For 3, there's only one title path - perfection

Basketball

March 12, 2009|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

For most teams, an undefeated championship season is only a dream - a level of perfection that is unattainable.

For a few, including the Lake Clifton boys, River Hill girls and Fallston girls headed into the state high school basketball tournaments that begin today, it's a dream that could come true.

No. 1 Lake Clifton, No. 6 River Hill and No. 11 Fallston - all 26-0 - have proved they can win in many situations, but trying to finish unbeaten can put a lot of pressure on a team. Perfection is a lot to live up to.

Lake Clifton coach Herman Harried, River Hill's Teresa Waters and Fallston's Mike McTeague don't want their teams to dwell on that. The hype is all over school, but they keep it off the court. They just don't talk about it, and their players don't bring it up.

"If you focus on it, it can be overwhelming," said Waters, who has taken two previous unbeaten Hawks teams to states, winning once and losing once.

"We try not to give it any attention, because I want them to stay grounded. I don't want them ever to think, 'We're here now and this is a cakewalk.' I don't want them ever to underestimate any opponent. I want them to still have a sense of hunger, intensity and focus, focus, focus."

At Lake Clifton practices, there's no mention of the record, either.

"It's not a strategy," Harried said. "It's just something I don't want to discuss. I don't want to have the kids discuss it, because numbers don't win games and records don't win games."

Rob Kehoe, a performance coach who has worked with the men's soccer teams at Maryland, Loyola and UMBC, said he advises coaches to talk to their teams about being undefeated, but he said not talking about it can work, too, as long as it's not for superstitious reasons.

"It depends on the reason they're not talking about it," Kehoe said. "Some don't want to talk about it because they don't want the focus to be on 'undefeated' and they want to focus the attention on simply 'play the game' - prepare for the game and play the game according to the approach that we've built throughout a season - and, therefore, this is a cliche but it's also true, it's just another game. In that sense, I think it's a healthy approach that coaches take."

That's the approach Harried, Waters and McTeague have adopted.

In 2002, Douglass boys coach Rodney Coffield took the opposite approach as his Ducks worked toward their 28-0 state title season.

"I talked about it quite often, but the kids were really loosey-goosey about it, because they had this little air about them. I don't know if it was an air of confidence or arrogance that we can't be beat. ... When you're 26-0 [going into the state tournament], you think you can beat the world," Coffield said.

The players have to be confident in their game, so they can keep to the plan that has gotten them this far. If the pressure makes them alter their game, they can be in trouble.

"What you can find yourself doing is playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win," Coffield said. "Your strategy kind of changes a little bit if you don't have a handle on it and try to make the kids know it's no different from any other game you've played from Dec. 5."

Mount Hebron girls coach Scott Robinson, whose Vikings were one of three teams to go unbeaten and win a state basketball title last season, said with all the hype swirling around an undefeated team, it is the coach's responsibility to keep it off the court.

"I think, as a coach, you've got to do everything you can to take the pressure off the players," he said. "I don't think I ever mentioned they were undefeated. All we talked about was that the total focus was on the next opponent. If you talk about the streak, you're putting pressure on them."

One of the reasons Kehoe said coaches don't want to talk about it is that they don't want to mention the possibility of losing. He puts that on the table.

"Just talking about the facts relating to what the potential outcomes mean, we deal with that," Kehoe said, "and then now let's concentrate on what's going to help us have the highest quality performance."

Still, as Fallston's McTeague said, "They have so far to fall."

So the coaches and players won't talk about losing, unless they have to after states, in much the same way they won't talk about going undefeated until there are no more games to play.

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