Andy Kirkaldy: High school, college and pro championship teams share traits
The past few weeks have brought rain, cold and a flurry of championships for teams I care about: Mount Abraham Union High School in Division II field hockey, Middlebury College field hockey and women’s soccer in the NESCAC postseason, and — as some might have heard about — the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
Another team gave a valiant effort, but lost its D-III final, Vergennes girls’ soccer.
Many other teams excelled this fall, including Tiger football, cross country and boys’ soccer; Commodore boys’ soccer and cross country; Eagle girls’ soccer; Otter Valley field hockey; and Panther men’s soccer.
The Panther women’s teams, each with just one loss on their résumés, still have shots at greater glory, as both open NCAA Division III tournament play at home this weekend. Coach Katharine DeLorenzo’s field hockey team will be looking for its second straight title and third in four years, while Coach Peter Kim’s women’s soccer outfit will take a top-five national ranking into its quest for the program’s first NCAA crown.
All those titles revived a question that endlessly fascinates. What goes into making a championship team? What enables one group to be the only one standing when the last game of the season is played?
Of course no one wins without talent. All the champions in the first paragraph had good athletes.
All were also well coached. Mary Stetson’s Eagles have not won eight D-II titles without her running a great program. DeLorenzo’s team has won five of the past seven NESCAC titles. Kim’s record at Middlebury entering this fall’s 15-1-2 season was 163-60-28 while playing most games in the competitive NESCAC, and his .705 winning percentage is the best in program history. Manager Alex Cora’s Sox won a team record 108 games and then the World Series in his first season.
Luck plays a role, too. An Amherst kicker missed the net in a late penalty-kick round in Saturday’s NESCAC semifinal when a conversion would have ended Middlebury’s season. In the Commodore girls’ 2-1 loss in the D-III soccer final their opponent, Thetford, scored on an improperly awarded corner kick. (To be fair, the Thetford goalie maybe should have handled the shot that created the VUHS rebound goal.)
But missed calls and bad bounces can make a huge difference. For example, DeLorenzo remembers well during her Skidmore days seeing her Thoroughbred team losing at Middlebury in an NCAA game in 1998. A bad bounce on a routine Middlebury clear (on what was then a grass Panther field) led to a key Heidi Howard breakaway goal. The Panthers went on to win their first NCAA title.
Challenging schedules can prepare teams for playoff runs. Stetson’s Eagles this year played nine D-I teams in the regular season before running the table in the D-II playoffs. The Commodore girls went 6-5-2 against a Lake Division schedule of D-I and II opponents before the D-III postseason, and promptly defeated two teams with 14-1 records on the way to the final. NESCAC teams have often fared well in NCAA tournaments and won more than their fair share after running the league gauntlet.
Those elements of championship teams can, at least in part, be quantified. We can look at coaches’ records, or how many goals and assists players notch or shots they stop, or what their batting averages are or how many home runs they hit.
The intangibles are harder to quantify.
Winning athletes typically talk about chemistry, unity, teams coming together.
It’s hard sometimes to tell whether winning breeds harmony, or harmony breeds winning. For sure, it’s easy to be all smiles while things are going well. But sometimes clichés speak truth.
Look at the Eagles, cruising along with a 2-0 lead in 40-degree weather and pouring rain, and their opponent scores twice to tie it up in the final 10 minutes.
Who has the momentum? Who come up with the big plays? Mount Abe goalie Chessley Jackman makes a game-saving overtime stop. Forward Jalen Cook sticks in the game-winning goal in double overtime. Yes, they had talent to do so. But they also had a team that believed, and knew their teammates had faith in them.
Prior to the overtime, Cook said Stetson told the team “to play our game and stick together because if we play our game, we could pull it out.”
Stetson’s take afterward?
“We grew together as a team and we were willing to execute our game plan. That was the difference,” she said.
Or consider the Red Sox. They lost World Series Game 3 in heartbreaking fashion — Dodger Max Muncy hit an 18th-inning walk-off homer off Nathan Eovaldi, who had until that point pitched six innings of shutout relief.
Cora called a rare team meeting after that game. He praised Eovaldi for his effort, after which every player in the room, many reportedly in tears, hugged Eovaldi. According to several reports Cora told the Sox they were a great team and had just played one of the great games in history, and he reminded them they still led the World Series, two games to one.
Sox pitcher Rick Porcello described the emotion in the room to Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci: “We just lost a World Series game in 18 innings. But after that (meeting), it didn’t feel like we lost. It felt like we won.”
The next day the Sox trailed the Dodgers after six innings, 4-0, and rallied for nine unanswered runs in a 9-6 victory. Then the day after that former playoff goat David Price (inspired by the Sox chemistry?) tossed his third straight postseason gem as the Sox won the World Series.
I’d say it’s safe to conclude that on championship teams the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts.