State champions

Published 12:09 am Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lakeland seniors, from left, Taylor Young, Marissa Betkowski, Brittany Milteer, Jennifer Hedrick, Kendell Combs, Kelsey Smither and Megan Johnson and head coach Tara Worley show their state championship trophy and the VHSL Sportsmanship Award trophy Saturday at the U.S. Field Hockey National Training Center.

Lakeland team completes a long journey

VIRGINIA BEACH – When Tara Worley took charge of Lakeland field hockey 12 seasons ago, “program” barely describes what she started with.

On Saturday, the Lady Cavaliers completed a perfect, 23-0 season with a 3-0 victory over Mountain View in the VHSL Group AAA state championship.

By Worley’s second season at Lakeland the Lady Cavaliers were the power of the Southeastern District. Lakeland hasn’t lost to a district opponent since 2002.

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Moving up the regional and state ranks was much more difficult. Time and again in the Eastern Region playoffs, Lakeland ran into traditional powers, usually from Virginia Beach. Last season was Lakeland’s first trip to the regional final and the VHSL Group AAA State Tournament. The Lady Cavaliers broke new ground, but lost in the state semifinals.

With eight seniors, all of whom play crucial roles and have going back to their freshman or sophomore years, returning for this season, the lone goal left was obvious. They spoke freely of the expectation of state title or bust.

It had to add pressure. The Lady Cavaliers thrived on it and were more impressive as the season and their undefeated record progressed.

“There were a lot of nerves coming in,” senior Kendell Combs said of Saturday’s state final. “We’ve learned to block it out and concentrate on playing our game and not letting anything else effect us.”

Worley increasingly referred to “a journey” as this season went along. The state championship is an ending for Worley and this group of seniors, Combs, Taylor Young, Brittany Milteer, Megan Johnson, Jennifer Hedrick, Marissa Betkowski, Olivia Graham and Kelsey Smither.

“Honestly I don’t think they have a clue about the huge impact they have had on my life,” Worley said.

“This is such a special group for so many reasons,” Worley said. “There have been highs and lows as a group and individually. Some of the highs and lows have been life-changing for some. We’ve gone through this journey together and I honestly love them.”

At the same time, the state title continues everything Worley’s former players did as Lady Cavaliers.

“One of the true testaments of today was so many past players, and parents of those players, who were here today for us,” Worley said.

“I just spoke with one of the first kids I ever coached, from my first year here. That’s incredible,” Worley said.

“It all just means a lot. It speaks volumes they all came out to see this. I think this, a small piece of it is for them, too,” she said.

“It means so much. We proved it, not just for ourselves, but also for our (past) teammates and our families,” said Graham, who’s been Worley’s center defender for four years.

“We love the support. We’re all a big family and we support each other,” Graham said.

As grand a feat as the first-ever state championship is, the journey has a definite future. A few minutes after accepting the state championship trophy, Smither was already joining the ranks of former Lady Cavaliers to play for Worley.

“This started such a long time ago. It’s really exciting to end our time together like this, and it’s really exciting for what this team will be like next year. We have ninth-graders who are fantastic. They’ll take the team really far in the future,” Smither said.