With five days and two games ahead of us before the team heads into first semester finals, it’s probably fitting that we are coming off a Jekyll and Hyde weekend series.
Why? Let’s see, where do I start?
At the half way point of the regular season it’s fairly easy for coaches to see trends, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. That’s what we do and unless you’re unwilling or unable to read the tea leaves, you should have a much clearer vision of where you are as a program and what needs to be addressed moving forward.
There are a number of external factors that have contributed to the results this first half, not the least of which is the fact that with a very young team we’ve squared off with the nation’s best almost 60% of the time this first semester. No complaints, after all I engineered the schedule. However other than the Gophers, few teams would navigate this gauntlet unscathed. National polls are voted largely by coaches. League bias almost always plays a role, hence the gap that can exist between the pairwise rankings and the media polls. That’s even more true in women’s hockey as there often isn’t enough crossover to verify the results in the first few months.
To complete the picture, you have to take into account that we’ve faced five of the top 8 teams in the nation (IMHO) for a total of 9 games to date and we’ve still got 2 remaining with BC on Wednesday and Harvard this weekend. That’s a stiff test. I don’t have the SOS ratings, but it wouldn’t be a big leap to suggest we’ve played the toughest schedule in the country to date.
Against that overlay, the first half has had it’s share of ups and downs, but far more ups. We’ve self inflicted some adversity upon ourselves to be sure, but all of our coaches have watched this group grow individually and collectively. There have been some very resounding, motivating moments. So to we have had periods of sloppy uninspired play; but they haven’t been the trend.
The obvious cornerstone of what’s unfolding within our program currently is ‘youth’. Maturity is a process. You can’t give it to someone, nor wish for it. At the division one collegiate level, ‘youth’ isn’t prepared for the grind of the college season. Practices are demanding. Games have a playoff atmosphere. Young teams often exceed expectations before returning to earth as the grind of the season begins to take it’s toll. Emotion plays a big role in athletics and clearly emotions run high when you’re embarking on a new challenge. But emotional highs aren’t by their nature sustainable. I often liken a young team to a minor league professional who gets the long awaited call up to the show. How many times have we witnessed a rookie scoring his first time playing in the NHL? Sometimes they continue to perform at a high level, but eventually their game seems to level off and even trend downwards. Why?
Conversely, we also see proven performers get off to a slow start and look nothing like the player we remembered from a year ago? Then seemingly out of the blue they begin to catch fire and return to their former selves. Why?
The underlying principle at work in both situations is one of the primary drivers behind the Jekyll and Hyde performances we’ve seen this past month. I mentioned earlier that maturity is a process. That process involves repeated trial and error experiences that lead to an athlete getting more in tune with their internal compass. If they’ve struggled and battled through enough adversity, then they ‘intuitively’ understand the process. They also recognize how to be motivated internally, because if they were to rely on external events they’d probably have given up long ago. Once their internal compass becomes the driver, that athlete becomes more immune to the fleeting highs of ‘motivating moments’. When things go well, they capitalize. When things don’t go as planned, they respond by bearing down.
Watching our club grind it’s way through this schedule has been rewarding. I’ve learned that this is a resilient group and they’ve proven it by bouncing back from disappointing games. Yesterday’s 3-1 win following Saturday’s 8-1 loss was another indicator that this group is moving forward. We have watched a number of players begin to really embrace ‘growing’ their game. That largely requires getting out of your comfort zone which isn’t easy. Old habits die hard. Watching young adults battle through adversity so they can be a contributor to the cause is a powerful lesson for everyone. This month a number of our young players like sophomores Jesse Ryan, Kayla Mork, Jennifer Gilligan and Caroline Broderick have done just that.
At the same time a number of veterans have raised their own games to a high level of performance and consistency. I can’t overstate the importance of the example set by Nicole Gifford, Jess Hitchcock, Arielle O’Neill, Katie Brock and Kailey Chappell. They have been our anchor. Each has faced some challenging stretches this first half where things weren’t unfolding the way they pictured them. But it’s their response to that struggle that is a resounding example of the word ‘maturity’ in an athletes world.
With two contests until we break for exams and the holiday this team has come many miles together. Both BC and Harvard will put us to the test. They are both exceptionally quick and play with purpose. Against opponents of this caliber we have learned that a flat period can spell disaster. We have learned a number of important lessons over the past two months. I really love coaching this group and they are growing into a formidable opponent. We harbor no illusions of superiority versus teams of this caliber… We understand who we are… We have faced the best and have learned what we must do if we want to succeed.
I believe this team can cross a threshold this season. We’ll need buy in from everyone to do so. The challenge remains: can we evolve into a group that is motivated internally. Playing up or down to the score isn’t going to get us where we want to go. This team has demonstrated it’s resolve when they collectively focus on the cause. It remains to be seen if we can sustain that commitment over the remaining two games.