Before the start of each season, players on the Franklin Community High School boys club volleyball team take stock of what went right and wrong during the previous campaign.
Mostly, they focus on what went wrong.
An annual rite since 2009, players examine what they need to fix, agree on a theme for the new season unify around it, then emblazon the words on T-shirts.
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A tradition for athletes and teams in all sports, displaying slogans on shirts is a common way to facilitate bonding, forge unity and serve as daily reminders to collectively stay on message.
In the case of the boys volleyball team, which reached the final four of last year’s club state finals, the message is: I AM A CONTENDER.
It’s etched on T-shirts players wear to road games.
“Each year it’s usually based on something we need to work on the next year,” said Spencer Sullivan, a senior on Franklin’s volleyball team. “This year we said we need to be a contender on every play.
“No matter if you think the ball is dead, just try to get the ball up and be competitive on every play.”
Similarly, players on the Whiteland Community High School softball team wear shirts emblazoned with the word, “REACH,” with an underlying inscription that reads, “Higher. Farther. Stronger.”
Not surprisingly, there’s more to the Whiteland message than meets the eye. Every letter in REACH stands for a quality the Warriors want to embody: Respect, Effort, Attitude, Commitment, Heart.
Katie Mitchell, in her first season as Whiteland’s head coach, regards REACH the perfect acronym for they type of program she wants to build.
“I wanted a phrase that would define our spirit a little bit. I also wanted to encompass the total athlete, the kind of player that we want to be,” Mitchell said. “As a program, we wanted to build a culture of always wanting more and never being satisfied.
“And so REACH (represents) someone who reaches for something and puts in extra effort to get it. It’s to get our ultimate goal.”
Kat Sarles, head coach of Franklin’s boys volleyball team, began the T-shirt tradition seven years ago as a means to forge unity and remind players that they are working toward a common objective. The first slogan in 2009 was Discipline, Sacrifice, Unity. Through the years the Cubs have displayed the refrains: Forever Strong; Possibilities … unrestrained; We do as we ARE, we become as we Do; By Endurance We Conquer; and Prepare Today, Own Tomorrow.
“I have been purposeful in selecting the right slogan that encapsulates the drive and focus of any given year,” Sarles said. “A team shirt is a simple but powerful way for my players to represent the program goals and vision, as well as our team family commitment in the public forum.
“I’d like to think my boys take pride in their identification as volleyball players in the halls at school and in their uniforms on the competition floor.”
Sullivan insists they do. And this year’s slogan was born from last year’s bittersweet end to the season.
Boys volleyball is a popular and highly competitive club sport in Indiana. Franklin reached the final four of last year’s state finals — and was swept in three games by top-ranked eventual state champion Chesterton.
In hindsight, the Cubs — who return most of their starters from last season — don’t think they left everything on the floor. They intend to this time.
That’s what their slogan is about.
“It’s basically a reminder that it kind of sucks to be where we were last year,” Sullivan said. “We could have actually ended up winning the state championship. Being a contender on every play is basically our ticket to get back to the state championship again.”
Although T-shirt slogans can serve as instruments of team unity, they can also do the same for athletes — and even communities — in crises.
In the aftermath of last summer’s well-documented tragedy at the Blue River dam in Edinburgh, which claimed the lives of Franklin high school football players Jason Moran and Michael Chadbourne and severely injured Franklin student Sarah McLevish, T-shirts bearing the slogan “Franklin Strong” were sold at the high school to raise money for the affected families and to unify the community.
In a matter of weeks, the school sold about 2,000 shirts and raised $16,000 for the families, according to Jeff Mercer, the school corporation’s executive director of finance. The shirts became an inspirational fashion trend around Franklin as the community went about the process of grieving and healing.
At Indian Creek High School this year, T-shirts served a unifying purpose when seventh-grader Chase Smith, the 13-year-old son of the high school’s swimming coach Brad Smith, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare but deadly cancer that forms in bone and soft tissue.
Within days, members of the high school swimming team — and eventually swimmers on high school and college teams across the country — sported “WE ARE CHASESTRONG “ T-shirts, in the color of Chase’s favorite color, hot pink.
Brad Smith recalls what the shirts meant to his son — and to the Smith family, and to the Indian Creek community.
“As soon as that happened, it kind of united everybody,” Smith said. “And the kids (on the swim team) even said that coming up with the T-shirt slogan kind of gave everybody a little bit of peace about the whole issue. It unified them together, ‘Hey, we’re all going to be in this, we’re all going to help Chase fight this battle.’
“So it gave them some ownership in helping them get through that.”
In time, swimmers from other other teams — in other communities and other states — wore the shirts. Columbus North High School freshman Michael Brinegar donned one at the IHSAA state finals after winning a state championship. And college swimmers across the country wore the shirts and sent Chase videos.
“Once Chase was diagnosed, it wasn’t a matter of two or three days before they started having T-shirts printed,” Smith said. “Our first experience with it was, we walked into a meet at Seymour, and everybody had pink T-shirts on. It was good for us, and I think it was good for everybody. It just brought that rallying unification, that we’re going to do this together.
“It meant the world to (Chase). He was scared to death at that point, but to know that everyone had his back, it have him the confidence to push forward. Because of that, he never looked back.”
Chase is in complete remission, is back to competitive swimming and is grateful for the nationwide show of support the “WE ARE CHASESTRONG” shirts engendered.
“It just meant a lot coming from all the people that I know,” Chase said. “It just really makes me know that everyone cares about me on a regular basis.”
Hence, the power of T-shirt messages. They can unify, motivate, encourage and, in tragic circumstances, aid in healing.
But most often, they unite teams with a common theme.
At Franklin, the hope on the fifth-ranked volleyball team is that this year’s slogan, “I AM A CONTENDER,” will be a daily reminder of what it wants to accomplish — and what it will take to accomplish it. The mission is to win the state championship. To do it, the Cubs can’t take any plays off.
If they forget that truth, they need only read their T-shirts.
“We feel really confident in the way we’re playing,” Sullivan said. “The thing that stands between us and the state championship is the way we play and our attitude.
“If we’re not a contender on every play, that could stand between us and winning.”