Then, out of nowhere…Boom! Hello! Christchurch 52, Cougars 48. That was this past Tuesday. At home, no less, three weeks after Coach Del Harris’s squad dispatched the Seahorses 54-36.
“The loss to Christchurch humbled us,” said Harris, who’s in his second season at Collegiate. “The loss brought us back down to reality.”
A bit of background. The Cougars bolted to a 13-0 start before running afoul of Trinity Episcopal, the defending VISAA champion and No. 1 in both the Richmond Times-Dispatch Top 10 and the Prep League standings this winter. They rebounded four days later with a 55-44 victory at Steward in a game that they led 35-19 at the half only to see the Spartans cut their deficit to 40-35 after three quarters.
Two days later, they triumphed 49-47 at Woodberry Forest, a venue where wins never come easily for visiting squads. The next night, they hung a 53-34 defeat on St. Anne’s-Belfield before an enthusiastic home crowd.
This week, the T-D has them ranked No. 7 in Central Virginia. They're second behind Trinity in the Prep League and No. 4 in Division I in the VISAA poll.
Then Christchurch, 6-6 and unranked in VISAA Division II, came to town. Easy pickings. Right?
After a quarter, the Seahorses led the defensive-minded Cougars 19-16. Collegiate rallied to take a 26-23 lead into the break, but the visitors used a 16-8 third quarter to enter the fourth up 39-34. Late in the game, Harris’s squad cut an eight-point deficit to one, but turnovers and missed opportunities spelled doom.
“We’re competitors,” Harris said. “We want to win every game. We’re 16-2. We have a target on our back. In a lot of ways, this was an eye-opening loss for us. It’s a chance to pull together and get better.”
Harris and his staff emphasize rhythm in their team’s game preparation. In the two losses, he felt that the rhythm just wasn’t there.
“We’re a base hitting team,” he said using a favorite baseball analogy. “We hold our bat the same way, put on our uniform the same way, put our hat on the same way. That’s how we are. At halftime of the JV game, we do warmup shooting. As minor and trivial as that may seem, we didn’t do that at Trinity. That’s fine. Their rules. Nobody’s allowed to shoot on the court. That threw us off a little bit.
“Tuesday, we didn’t have everybody ready to shoot. For some reason, we just weren’t in a rhythm. We have everything down to our pre-game speech, when we stretch, how we put on our warmup top, the way we warm up, how we do halftime. Everything is a rhythm. Our rhythm is comfortable. Sometimes, when that rhythm is off – like anybody going through a normal work day – you can be out of kilter.”
How do you bounce back from a disappointing loss? I asked him.
“It’s a term that Coach (Brian) Justice shared with us: Group Concentration,” he said. “When everybody is focused and locked in, we’re a pretty good team. During our 13-game win streak, Group Concentration was really, really together. Everything was flowing. You look in guys’ eyes. They were playing for each other.
"Tuesday night, we were kind of on cruise control, going through the motions. I saw a young man for Christchurch in the third quarter dive on the floor for a loose ball, and he made a 50-50 play, and I said, ‘Wow! We’re in trouble.’ Even in the Trinity loss and in our wins, we’ve been the first to win the 50-50 plays. That’s concentration.”
Yeah, I said, but how do you get their hearts and minds in the right place? After all, you play at St. Christopher’s Friday night.
“People see me on the sideline,” he said. “I’m a big-time motivator. I just try to find ways to push their buttons, then tell them that we’re OK and we’ll be fine. We had a good team meeting (after the Christchurch game). Practices have been more competitive. Our leadership has gotten better. We talked about accountability, getting back to basics, playing for each other.”
What, other than actually winning, will make the trip over to St. Christopher’s successful? I asked.
“Three things: Get better. Stay together. Have fun,” he answered. “To get better, we need to have Group Concentration and play with intensity and passion. Our motto is #OWN IT. We own being bad that night. All credit goes to Christchurch. We’re on to the next one.”