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Worley raises the bar for girls’ team

In the world of high school sports, it’s hard to be any more dominant than Lakeland High School’s field hockey team has been during the last decade’s play in the Southeastern District.

The Lady Cavaliers have won 10 straight regular-season championships in the district and the last nine Southeastern District Tournaments, all under head coach Tara Worley.

The last time the Lady Cavs lost to a district opponent, in a regular season or tournament match, was in 2002. In all but a few district matches each season, Lakeland’s biggest concern becomes, not winning or losing, but how to stay sharp and play hard while not running up the score.

Worley has built this dynasty practically from scratch.

In her high school days, actually at cross-city rival Nansemond River, Worley played field hockey for only one year. She played softball for the Lady Warriors and at Christopher Newport.

Worley started at Lakeland in 1998 as the JV field hockey coach and the varsity softball coach. She stopped coaching softball a few years ago. In both sports though, Worley remembers the biggest initial challenge being not necessarily the win-loss records, but others at the school and parents who thought the status quo at Lakeland was just the way it had to be.

“I know I demand a lot of discipline, and how I coach has been called my ‘hardcore regimen,’” she said. “I knew I wanted to win, though, and this is just the only way I know. There were some parents, especially when I was first starting, who had a hard time with that.”

Winning helps. Having at least six straight years of seeing seniors go on to scholarships with Division I colleges also helps.

Now, when someone compares Lakeland’s field hockey practices to football practices or says, “She coaches them like she’s coaching guys,” it’s usually meant as a positive description.

“Girls can be pushed, just like boys,” Worley said. “I take it as a compliment. When I hear that, I say, ‘Yep, that’s what I’m doing,’ and I’m not bothered by it.”

Even with the elite results and competitive desire, Worley still knows she’s coaching high school kids. The balancing act is there, even if most on the outside of her team don’t see it.

“Off the field, I feel I’m very personal with all of my players. I do everything I can to be concerned with what’s going on with them,” she said.

A coach often can have a unique role with a kid, she believes. Advice coming from a coach might be the exact same advice, “they hear all the time, but hate it when it comes from their parents.”

“Your players have to respect you. They don’t necessarily have to like you,” Worley said.

That may well be the case, especially for youngsters first coming into Lakeland’s program or the offseason indoor field hockey leagues or the summer camps Worley has started as part of her effort to have Suffolk field hockey catch up to the traditional powers in Virginia Beach.

While the Lady Cavalier players don’t have to like their coach in order to be successful, when Lakeland reached the Group AAA State Tournament for the first time in program history this past November, it was clear “doing it for Coach” was some of the motivation.

“I’ve never seen Coach this happy in her life,” said junior forward Taylor Young just after Lakeland’s 2-0 win over Kecoughtan in the regional semifinals gave the Lady Cavs the state tourney berth. Lakeland had reached nine straight regional tournaments without getting through to states.

“She’s very excited, and she’s definitely showing it,” said junior midfielder Kelsey Smither. Kelsey’s older sister, Katelyn, starred for Worley and went on to an outstanding, all-conference-caliber career at Old Dominion University, graduating from ODU in 2009.

“Every year we’d get to the same point. It’s just finally nice to get over it,” Kelsey Smither said.

“It’s just a really good feeling and I’m sure all the players who’ve been with Coach and who’ve graduated will be happy for us and for her,” Smither said.