Playoffs do strange things to good teams

Taking a look at post-season weirdness

November 10, 2011|BY DEWEY FOX

I don't think it's terribly profound of me to say that you see some strange things in post-season sports. Good teams that showed no signs of weakness during the regular season wilt under the pressure, while high-seeded squads that everyone wrote off before the tournament even began, boosted on the playoff vibes, suddenly have the juice to knock off state-championship hopefuls, defenses that didn't allow a goal the entire year suddenly break down, and offenses that steam rolled everything in their path run out of gas.

Though it wasn't the strangest game I'd ever covered, Tuesday's Class 3A field hockey state semifinal between North Harford and Westminster, which North Harford lost, 2-1, was a proper reminder of how post-season games can go in unexpected directions (unexpected to me, that is, I'm sure some people expected the result of that game, or were at least hoping for it). Yes, Westminster is the reigning 4A state champ, and has six state titles under its belt, but North Harford had just beaten another six-time state champ, Hereford, in the 3A North regional title game, and I thought the Hawks would come into Tuesday's state tournament game ready to send the Owls packing. I mean no disrespect to the Westminster players and coaches, but during the game's first half, I began to plan my Saturday around the 3A state final game at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., because the Hawks looked like the better team. Though they didn't find the Owls goal in the opening half, the Hawks controlled the pace of the game, kept pressure on the Westminster defense, and looked very strong defensively. It seemed to me only a matter of time before they scored, and then the floodgates would open.

I was wrong. In the second half Westminster scored first, North Harford tied it up 1-1, then the Owls found the game winner on a strange play, as two players went down in a heap in the North Harford penalty area, and a Westminster attacker quickly grabbed the ball and fired it past a stunned North Harford defense, into the Hawks goal. That's it, folks, game over, long bus ride home, no state finals, no championship trophy. The team I had pegged as the 3A champ had been knocked out with a fluke goal.

Alice Puckett, former Fallston field hockey head coach and winner of 11 state championships during her more than two decades at the helm of the Cougars, summed up post-season strangeness pretty well after her 11th state final victory in 2008, when the Cougars won the 3A title with a 4-3 victory over Atholton. To that point, the game marked the highest combined score ever seen in an MPSSAA state field hockey final (that record was broken last year, when Westminster beat Dulaney 5-4 in the 4A championship). I'll paraphrase Puckett, whose Cougars had only allowed only one goal in the previous 10 finals that they had won prior to the 2008 game:

"Nothing surprises me in the state tournament. In the past, we've been in every kind of direction, with the officiating, the way the game plays out, and just having bad luck. We lost a state final to Pocomoke, 1-0, where we out-shot them 25-2. Anything can happen, so I don't think I'm ever surprised in these games."

Paul Metzger, who was the head coach of the powerhouse Edgewood boys basketball team that captured five regional titles and one state championship during the 1970s, also had a nice summation of what you need to navigate through the post-season. Talking to me in March 2009 after Fallston became the first Harford County girls basketball team to capture a state title, he had this to say:

"Well, you have to have a really good team, just to have a shot. But, a lot of things have to fall into place during the tournament. The players have to be going as well as they can every game, the coaches have to be making the right choices, and you have to overcome whatever problems get thrown at you. Even a really good team can get a couple bad breaks, and then you're done."

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