BY CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI
— TRAVERSE CITY — Tonight will be one of the rare occasions where Traverse City Central girls basketball coach Heather Simpson is pulling for the opposition right along with her own team.
Simpson’s squad hosts Traverse City St. Francis in the annual Hoops for Hope game — a game where Simpson gets to face the school that she guides in volleyball during the fall.
This is the fifth Hoops for Hope fundraiser, which generates money for Child and Family Services and Girls on The Run. In four years both schools have brought in over $19,000 through T-shirt sales for the game and raffles during the contest. The money is used to purchase athletic shoes for kids in need.
On the court Simpson sees the game as bragging rights between herself and the two St. Francis players she coaches in volleyball — junior Megan Knudsen and freshman Juliana Phillips — as well as the school she helped lead to the volleyball state finals just over a year ago.
“I’m not going to lie, we’re competitive,” said Simpson. “There’s a little trash talk that goes on during the volleyball season about it. The stakes are kind of high. I love those kids, especially when you get to know them so well. I want them to have their best games of their lives, but I want my team to come out with the ‘W.’ It’s hard. I feel a little bit like I’ve betrayed them in a sense just because you get to know these kids so well. You want nothing but success for them and now I’ve got to game plan for how to shut them down.”
While there are only two players on the St. Francis varsity who were on Simpson’s volleyball team this season, she said the school is so small that she gets to know more than just the players on her roster from when they show up for games to cheer on their classmates.
“All those girls were instrumental in being there for us during volleyball. So you get to know them, the students, just as well,” said Simpson. “Lydia Arthur is a big one. A lot of these kids I’ve known for years in the YMCA. I coached (freshman Sarah) Carney when she was in kindergarten.”
As strange as it is to see such a familiar face on the opposing sideline, Phillips is looking forward to going against her volleyball coach.
“We all just love and respect her so much,” said Phillips. “She’s such an amazing coach and she cares so much for us as individuals as well as athletes. It’s great to play against her for Hoops for Hope because she’s always urging us to do things throughout the community. She’s always helping us look for opportunities to help in the community. I think this is just a really great opportunity to do that. It should be a fun night.”
The lead up to the game has been fun, too, particularly with the banter that has taken place, going as far back as this fall.
“We would always joke around about it and have fun,” said Knudsen, whose dad Mike is the Gladiators’ head coach. “Both coach Heather and I are really competitive so we kind of joke around with each other. We’re like, ‘Are you ready to lose?’ It’s kind of fun. We’re just going to go at it just like any other game and know that no matter what happens we did something good by raising money for the kids who need it.”
The two teams have met in a scrimmage, but this will be the one and only time they will play in the regular season.
“I’m sure they’ve gotten better and hopefully so have we,” said Phillips.
The Gladiators (10-2) enter the contest having won three games in a row and eight of their last nine. They lead the Lake Michigan Conference with an unbeaten record (6-0). Central enters the game with a 3-9 mark overall and 3-4 in the Big North Conference.
“I’ve played with some of those girls before, like when we were younger. So now that we’re older, it’s exciting to play against them,” said Arthur. “Even though they are (a bigger school) we always put up a good fight against them. I think this year we’ll be able to take them.”