Playing from the front of the pack

reprinted with permission for the Roswell Daily Record

Posted on 25 November 2011 .

Close your eyes and think back to your childhood.

Picture you and your friends playing dodgeball or king of the hill. What was the strategy in those games? The odds are that you tried to get the best player out in dodgeball and attempted to knock the biggest kid off his perch atop the hill.

Regardless of when your childhood was, when you were in a competitive situation the goal was to be No. 1 and whoever held the proverbial crown got everyone’s best shot.

 

Last March the Goddard boys basketball team entered the NMAA 4A state tournament with the No. 8 seed and advanced to The Pit after surviving three potential game-winning shots by No. 9 Grants in a 64-63 win. Once at The Pit, the Rockets exploded onto the scene with blowout wins over top-seeded Gallup (72-54) and fourth-seeded Piedra Vista (73-46) and held a 5-point lead with 1:41 left in the state title game over second-seeded Espanola Valley. Even though Goddard ended up losing the title 55-52, the Rockets announced themselves as the front-runners to win the 4A crown in 2011-12.

With a majority of its team returning this season, the Rockets will no longer sneak up on teams and, as anyone who has played with a target on their backs can attest, being the favorite is an entirely different ballgame.

Goddard football coach Sam Jernigan, who knows a thing or two about having a team that is heavily favored to win a title entering a season, said that having the target on your back means every team gives you its best shot.

“I don’t know what maybe other people do, but we have recognized for a while that we have that target on our back,” he said. “People are trying to shoot you with a high-powered rifle, arrow, or whatever and all that really means is that it is a sensitive spot. It hurts when it hits. Every team prepares harder for you and plays harder against you.

“Everybody talks about if they are the team that can upset you. We’d just as soon not have that target to be honest with you, but you don’t always get to put it there yourself.”

Jernigan added that the first few times a team has that target on its back is the toughest.

“Honestly, the first few times you have the target on your back it is probably harder to deal with,” he said. “If you get acclimated to it, it is really just an everyday thing. Having been there the first time you are ranked No. 1, I think it takes a lot more focus to keep everyone’s ego under control.”

Roswell boys basketball coach Britt Cooper, who coached the Coyotes to back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10, knows all about the challenges awaiting Goddard this season.

“I think everyone puts a target on you,” Cooper said about being the favorite to win state. “If you are labeled the No. 1 team, you are going to get the best shot from everyone. I know that we got everyone’s best game, whether they could handle it or not. It is a little easier to sneak up on somebody.”

Cooper said that the pressure may be a little bit different for the Rockets than it was on his team because the Coyotes entered the season as the defending state champions, while the Rockets were the state runners-up.

“There could possibly be pressure on (them) because they didn’t win it,” he said. “That is a double-edged sword. Goddard could be really hungry to get to that next step (of being champions) or the pressure of it all will get to them. They aren’t the defending state champs, but there is pressure to do well. “

When a team takes on the “Cinderella” roll, it is often driven by a hunger to prove to people that they belong. Once they prove they belong, the challenge for the players is to maintain that hunger and drive to succeed and not rest on past accomplishments.

NMMI coach Randy Montoya said both players and coaches have responsibility to make sure overconfidence doesn’t hinder a team.

“You know a key is to just make sure that the team doesn’t get overconfident,” said NMMI football coach Randy Montoya. “With a team that has almost everyone coming back, it is just one of those things that, as a coaching staff, you make sure you don’t let the kids take anything for granted. It is also very important to have senior leadership.”

Getting every team’s best shot each week can either wear a team out or prepare it for the playoffs and Cooper said that, for his team, it was the latter.

“For us, I think (getting every team’s best shot) made us better,” he said. “We play a tough schedule and I think it made us better. I don’t think it drains them. I think it does help because it prepares them for the state tournament.”

Jernigan said that getting the best shot from each team can wear on a team.

“It wears on you and each week you are going to see a different strategy,” he said. “Some coaches are going to do the all- out and leave no stone unturned and some kids get more fired up. It can be hard to keep your focus on it. Basketball is a completely different sport, but people are always aware when they are playing somebody that is good. Either you pick up your level of play (as a team) or your teams fall apart.”

With the pressure of being the favorite to win a state title, it can be easy for a coach to focus solely on winning and not enjoy the ride, something both Montoya and Cooper said you have to do.

“Everyone is different and (Goddard coach Kevin) Jones has his style,” Cooper said. “I am sure that he has everything in his mind the way he wants it. It is hard to give advice when teams are different, but I would tell him to enjoy the ride, because the thing about it is, those teams come around only every now and again.”

“My belief is to try and treat every year the same, whether we are the same team or not,” Montoya said. “It is just another year and you have to keep working hard. I would say (as a coach) to enjoy the kids and being around them. Do business like every other year and let the chips fall as they may. Sometimes you don’t have a say in how it happens.”

l.foster@rdrnews.com

Posted in Colt Football


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