Andy Kirkaldy: The hows and whys of success

In the past two-plus years, I’ve been repeatedly asking versions of the same question to many happy plaque-carrying, medallion-wearing and trophy-hoisting athletes: How did you do it?
Of the five questions journalists are taught to answer when researching and writing articles — who, what, when, where and why — the last is by far the most intriguing.
How is really a variation of why. “How did you do it?” equals “Why was the team so successful?”
In 2004 the Mount Abraham Union High School boys’ soccer team, after years of knocking on the door under Coach Mike Corey, finally broke through and won the Division II championship.
I asked Mike what was it about this team that made it the one to win. Mike, as those who know him will attest, is not one who is usually at a loss for words.
But he hesitated before answering, “That’s a good question,” and giving me a pretty good response. Later, he said he led off the team’s postseason banquet by name-checking me and trying to answer that question further; he, too was busy trying to figure out what makes good teams tick.
This past Saturday after the Mount Abe girls’ soccer team won its first-ever crown, Eagle seniors Amy Nault and Reed Martin talked about togetherness, confidence, and the motivation that came from losing a playoff game a year ago they felt they should have won.
“When we lost to Harwood, me and Reed and Jesse (McKean) sat on the bus, and said, ‘Next year we’re winning it,’” Nault said. “We were so determined and so confident all season that we were going to win this.”
It is remarkable how often those themes have been echoed in these parts in the past two years. Not to slight individual sport winners in track or wrestling, but for now let’s focus on team dynamics.
Just since the fall of 2012, these Middlebury, Mount Abe, Otter Valley or Vergennes teams have earned banners (the list could grow longer soon — the OV and MUHS football teams are both favored in final on Saturday:
•  VUHS boys’ basketball in 2013, 24-0, D-II.
•  Mount Abe girls’ basketball in 2013, 23-1, D-II.
•  OV baseball in 2013, 19-1, D-II.
•  MUHS football in 2013, 10-0, D-I.
•  Eagle field hockey in 2013, 10-3-3 (mostly against D-I teams before the playoffs), D-II.
•  Eagle boys’ soccer in 2013, 17-1, D-II.
•  MUHS girls’ hockey in 2014, 19-3-1, D-II,
•  Eagle girls’ basketball in 2014, 19-4, D-II
•  OV softball in 2014, 15-5, D-II
So, how did they all do it?
To start with, Peter Quinn, Connie LaRose, Dennis Smith and his coordinators, Mary Stetson, Corey, Pattie Candon, all their assistants, and the girls’ hockey trio of Tim Howlett, Derek Bartlett and Matt Brush deserve credit. Coaching goes a long way.
Talking to them after championship victories, the coaches sound similar themes: Their teams worked hard, focused in practices, had good spirit, and benefited from strong leadership.
This is how Howlett put it after the Tiger girls’ hockey team won its title this past March: “The chemistry is great all the way around. They get along great. They’re a very tight group. They work very hard. We’ve got some blue-collar captains that know how to work hard and set the example for everybody.”
Mount Abe girls’ soccer coach Dustin Corrigan last week addressed the confidence that teams and athletes need: “Their expectations have been pretty high right from the beginning. They believed right from day one that we could win this whole thing.”
Players typically point to sweat and harmony. One who did so was OV softball senior Cortney Poljacik last spring: “We just this whole season have just been playing together and working at it, every practice, just keeping it cool, smiling and laughing, and we stayed calm and did what we needed to do.”
Athletes also often talk of successful teams like family. One who did so was Eagle defender Whit Lower after the Eagle boys won their title in 2013: “We have the closest-knit group of guys that has ever been. We’re always there for each other, and we work hard. You can see ‘Brotherhood’ on the back of our shirts, and that’s what’s taken us here.”
Of course, anyone who has watched these many remarkable high school teams knows something else about them.
A remark from LaRose, the Eagle girls’ basketball coach, about one of her two recent title teams could refer to many or all of the local champions: “There’s talent, absolutely. There’s overall quickness, speed. That can create a lot of things.”
Or, as Quinn said about his 24-0 VUHS boys’ basketball team, “We do have a lot of weapons.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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