Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Perfectly Done

Miss TigerBlog and TigerBlog Jr. have played on more than their share of sports teams in their young lives.

For TigerBlog's money - and in the current culture, there's been a lot of it - youth and high school sports are about the best avenue for co-curricular development that kids can have.

They teach all sorts of lessons that are unlearnable in other avenues. Teamwork. Self-discipline. Commitment. Physical and mental fitness.

They keep kids out of trouble. They build character and self-esteem. They bring joy. They create memories that last forever.

They get kids off couches, away from computers and video games and cell phones and texting and isolation. They force kids to form actual human relationships.

They push kids. They teach the kind of lessons about success and failure that are invaluable. They show that if kids want to achieve, they have to work at it, and then work harder at it.

MTB and TBJ have experienced all of these things for years, and the benefits they get from them are enormous.

They've also been fortunate to play on many more good teams than bad ones, though there have been some that have been awful.

Until last week, neither had been part of a team that had a perfect season. Then Miss TigerBlog's middle school field hockey team put the cap on its own perfect run, finishing up 11-0 with a 2-0 win over its big rival in the season finale.

TB lost track somewhere along the line, but he thinks that MTB's team outscored its opponents by a combined 35-1. He's positive the team allowed one goal for the year, and in 11 games, there were maybe six or seven shots total by the opponents.

They were definitely fun to watch. Successful teams usually are. TB was one of several loyal fans throughout the season, and among the others was the grandfather of one of the players who in the beginning of the season was a novice on the sport's more complex rules and by the end was explaining them to the others.

What made this team most special was that it was truly a team effort.

There wasn't one big goal scorer - in fact, maybe 15 or so girls had at least one goal on the year. They shared the ball remarkably well for a middle school team, using a series of passes to move the ball up the field when necessary, rather than having one kid whack it.

Middle school field hockey is played on natural grass fields, usually bumpy ones. It's a far cry from the pristine artificial turf of college field hockey, and it makes it harder for the ball to travel a long distance.

It also makes it riskier to play the ball backwards and reverse it to the other side to bring it forward, something that makes the college game so fast. The tendency in middle school is to have too many players close to the ball, because it's not going to travel that far, but MTB's team did an outstanding job of keeping the field spread and moving the ball, even on the grass.

One thing TB has loved about field hockey on that level is that it's impossible to have one player simply take the ball down the field and shoot it, like it is in basketball or lacrosse or, while not exactly the same thing, football.

In field hockey, one player can only advance it so far before it has to be shared. In other words, it forces kids to learn to play as a team. The way that MTB's middle school team did it, though, exceeded what could be expected from a group that age.

The college game is so lighting fast compared to what happens on grass fields. The game today is so much more athletic than when TB used to watch Princeton play on Gulick Field, the grass field that sat above Lourie-Love Field and was the old home for Princeton field hockey before Class of 1952 Stadium was built.

Princeton finished the home portion of its schedule this past weekend with wins over Cornell and Rider.

In fact, the only game remaining on the regular season schedule is the one Saturday at Penn, and it's sort of a big one.

Princeton is 6-0 in the Ivy League, while Penn - with a loss to Columbia - is 5-1. Princeton has clinched at least a share of the league title, which means 19 Ivy League field hockey championships in the last 20 years.

That won't be much of a consolation prize for the Tigers should they lose to Penn Saturday (the game starts at noon).

A Penn win would mean a co-championships. A Princeton win would mean an outright championship.

The automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is the prize that the winner of the game gets. Should Penn win, the Quakers would have won the head-to-head matchup even if they're co-champs. If Princeton wins, it's an outright title, a perfect one at that.

Princeton of course is the defending NCAA field hockey champion, a title won last year by defeating Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina in the final three rounds of the NCAA tournament. A repeat would be difficult, but the game Saturday itself is first and foremost right now.

Even a year ago, when Princeton won it all, the Tigers weren't perfect on the year. They were only 21-1.

Perfect seasons in general rarely happen. There can be no bad days, no slip ups.

MTB's team did it, going 11-0. Even for middle school field hockey, being perfect isn't easy.

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