Friday, November 26, 2010

Fall Sports Review, Girl Child Division

Being an eighth grader with very high academic achievement did not keep Kelly from adding on to her schedule with two sports simultaneously. Building on the enjoyment she has found with volleyball, Kelly played on her school's eighth grade "B" team. The tryout was immediately after Labor Day and she was too rusty to show her full capabilities, so she did not make the "A" team, but the blessing in disguise is she was always on the court.

The team was a mixed bunch of good players and novices. They did not receive much in the way of coaching, but they practiced three days a week (including a pre-dawn Monday practice), and played a lot of games against other schools in the area. There is something qualitatively different about playing for your school, and I think they enjoyed it. They won several matches to end with a record somewhere around .500. They were swept out of the season-ending league finals tournament, but they played with spirit, had fun and might have learned a little volleyball along the way. Kelly played well, improving all parts of her game, and developed a dangerous serve that saved the team many times.

Even though she does not play on a club volleyball team like many of her peers (especially the players on the "A" team), she is looking forward to continuing her volleyball career in high school. At a minimum, we expect that she will be able to make the freshman team. With regular practices and good coaching, maybe she will be able to continue on beyond that level. If nothing else, she will always have a sporting skill she can enjoy on beach trips, at picnics and with her kids for the rest of her life.

One sporting career that may be coming to a close is soccer. Soccer was our first team sports venture as a family. It was the only point of reference I had for youth sports, so the many, many afternoons I spent watching Kelly practice, or the collective hours we spent after practice kicking the ball to each other, reverberated across years for me. Soccer also gave Kelly a sense of identity and pride when she really needed it at times during elementary school, when the vicious society of girls bared its sharpened fingernails from time to time. I have been dreading this year, knowing it would represent the closing of a major chapter in her life, and my life as well.

Kelly's team, unfortunately, had an overabundance of seventh graders and just didn't quite have the skill to keep up with the other teams in the league. They did manage a win against an Orinda team, a game in which Kelly scored twice, and forged a draw with an archrival Moraga team that was as thrilling as a win. For her part, Kelly had a good year, scoring most of the team's goals and putting in lot of time as goalkeeper as well. She hated playing goalie, but she had good instincts for closing down opposing breakaways (which she faced too often), and the coach needed her back there as much as he needed her offensive skills. To his credit, the coach also put his own daughter, the best player on the team, in goal as well. Because of volleyball, Kelly missed most of the practices, as did several of her teammates, which probably contributed to the poor showing on Saturdays. Overall, the girls played good soccer, better than their record indicated, and they had a good time together.

The bonus to the season was that Kelly was selected to play on the All-Star team for the second year in a row. The game was again played on the football field at the local high school. Kelly played well, offering several dangerous crosses to her fellow strikers, although none turned into goals. Also for the second year in a row, our Moraga girls beat the team from neighboring Lafayette. That allowed all of our eight graders to finish their soccer careers on the highest note.

Kelly rediscovered her love of the game of soccer by the end of the season, and was reluctant to let it go. As with volleyball, Kelly never played soccer with the local club team, which will probably keep her off the high school roster. Still, she is thinking about trying out for the high school team next year. Every time I surprise my kids with my few stories of high school track, I think about all the stories Kelly will be able to tell, amazing her own kids with tales of her All-Star days and afternoons spent in gyms and on fields.

Kelly's achievements in the sports arena are praiseworthy, but it is the self-confidence that sports have brought her that make me glad we gave these opportunities to her. Selfishly, the hours Kelly and I have spent together working on her skills, when she willingly sought out and soaked up my guidance, will be what I will miss the most. It's what I miss already.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fall Sports Review, Boy Child Division

There is no time of year more hectic that the fall. Forget spring and its lazy rhythms of winding down of the efforts of a school year and the carefree summer to come -- autumn has become the foremost season of renewal and growth. School resumes and proceeds with as much focus as it will ever have. Church and community groups restart programs with fervor. And youth sports dominate the landscape, at least in our town.

Of the many sports available to him (including swimming, lacrosse and flag football), Michael played soccer and fall baseball. Playing up in a new age division, Michael's team played on a dramatically larger field with full-sized goals. Nine-year-old boys are growing fast, but they still look very small when they are dispersed on a soccer pitch usually used by junior high students. Michael's "Brazil" had a good season, coming in third (one of their losses was to a good team they had beaten in an early season game that did not count in the standings). The coaches were great, somehow convincing the rambunctious group of boys to sit still for several minutes of chalk talk at every practice.

Unfortunately, I saw fewer than half of his games because they usually overlapped with Kelly's games, which took place a couple of miles away. They games I did see I usually observed at a run, since I somehow became the go-to guy as a side judge. I would spend the game sprinting up and down the sideline with a small flag, indicating which team would take throw-ins while also keeping an eye on offside positioning. I was happy to help, but it rarely allowed me the luxury of simply observing the game and cheering for the team. After all, I had critical throw-in judgments to make.

Michael's baseball season was less focused but perhaps more instructive. October was a tough month; because of his own outside commitments or rain, we was not able to play in any of the games, returning for the last game at the beginning of November. A relaxed attitude can sometimes be a welcome break from the relatively intense focus of the regular spring baseball season, but there comes a point at which casual becomes apathetic. The Saturday practices were rarely attended by the best players on the team, which meant that the younger players only played against their best peers in the games. That was not an ideal system for fostering skill development. Michael, like all of the players, needed experience facing kid pitchers, who, unlike the coaches, rarely throw strikes. Worse, the umpires call a very broad strike zone, so that balls that are barely hittable are often strikes anyway. Coming out of the coach-pitch system, the boys learned to lay off anything but a perfect pitch. As they enter the kid-pitch realm, they will have to learn to be less selective. Michael, who has a very well-developed eye for the strike zone, worked many walks and was reluctant to swing the bat. His biggest challenge in the spring will be to learn how to be aggressive at the plate while still retaining a sense of which pitches he should not hit. The fall ball season was not as exciting as the spring season was, and Michael was rarely put in a position to have much of an impact on the games, but the season was valuable for the insights into the new difficulties of batting. It will give us plenty to work on over the next couple of months.

The fall sports season flows seamlessly into winter. In the middle of the soccer and baseball seasons, Michael went through tryouts, first practices and a first game for his new basketball team (more on that later). At the end of the soccer season, his coaches also approached him to play in an indoor soccer league with a bunch of the fourth graders he played with this season. That season will overlap the end of basketball and the beginning of baseball.

We would be utterly lost without multiple sports going at the same time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At Last

Against the predictions of just about every "expert," the San Francisco Giants not only made it into the World Series, but won the title. For the first time in its 52-year tenure in San Francisco, the Giants franchise brought the trophy home to the Bay Area.

The buzz around these parts was unlike anything this area has seen since the first Niners Super Bowl season in 1981-82. Even the success of that team, though, did not carry the deep resonance of the Giants' World Series win. A franchise that generates numerous Hall of Fame players, sets up an entire generation of loyal followers (from the 1960s) thanks to superior players and perennial second-place finishes, and tantalizes its fans with occasional but not frequent visits to the postseason develops and loyalty among its followers that is both broad and deep. The outpouring of joy was astonishing in its intensity and purity, and continues to reverberate more than a week after the clinching game. Anyone who says that baseball has been supplanted by football as the nation's pastime has not experienced the intense concentration and outpouring of joy of a World Series championship.

The fan bases in Boston and Chicago receive a lot of attention for the perceived "curses" on their baseball franchises as they went decades without World Series titles. The media never tire of telling stories of the fans' misery, and the fans never tire of serving up the stories. The Bay Area is different. The fact that the Giants franchise also endured a decades-long championship drought was seldom noticed or remarked upon, even by the team’s fans. Maybe it is a matter of an easygoing California vibe, but Giants fans never regarded the failure of the team to win championships as some kind of cosmic referendum on the team or its fans.

Speaking as a relatively long-term fan (more than 30 years at this point), it is, frankly, baffling to think of the Giants as the World Series champions at all. I am conditioned to expect the Giants to get very little attention nationally. Growing up in an era when the team was bad and the only national sports programs were This Week In Baseball and the George Michael Sports Machine, it was a huge thrill when the Giants would get so much as 20 seconds of airtime each week. They almost never appeared on NBC's game of the week or ABC's Monday Night Baseball, so the Giants felt like our little regional team. The got all the attention of a minor league team, and during most of my youth, played like one.

When they made their run to the World Series this year, it never failed to catch me up short to see the Giants discussed by the same talking heads that routinely spend most of their time (especially in October) talking about the Yankees or the Red Sox. My astonishment often turned to amusement when the national media folks got their facts wrong or tried to create a clumsy narrative (“they’re a bunch of cast-offs!”) to explain the team.

In the end, winning the World Series was a fantastic experience for the team and its fans. The parade through San Francisco was an unprecedented outpouring of civic pride. One of the attorneys in our office went into the city that afternoon; it took him an hour and a half to get across the Civic Center Plaza, so stuffed was it with orange and black clad, deliriously happy fans.

It will be impossible for next year to live up to the excitement the Giants gave us this year. In fact, it will almost certainly be disappointing since expectations for the team have changed so dramatically after the last few rebuilding years. We will have no cause to complain, however. After 52 years in San Francisco, and 56 years in franchise history, the Giants are the World Series champions.