Then there’s the fatigue, physical and mental, that’s the byproduct of four intense months of a NASCAR-fast school year.
Need one more thing to do before easing your foot off the gas pedal and cruising into the two-week vacation?
How about lacing up your Chucks (or some colorful, modern-day, high-tech version) and testing your basketball mettle against the best competition in Central Virginia in the Times-Dispatch Invitational Tournament?
That was the challenge offered the Collegiate girls and boys basketball teams this year. That was the challenge they readily accepted.
The record shows that each team won one of its three games in the 25th renewal of the prestigious event held December 20-23. The girls squad finished fourth in its eight-team bracket. The boys, the defending champion, placed sixth in theirs.
A closer check shows that five of the Cougars’ combined six opponents were ranked in the Times-Dispatch Top 10.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, the adage goes.
“You get better playing good competition,” said Rives Fleming, head varsity girls hoops coach since 1997. “This tournament has done a lot for basketball in the area. It’s an honor just to be invited. We’ve got girls who play at this level year-round. They love to compete. We improve no matter what. It’s hard when you lose, but it forces you to learn and get better. We’re coming together as a team.”
In the first round, the Fleming’s crew, playing at home, upended No. 9 Patrick Henry 56-37. The following day in the semifinal at Hopewell High, the Cougars ran afoul of No. 2 Highland Springs’s withering full court pressure and fell 64-24. Two days later in the third-place game at Hanover High, they fell behind No. 5 Trinity 9-0, battled gamely back, and held a tenuous fourth-quarter lead before the Titans closed with a 10-3 run to claim a 48-44 victory.
“We started out strong (against Patrick Henry),” said senior captain Abby Freeman. “We brought a lot of energy. Our home court. It was our time to shine. The last two games, we played better teams. The press got us a little bit. You reflect on what happened. In the end you have to use (the experience) as a time to learn.
“Now, we have to work on ball handling, quick passes, and getting up the court. And defense. Getting the defensive rebound and pushing the pace. We’re running in practice. We know we’re in shape. We need to play four quarters together.”
Coach Del Harris’s sophomore-laden boys squad dropped its opener 68-56 to No. 6 Monacan at home, then defeated Armstrong 57-51 the next afternoon in the consolation round. Two days later against No. 5 Hopewell, the Cougars used a 12-0 third-quarter run to cut a quickly expanding 41-28 deficit to 41-40 entering the fourth before falling 62-52.
“We just tried to stay the course,” Harris said. “We couldn’t erase a 13-point deficit with just one shot. We’re a base-hitting team. We’re not trying to swing for the fences every play. We’re still a work in progress. When we play together, we’re pretty good. We’ll keep learning and growing.”
The TDIT is a plum assignment for the Cougars.
Problem is, the opening round comes the night of the final day of exams. The pre-exam weeks include holiday programs (for which there is much preparation) as well as end-of-semester academic demands. Time management, ability to compartmentalize, and a positive approach to the inherent challenges are essential.
“Going from exams to practice is a good break in the day,” said Chandler Eddleton, a senior captain (with Abby Freeman) and point guard. “We use practice as a time to prepare for games, but it’s also a break in the day, a stress reliever. When I have a basketball in my hands, I feel like I can let go of things. It gets me in a better mood.”
And the thought of lining up opposite undefeated Highland Springs, which won the tournament handily and whose smallest victory margin through eight games has been 26 points?
“Honestly,” she said, “it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We just get out there and play basketball.”
Mindfulness training has been part of the Collegiate experience for years. Changing gears from the academic to the athletic requires an understanding, acceptance, and practice of its principles.
“It’s a big week: five exams, three games,” said Mac Macdonald, a junior captain whose 33 points helped the Cougars secure their second-round victory.
“Once exams are over, they’re in the past, and you need to look ahead. You have to focus on what you’re doing in the moment and how you can find the balance between a peaceful mindset and being too hyped up.
“Our coaches talk about staying neutral. Not too high. Not too low. We know we have a good team. We can’t let points (such as 13 down against Hopewell) get us too low. We needed a (defensive) stop. Once we got it, get down the floor and get a good shot. Then back on defense. One possession at a time, and finish the possession.
“We really buy in: taking things as they come and playing as a team.”