I told the captain that until the team. So it because then let's see. that was on a Monday. We were going on spring break. We didn't have class Friday. Get through spring break with appointments with surgeon, oncology. Then the school shut down. So I decided they decided to do surgery right away. So come March 31st, so this is all probably within a three-week span. Went in an 8:00 in the morning. And my husband can wait until the surgery is over. But then he had to go home. So he was there through surgery. He left and then he came back at eight o'clock at night to pick me up. They basically wanted to get me out of there because of COVID. It was basically an outpatient kind of major surgery. So I came home ate some ice cream. We just got in bed. That was kind of it. I think a week later, I had my drains taken out and just I've been having a lot of point ever since I went through radiation ended in July. And right now, I'm just kind of waiting for the next thing.
Alan Babbitt [00:19:59] Mentally, I mean, with everything else going on, then you have this on top of that. How did you. I don't know, what the right word is, whether staying sane is appropriate or not or just cause. I mean, you know, we're all I mean, it was challenging, whether you're with your family or by yourself, just kind of being cooped up, especially initially. And then you have this on top of that. Talk about how you what you did to get the strength to e able to get through and not have imagined been really hard not to get depressed and all the emotions that come with having cancer.
Leigh Sears [00:20:34] I think for me, it's like I tell this to my team all the time and I can't say it if I don't believe it, that, like, I can only control what I can control. You know, I got it. I had cancer. But, I mean, I could choose to rub gravel in my hair and cry over it or get my plan and move on. And I think the worst part for me was waiting for the plan. So did I need chemo or not? When was radiation? When was surgery? Kind of the order things. And once I got the order set out, it was I could tackle it. As long as I know what's going on, I'm fine. It was kind of the waiting that was the issue for me. I don't wish a global pandemic on anybody. But for me, it came at a really good time because I I was teaching online at the time and I told my class I'm going to be busy on Tuesday. I'll be back tomorrow. I had surgery Tuesday and by Wednesday, I'm trying to answer emails for class. it's like if I just have something to keep doing. I can do it. And then kind of at that time, I started emailing the team updates. I have about 70 alumni on an email chain that we're getting emails which are kind of therapeutic to write. They're pretty funny. I have been sending them. I've been sending them emails throughout the week. I don't think I sent the last one last week. They've been getting updates every couple of weeks, so I've had a pretty big support system.
Alan Babbitt [00:21:58] How valuable was that for you just to know that that was there, whether it was a former students, former players or current ones or some of the people in Hope College? How is that helpful for you during this time?
Leigh Sears [00:22:13] I think it's super helpful. People want to bring you meals and it's like, that's nice. But during COVID we didn't want people coming to the house and dropping stuff off. Everybody wants to help, which is really nice. I think the kids were there just more to kind of listen or just to kind of get the update portion of it, because they kind of like that. There's a good supportive people that I work with and some women that I work with that were really helpful. My husband works a lot, but he stayed home for two weeks during the shutdown before he went back to work. So it was helpful to and in a typical year without a shutdown, he probably would have had that much time at home to help. It kind of all lined up for me that I could still get my work done, but take care of myself at the same time so it was bad for the globe. But it worked out for me.
Alan Babbitt [00:23:06] What have you learned about yourself during this?
Leigh Sears [00:23:23] That's a big question. What have I learned? You know, I think all this stuff I say to my team, it's like I found out I say it because I believe it. We talk to them all the time about stuff's gonna be hard and it's supposed to be hard. And it's not what comes that's hard. It's how do you deal with it and control what you can control. So all I could really control was kind of my attitude or how I felt about it. I'm not saying I never got, like, upset, but I wasn't crying about it. It was just here's what I have to deal with. Let's press forward. I think when hard things come, if I can create a plan, I can tackle it. I have more stuff coming up in November, some other surgeries planned, but which is kind of one thing at a time. It is what it is.
Alan Babbitt [00:24:16] I imagine that seems like it was caught early enough. It seems like that's kind of a big thing with cancers when we're able to try to catch it. I imagine just paying attention to your body was important because you realized something was quite right.
Leigh Sears [00:24:37] I work out quite a bit, which I think was super helpful in the process. I was actually like having chest pain. I did a graded exercise test. I had an echocardiogram done. We thought it was something else. And then I realized I had a lump, so they got me and within a matter of a day to start the whole process. It's when something's not right, do something about it. And I think the hard thing for athletes is you always hurt. How do you know when it's a bad hurt or it's just you just hurt? Because that's the thing. Now they say, well, I don't get anything until unless I'm in pain. And I'm like, I'm always in pain. When do I get a scan and when do we get to do something? It's like. But it is like I'm 50 something at heart. So I think just paying attention and knowing yourself is a big deal.
Alan Babbitt [00:25:29] Good luck. Glad to hear your progress so far. Wish you well as you continue your healing. Thank you very much. I imagine you probably got class soon here, then practice. What's next?
Leigh Sears [00:25:42] Next on my day is a little bit of work and then practice in the rain. So it'll be good.
Alan Babbitt [00:25:48] It'll be good. A great day to play soccer. We look forward to watching you compete in the spring.