Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Something Special

All season, two teams have been on a collision course. Assuming they take care of business this week, Saturday morning's match in Morgantown will be the most anticipated (and may be the most watched, inside the state and out) girls' high school soccer game of this and perhaps any season in West Virginia.

University High School is the defending Class AAA Champion in the State. The Hawks return most of their starters from a team that went through the 2009 season without a loss. Their coach is undoubtedly the most accomplished high school soccer coach currently leading a team in West Virginia, having won two boys' state championships at Morgantown High before moving across both town and the gender line to coach at University. The school has 1250 students and the city has a strong youth and travel soccer pool from which to draw players.

Charleston Catholic High School is the defending Class AA-A Champion. The Irish return nine starters from a team that lost one game in 2009 and won its second straight state championship. Their coach is a part-timer who never played the game and started coaching at the high school level largely by chance. The school has 250 students and benefits from having seven seniors who comprise the best single class of soccer players in the history of the institution.

Both teams are undefeated so far this season, with the only blemish on either side being Catholic's tie against the Morgantown girls' team. They are ranked first and second in the state according to the state's mathematical rankings, The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (a name which calls to mind the American Dodgeball Association of America) poll, and ESPN's RISE poll.

Obviously, the ultimate goal in this or any season is to win a state championship. But this game is a little different -- in some ways it's for the championship of the whole state, not just a class. And it's an opportunity for at least one school to gain recognition outside of the state, something that's hard to come by, for girls' high school soccer particularly.

This is what you play for.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Delicate Balance

I didn't play team sports in high school. I went to a big public school and, frankly, was to small to be able to play football or baseball (and too old to play soccer, at least in Michigan).

Swimming and golf, though were two sports that weren't particularly discriminatory with regard to size (although admittedly you won't find many 5' 9 1/2" Olympic swimmers). I didn't learn much from my high school golf coach that I've been able to translate to my soccer team (unless it's simply to not be a confrontational, crotchety old SOB like he was), but swimming is a different story.

There were some conventional wisdoms in swimming 30 years ago that, while regarded as gospel at the time, haven't proven to be much more than voodoo or old wives' tales. We used to stretch a lot before meets (as opposed to currently, where static stretching is viewed as inhibiting muscle performance when done immediately prior to an event). We used to "carbo load" the night before big meets (not immediately before, like Michael Scott) which is of questionable value these days. And before and during meets we would eat plain sugar or jello mix because we thought the glucose would give us additional energy.

The one training tool that we practiced in swimming that I believe still has a great deal of validity, and is equally applicable to soccer, is "peaking." The idea was that there were only so many times during the swim season when an athlete could be at his or her best. So, while no one tanked any meets, it was understood that you wouldn't prepare for all meets in the same way (training hard, then tapering your training a few days before). Only the really important meets merited that type of training. Your performance in the run-of-the-mill meet or race may not have been optimal as a result, but that was okay because you had the big picture -- the county or state meet -- in mind.

As an athlete, peaking and tapering made a lot of sense -- maybe just because it meant I didn't have to work as hard at practice during the days leading up to a big meet.  As a coach, however, I find I have to constantly remind myself that I can't expect great things out of my team every game.

The high school soccer season lasts for 20 regular season matches in West Virginia. Add to that the possibility of up to five post-season games (if you make it all the way to the State Finals), and you have a situation where, realistically, your players cannot be as physically and emotionally sharp as you'd like them to be for every single contest.

It's a difficult concession for me to make, that we can't or even shouldn't be expected to play our best every single match. I'm competitive by nature and at any game want our team and its players to perform as well as possible. I find I'm more disappointed with a "bad win" than a "good loss" almost all the time.

But, as the cliche goes, a bad win really is better than a good loss.  After all, the ultimate goal for a game is to win, and for the season is to win a championship, not to look good losing or to win a relatively unimportant game 5-0 instead of 3-0.

Although I'm in my ninth season as a high school coach, I'm still learning better ways of doing things. There's a lot of introspection in coaching, as in legal work -- especially litigation. I find myself often examining the way I approach issues for an audience, whether it's my players, the press, a judge, or a jury. This year, I'm consciously making an effort to be satisfied with an occasional adequate performance, with the understanding that it would be too demanding to expect the team to play at a peak for 25 straight games.

There's still room for improvement in our team, just as there is in me as a coach. As a wise man once said, "when you stop getting better, you stop being good."

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Other Football

As I alluded to in a recent post, the rest of the world views American collegiate sport as an oddity. The training grounds for professional athletes anywhere but the U.S. are, oddly enough, professional teams. 

Overseas, promising soccer and basketball players are nurtured by professional clubs, beginning at a young age. The advantage: athletes who are interested in pursuing sport as a vocation don't have to pretend that they are students. The disadvantage: athletes who are interested in, but not good enough to, be professional athletes end up without any marketable skills.

Of course, there are other downsides to college athletics besides the fact that they are not supposed to be equipped to do what they do -- train amateur athletes to be professionals. Especially in football, agents, the bowl system, and the exploitation of unpaid athletes for the generation of millions of dollars of revenue for some "institutions of higher learning" understandably makes many an educator or administrator queasy.

But all of those doubts disappear, for me anyway, come Saturday afternoons in the fall (well, it should be Saturday afternoons, and only Saturday afternoons, as far as I'm concerned). There is something very unique and special about college football that, for me, no other sport can match. 

Maybe it's the fact that there are only 12 (or 13, or 14 nowadays) games in a season. Part of it is the pageantry. Part is the history of whatever team(s) you root for and a link, somewhere, to a glorious past. And part is that college football has the unique ability in the U.S. to join uncommon people in a common bond, at least for a few hours. In much of the rest of the world, soccer is the sport that does this. But in the U.S., I believe that it's college football, more so even than the NFL.

This coming weekend is one of the two biggest of the college football season for me. And, no, not because it's WVU v. Marshall on Friday night. Remember, when it comes to being a fan, I never take the easy route. For while I generally root for both WVU and Marshall, I am first and foremost a fan of my alma mater, Wake Forest (which has the tradition of being one of the worst major college football programs), and of the University of Michigan. And Saturday Michigan plays Notre Dame.

I grew up going to The Big House with my Dad and brother, watching Michigan play the best teams in the nation. It was just us and 110,000 of our closest friends. I saw a surprising number of great offensive players over the years -- surprising because Michigan had the reputation of being a "three yards and a cloud of dust" team. Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, and Elvis Grbac are all quarterbacks I saw play in person, and Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, and Desmond Howard were among the wide receivers.

Just as important as the team or the players, though, was the atmosphere: bright orange and yellow and red maples on the drive to the stadium on a crisp fall morning; parking on the U of M golf course (!) or in some five-times-a-year entrepreneur's yard; walking to the stadium with and past thousands of fans decked out in Maize and Blue; the smell of the food simmering on their tailgate grills. 

Then, there was the stadium itself. There is nowhere like Michigan Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. From the street it looks singularly unimpressive -- perhaps twenty rows of stands. But when you walk in, you realize that it was sunk into the ground and the sheer enormity of the place is overwhelming.

U of M Stadium from the air -- golf course/parking lot to your right.
And that's before the band takes the field. I have never played an instrument and am about as far from a "band geek" as you can get. But every time I hear the cadence of the Michigan band entering the field, the hair on the back of my neck still stands on end. And when they play the best fight song in the land, well, how can you not get a little amped after that?

Being a Michigan fan was never a big deal in West Virginia until the U of M stole WVU's basketball and football coaches in successive years. The hiring of John Beilein as basketball coach was not a big deal as he was an outsider who had lead the Mountaineers well, but for whom the state had no real allegiance or love. When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, however, it was a different matter entirely. Rodriguez was West Virginia born, WVU educated, and led a dynamic, successful program after the retirement of Don Nehlen. His departure was seen by WVU fans as an affront to the school and the state, and made an enemy of both the coach and the institution that hired him to all things Blue and Gold (as opposed to Maize and Blue).

After Rodriguez's first two unsuccessful years in Ann Arbor, I've had to put up with a lot of ribbing from my WVU friends. All along, though, I've said the third year of the Rodriguez era in Michigan, and the Bill Stewart era in Morgantown, will tell the tale.  Rodriguez runs a unique offense that requires a certain kind of player, certainly not those that Lloyd Carr recruited before him; Stewart's coaching and recruiting abilities are at best unproven.

Last Saturday was the start of the third season, and it began very well for Michigan. Much better, I thought, than WVU's performance against its I-AA opponent. The games this weekend, however, will give a little better idea of how good Michigan might be, and how ordinary WVU could be. And while usually I remain neutral regarding WVU v. Marshall games, I have to admit that a little bit of me wouldn't be disappointed to see The Thundering Herd give me the first chance to say I told you so.