Sports column by Andy Kirkaldy: Championship teams blend chemistry and talent
In the past two weeks I’ve heard and read a lot about team character and chemistry. It’s always struck me as an athlete and an observer the intangibles matter, and for sure three recent teams have done nothing to change my mind.
Could the Red Sox have won the American League East, the toughest division in baseball; then the AL pennant against the Detroit Tigers, for my money baseball’s second-best team; and then the World Series, without having ballplayers who trusted and liked each other and were tough enough to play in the unforgiving Boston market? Probably not.
Could the Mount Abraham Union High School field hockey team have found the strength to continue onto the D-II championship after an almost unimaginable tragedy struck late in their season without the Eagles’ togetherness and faith in each other. I don’t see how.
Could the Mount Abe boys’ soccer team have prevailed in its D-II final despite the first-half injury to the Eagles’ best player and on-field leader, Cale Thygesen, without believing in each others’ abilities, a level of belief that defender Whit Lower said after the game was embodied by the word “Brotherhood” on their T-shirts? According to Coach Mike Corey, their leaders, senior co-captains Thygesen and Sawyer Kamman, set the tone by making every Eagle an equal stakeholder. So, the answer is no.
On the other hand, however, each of these teams also proved it was clearly better than its opponents.
The Red Sox played the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League. By most measures, the Red Sox were above average defensively, and the Cardinals … not so much. Fangraphs rated Boston the seventh-best team defensively among the 30 Major League teams and St. Louis 29th, for example.
St. Louis had arguably a deeper pitching rotation and bullpen, at least statistically, but their stats were accomplished against the league without designated hitters. When the chips were down, pitching was a wash.
Hitting? Let’s call the top five hitters in each batting order even. The bottom four in the Sox order for most games were Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Xander Bogaerts and David Ross. The bottom four for the Cards consisted of some combination of David Freese, John Jay, David Descalso, Pete Kozma and Shane Robinson.
Let’s use the OPS statistic to compare the groups. OPS combines On-base Percentage and Slugging percentage; it’s not the be-all and end-all of offensive state, but it’s useful.
This season, that St. Louis quintet had 2013 OPS numbers that ranged from .548 to .721. For the Sox in 2013, those for Gomes and Drew were .771 and .777, respectively. Bogaerts, a rookie, and Ross, who suffered a severe concussion, did not play much in the regular season. But Bogaerts’ 2013 postseason OPS of .893 was the fourth highest of all Major League players, and Ross has a career OPS of .764.
The Sox were just superior.
Mount Abe field hockey? The Eagles allowed one shot on goal in the final, none in the semifinal. They played a Division I schedule and finished with fewer losses, three, than any D-I team except Champlain Valley, also three, and D-I champion Essex, one. The Eagles lost by a goal to CVU early on, but later outshot them by 6-0 in a 0-0 tie. And CVU lost a D-I quarterfinal at home to a team the Eagles outplayed twice, South Burlington. Mount Abe gets the nod.
And the Eagles were the only team to score on Essex in the Hornets’ final 14 games, and played them tougher (2-0 and 2-1 losses) than anyone in the D-I tournament — Essex defeated teams by 7-0 and 3-0 in the semifinal and final.
The 12-1-3 Hornets, from a school with more than twice as many students as Mount Abe, earned the distinction as the best field hockey team in Vermont. The Eagles come in as a strong No. 2. Plenty of talent on that roster.
How about the Eagle boys? Well, to start with, it’s hard to argue 17-1. They took two out of three from the team they defeated in the semifinal, Rice, the only team to defeat Mount Abe in the regular season.
Mount Abe met Green Mountain Valley in the final. The Gumbies did not lose to anybody else except Mount Abe this fall, but went 0-3 vs. the Eagles. The Eagles outscored their foes this fall by 59-14 while playing a stylish possession game that relied on skill and unselfishness.
Yeah, they were good.
So where do chemistry and talent fit in the puzzle?
No, teams cannot win with chemistry alone.
But teams with unity can maximize their talent, like both Eagle teams and the Sox did this fall. Every player on the field knew the other players believed he or she could succeed. So many different players on each one of those teams rose to the occasion so many times, and it was at least in part because they were confident. And that confidence came in part from each other.
Faith is a powerful thing. Teams with both talent and chemistry, like the Red Sox and Eagle field hockey and boys’ soccer, will not be denied.
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