Playing against the best

Published 9:57 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2011

No coach likes to lose. A few high school coaches are as competitive, but no coach is more competitive than Lakeland field hockey head coach Tara Worley.

Following the Lady Cavaliers state championship in 2010, when she lost most of the starting lineup — actually most of the varsity roster — to graduation — some rebuilding (another idea, right along with moral victories from a loss, that no coach really likes) or taking a small step down in competitiveness would’ve been understandable.

I’m not very knowledgeable on high school field hockey strength of schedule or say, the RPI of field hockey squads, putting it in college basketball lingo.

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In NCAA March Madness terms, some coaches and teams do well with playing nothing but cupcakes in their non-conference schedule. It gets wins on the board. It builds confidence. Some coaches do well with the “we’ll play anyone, anywhere” philosophy. There are plenty of examples of both strategies working.

If Worley had wanted to, she could’ve planned out a non-district schedule that kept last season’s 24-0 mark rolling right along without a problem.

Instead, the Lady Cavaliers had four Beach District schools on their non-district schedule. They’re 1-2 in those matchups so far, including Friday’s 7-2 loss to First Colonial, the leader in the Beach District, which makes the Lady Patriots an automatic state title favorite.

Conversely, the Lady Cavaliers have won their six district matches by a combined score of 44-2, not really any different than last year’s Lakeland team.

Even with 10 underclassmen in the starting 11, the Lady Cavaliers are still way better than all but a handful of field hockey squads in the state.

The Group AAA state champ has come from Virginia Beach in 24 of 34 seasons since the Virginia High School League introduced the sport in 1977. But even with that knowledge, Worley scheduled just as many matches on the ultra-fast AstroTurf at the U.S. National Training Center, at the expense of home matches at Lakeland.

In high school and college sports (levels where scheduling is somewhat fluid), how many state or national champs would play only a quarter of their games the following season on their home field or court?

Piling up easy wins would be nice for this time of the season. But learning important lessons in time for the postseason, even if the experience gained is occasionally tough to take, is better in the long run.

Since nearly the whole team will be back next season, and much of it for two or three varsity seasons beyond, looking longer down the road is part of Worley’s plan, too. There’s a group of state champs, now playing collegiately for schools spread around Virginia, who could attest to how well her tough-breaks strategy has paid off before.