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November 19, 2013

Preparation keyed OHS' state-title run

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The Daily Star

---- — CORTLAND -- I never much cared for Andre Agassi.

For those who don’t know, Agassi was among the world’s best tennis players throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. He earned even more fame early in his career with an ad campaign for a camera company. The theme: “Image is everything.”

Now, anyone who’s seen my wardrobe (it’s not impressive), my car (even less impressive) or my desk (Sports Editor Dean Russin says Jimmy Hoffa’s body might be at the bottom of it) understands that image is not at all important to me.

But sometimes you can learn things from people with whom you disagree.

I can’t remember if I read it or saw it during a TV interview, but years ago Agassi said, good things happen in life when you allow yourself to become tired. My opinion of Agassi didn’t change, but I recall thinking that’s one of the truest statements I’ve ever heard.

My children hear me say that a lot.

During the drive back from Cortland State on Sunday night, I thought about Agassi’s quote when trying to find a singular theme that would put a bow around the state soccer championship Oneonta High’s girls had won minutes earlier.

As a reporter, I don’t get to see the preparation. I see the finished the product.

But when I see the finished product, it makes me wonder about the preparation.

How many times has Taryn More taken corner kicks when no one was watching? How many times have Mariah Ruff or Madison Miller rehearsed cuts into the penalty box to get into position to finish a corner kick by More? How many times did Oneonta defenders work on pushing players to the sideline, or steering them toward their weak foot? How many times did they practice staying between their mark and the goal?

I wondered about those things because when the lights were the brightest, the Yellowjackets executed all of the above at a state championship-caliber level.

Three of the four goals Oneonta scored over the past weekend came on crosses from the right side by More. Two were corner kicks and third may as well have been a corner kick.

As one who never played soccer and still struggles to understand the sport despite covering it for decades, I’m amazed when I see someone score on header off a corner kick. To convert three times in two days against two of the best teams in the state is incredible.

“If every third kick, Taryn air-mailed one or dribbled one, then maybe they wouldn’t be as committed to making the run, but they’ve seen it work,” OHS coach Jerry Mackey said after Oneonta’s 2-1 win over Marcellus in Sunday’s Class B state final. “They know throw-ins are a weapon and they know corners are a weapon. We’re trying to play to our strength.”

Ruff scored the tying goals early in the second half in Saturday’s 2-1 semifinal win over Hornell and against Marcellus. She didn’t score on a header against Marcellus, but she did score on a rebound after Miller headed More’s corner off the cross bar. Against Hornell, Ruff hit a hard header inside the right post.

Miller had the header that set up Ruff’s goal against Marcellus and scored the winner against Hornell on a header.

I had excellent vantage points on all of them and the margin for error on all three was razor thin. If More’s services were inches higher or lower, the goals never happen. If Ruff’s runs aren’t timed perfectly, the goals don’t happen. If Miller’s jumps aren’t just the right height, celebrations are replaced by frustration.

But they all happened.

It speaks to what wasn’t seen, the work only the players know about that came on muggy days in August, or after driving an hour to attend a travel league practice in Binghamton or Albany, or pummeling balls at a makeshift goal in the backyard.

As for the defense, the 25 minutes the Yellowjackets played following Ruff’s goal against Marcellus is the reason they won the state title. Nothing was more important than those minutes Sunday.

Marcellus threw everything it had against OHS and came away with zilch. The Mustangs used their short-passing game, stringing together three- four- and five-pass combinations as they worked the ball near the Yellowjackets’ goal. They moved the ball to within 25 yards of the goal, but that’s where OHS’ defense stiffened. That’s where passing lanes shut down, that’s where penetration stopped and that’s why OHS won the state championship.

“They were fast with the ball, but we had to be aware of where they were,” Miller said.

While I’ve never played soccer, I have played defense. The defensive concepts in soccer translate into other sports.

Defense is hard. It’s much more difficult to react than it is to act. It takes a toll on legs. Oneonta played defense for basically 25 straight minutes Sunday. It’s not like basketball where a whistle can give you a 15-second blow. It’s constant.

 The late Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

 OHS stood up to it. That gave Miller the chance to score the winner in the final minute or so.

One has to wonder of if all those line sprints Mackey makes his team run after playing an 80-minute game made a difference. I remember talking to Ruff over the summer and she said there are days in the preseason when all the Yellowjackets do is run. No soccer, just running.

It makes me wonder if all that conditioning played a role this past weekend. Was it merely a coincidence that OHS was outscored, 2-0, in the first half against Hornell and Marcellus, before outscoring those opponents, 4-0, in the second half?

Was it the deciding factor? Probably not. Was it a factor? Probably.

Agassi’s right. Good things do happen when you allow yourself to become tired.

I’m guessing Oneonta High’s girls would agree.

Rob Centorani covers high school soccer for The Daily Star. Email him at rcentorani@thedailystar.com.