GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Trying to hold a cloth face covering over his mouth, T.J. Meerman found himself at Martin Luther King park on July 15 running drills with the youth of Grand Rapids.
The bandana didn’t make his job any easier as he tried to keep his station moving smoothly, constantly having to move cones while telling the participants what they would have to do next.
To Meerman, it didn’t matter. It felt good to be doing more of what he has missed since stepping off the hardwood in March: coaching, and for a cause that was important to him.
“We all feel like in this time with racial tension between cops and citizens, it was good to have everyone there for a common cause,” Meerman said. “It was good to have something action-based like this in our city and those events are needed. For me, it just felt good to be helping that cause while doing something I love.”
Not only for Meerman, but also for any coach at the high school level, in-person coaching has been hard to come by since the Michigan High School Athletic Association canceled all winter and spring sports due to coronavirus. It wasn’t until Wednesday that MHSAA released news of fall practice being approved for low-risk sports, with football, volleyball and soccer games still in discussion.
In his eighth season as the head coach of Grand Rapids Catholic Central boys basketball, Meerman had a team preparing for the district finals against Unity Christian when the season came to an abrupt halt. He said when his team started to realize it was inevitable their campaign was coming to an end, the Cougars didn’t want to leave the gym.
“We had a practice that day everything was dropping by the second (as far as cancellations due to COVID-19),” Meerman said. “We just tried to have fun until we had to leave and we haven’t been back in the gym since.”
With more social distancing precautions and time to adjust, Catholic Central, like other schools, has made changes. Meerman said the school has moved the entire weight room out onto the football field with a huge tent so the players can keep a distance while doing speed and strength activities four times a week. He also said kids have tried to get together at parks in the area just to get some shots up outside.
The former standout Coopersville and Central Michigan guard also coached Kenowa Hills boys basketball for five years and served as an assistant to Grand Valley State University basketball for a winter.
He has never seen anything like the limited guidance high school-level players are getting now.
“For our incoming seniors, it’s really tough because there are many opportunities being passed to play in front of recruiters,” Meerman said. “There are parents going to games and sending video clips and coaches have been able to stream some current recruits, but plenty have told me it’s tougher to feel out how coachable and what play style a kid has not in person.”
It’s a situation high school athletes haven’t head to deal with before. Restrictions are constantly changing, their playing status is constantly in limbo and consistently having the right materials to prepare for a season is harder.
Yet Meerman said the difficulties shine a light on something he has preached his whole life.
“At some point, the ball is going to stop bouncing,” Meerman said. “You need to have a degree, a good network of people to help you out. Being basketball-specific, it has brought the game back about 20 years. There wasn’t all these training companies and such, it was find a hoop at whatever place and develop your game on your own. I didn’t have one skill workout with my high school coach in four years.
“I think this has brought everything full circle with what is important: In sports and life, they have to invest in themselves.”