Monday, September 14, 2009

Yeah, that's happening.

The Wisconsin ladies are going to win so many games this year; but will they win the last one? That is the big question heading into the 2010 season.

In some regard, Belladonna is the new girl on the block. Since the 2004 season, Wisconsin held serious Nationals aspirations and loads of talented players to match. But Bella hadn't quite turned the page and faced a tough Regionals tournament -- as a Miranda Roth Carleton and a Saucy Nancy Iowa team took both bids in the Central. Wisconsin's lack of total commitment to the season added to their late season demise, despite strong players in Jill Hutchinson, Corrine Wade, Dana Gerrits, and Anna Schott.

Bella restocked the roster in 2005 and allowed former Hodag Captain Matt Ley to try coaching. Wisconsin was searching for an edge and wanted any added help to qualify for the big dance. The task was met with mixed results and imploded into a hot mess as Carleton and Iowa once again edged out Wisconsin come Regionals. One thing was for sure, Wisconsin had big time star power in dominators like Holly Gruenke, Chelsea Witte, Betsy Calkins, Anne Bosscher, and Courtney Kiesow -- all new faces in 2005. The disappointment was clear and the team responded positively in 2006, playing the club season with 10 dedicated Bella returners. The core veterans had their goals on lock down and increased their conditioning, preparing to ride the legs of 12 studs all season.

Finally to the point, the 2006 Belladonna team was a dominant force in every aspect of the word. Wisconsin was something like 42-3 going in the final weekend of the season, having tied or beaten the Hodags finish at every tournament both teams attended. It was a rivalry, as alumni joked that Belladonna would finish better than the Hodags that season. It wasn't a laughing matter as far as the boys were concerned. Holly Gruenke and Dana Gerrits captained well, guiding Belladonna as they crushed Carleton in finals of Regionals 13-8, taking the #4 seed into Nationals. It was in Columbus, Ohio that Bella finally outlasted their quarterfinals curse, barely. In pool play, UC-Davis had built a 13-8 advantage, but forgot how to score in the closing moments, as Belladonna stormed back to win 14-13. It was the golden year -- nothing could go wrong. Wisconsin faced Florida in quarters in an exciting game. Bella struck last on the hard cap 16-14, as Schott ripped a blade flick to Courtney on the break side for the win, shortly after Holly Gruenke went down with a high ankle sprain. Wisconsin had pushed into semifinals and met a high-flying Stanford team. Bella was effectively crushed 15-5, and that was the closest they've been to finals since.

The 2007 season was captained by Holly and Courtney and was destined for glory. With high hopes, solid performances, and practically a phenomenal season - Belladonna was once again very good with the likes of Georgia, Schott, Claire Mowbray, Laura Bitterman, Frances Tsukano, Shira Klane, and Megan Vingers. The season was going to plan as Bella rocked Carleton in Regional finals 14-5 in a windy mess. Wisconsin rolled into Nationals with the #2 seed, in perfect position.

However, after two easy wins in pool play; Bella met a hot UBC team, in which the momentum swings were too much too overcome, losing late 15-13. That meant a pre-quarters game against San Diego and worse yet, a match-up with #1 seeded UCLA in quarters. Wisconsin lost in a close-tough battle, something 14-12, but were obviously crushed internally! One small miscue of focus in a single game was the eventual downfall of their season.

The 2008 team was re-loaded with young talent and hungry for a title. I watched the indoor running practices, saw girls lifting in the weight room, and soon recognized their desire to win. Bella was mimicking the Hodags efforts and in several cases, surpassing their efforts over the winter months. On several occasions I turned to Bucket and said, "They want it bad." His jerk-grin kidding smile replied, "Too bad they won't get it." I didn't have a response for that..
Courtney Kiesow and Georgia Bosscher captained as Emelie McKain and Jenny Gaynor joined the team. Wisconsin won the Central for a third straight year and was awarded the 5th seed at Nationals. Bella escaped a nail-biter against Texas before taking in a huge loss to Washington in pool play! That outcome left most of Belladonna scratching their heads, wishful thoughts of full field hucks and the over-the-top fun intensity Washington exhibited. Madison was blindsided and had to overcome a tough Oregon in pre-quarters 15-12, just to play Santa Barbara in quarterfinals -- losing again 15-12. There was no good explanation. How had everything unraveled again, after such a strong regular season? Why couldn't Belladonna get over the hump?

Finally, 2009 arrived and the leadership core of the team expanded, as a plethora of veteran players wanted input. It was still Courtney and Georgia captaining, but McKain and Shira were also co-captains as Holly coached and called lines. However, the leadership was hardly a concern as the Belladonna roster was dirty-girl after dominator; the skill level nearly identical to the 2006 squad as Sandy Jorgenson, Rebecca Enders, Becca Ludford, and Amber Sinicrope joined the team. The real story of 2009 was that the full force of Georgia Bosscher and Amber Sinicrope would be felt by their opponents and that was no joke. It's like having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the floor as the same time -- two game-changing dominant players! Moreover, Wisconsin did just about everything right last season, winning Regionals and gaining the #3 seed at Nationals, using the same principles of hard work and a tight-knit team as 2006. Belladonna held seed at Nationals in pool play, winning their games decisively and looking very fast and very scary. Madison took their bye into quarterfinals against Stanford, with their eyes looking forward to semifinals, as they played well to start. Bella was taking it to Stanford initially up 3-1, before 4-4, but taking it to half 8-6. Just after half, the Hodags left to warm-up for their game, which was also against Stanford in quarterfinals. I wasn't able to see the second half, but here was the gist of the story given to me as I absorbed it 4 months ago.

"On a similar note, Belladonna finished their season with clear disappointment.. I watched the first half and saw Belladonna's superior speed and veteran presence in Bosscher and Brute Squad. Belladonna looked dominant, but Stanford was calling everything. The last sequence I saw, Stanford threw a 20 yard backhand into the end zone landing 7 yards OB out the side. During the throw the cutter tangled feet with the Belladonna defender, nearly 6 yards from the end zone line. The foul is called as both players trip, but the throw, which was laser-ed forward, out-of-bounds and clearly uncatchable. Somehow, the call goes to the Observer, who inexplicably rules foul and the disc on the line. That was shady. At best it was a feet tangle; foul - contest. But on this specific play, the disc was clearly way OB and there would be no play on the disc whatsoever. Neither call was within 10 yards of where the disc landed! Hector commented that he saw 2 foul calls upheld that he thought were without a doubt - not a foul. He was so sure - he encouraged the call to go to the observer. The statistician noted that Stanford made a possession saving call on 13 of their 15 goals. When the game finished, the observer who had been ruling against Belladonna all game went over, hugged and kissed the Stanford coach and then began hugging and chatting with Stanford players. If that was my final season - I would want some answers."

That was the explanation to Bella's frustration as they lost 13-15. Down the stretch, it was their best players not being able to execute on critical plays when it mattered the most. Excuses were made, but at the most important moment of the season, they failed to execute. It was shocking to me when they lost. Wisconsin had done everything to prepare, believing they had the talent and the roster to succeed. Belladonna had now been exceedingly close, again. Painfully close, but turning the corner at Nationals is never an easy task.

It is now Fall 2009 and it's safe to say that Bella is crazy motivated and pretty disappointed with last season's finish. They considered themselves a semifinalist at worst and once again fell in quarterfinals, in a heartbreaking loss.

The questions were too much. Bella needed a different answer. It was actually at Nationals that (Anna) Schottie told me I should coach Belladonna next season. I actually laughed at the idea, the first I had heard of it, and was instantly like, no way. It was a ludicrous idea. The Hodags owned Brand Muffin.

But suddenly, the rumor on the street was Muffin coaching the women. It began as wishful thinking, but was soon materializing into full contact negotiations. The asking price for a Love Muffy is no fair bargain. Muffin's rights would only be relinquished from the Hodags for 6 team picks and 3 player evaluations to be named in the future. It didn't take long to realize what was happening. It was a coup, as Muffin was being asked and pressured to coach on a daily basis. Belladonna now wanted it badly enough to swallow their pride and ask for help.

I took about a full month considering it. What was Belladonna lacking? The fact of the matter remained that in 2008, Wisconsin has the roster to do it. They had underachieved their talent despite working extremely hard throughout the season. Wisconsin had developed their young players and seen the Hodags success first hand -- with eager eyes from just a field space away usually. Belladonna had trained harder than the Hodags in 2008 and were a self-sustaining tight-knit community of support -- completely focused on Nationals.

Bella's downfall seemed to be that the weave of knowledge was passed mainly from player to player - captains to successors -- with little outside perspective. Different ideas were scarce and mistakes were repeated. Enter Muffin: two-time National Champion, three time finalist.
With a presence stronger than a 600 pound gorilla, Muffin brings a completely different perspective to the women's game and an attitude to match.

Muffin brings intangibles that are difficult to define on paper, mostly an iron will and a strong work ethic. I expect this season to be the most difficult and perhaps the most rewarding. I will most likely ask more of these girls than they even know their capable of. I will ask for more time per week than an NCAA sub-committee would approve. Ultimate will become another class - complete with study packets, homework assignments, and walk-through visualization rehearsals. Beyond that, intensity and confidence will radiate from Belladonna this year. Wisconsin will also hold a mental edge scarcely seen in the women's game as Malecek is always thinking, plotting, and setting up. It is a recognized gamble for both parties as Muffin has regularly been cited for emotional outbursts at Hodag practice. For Belladonna, feelings might get hurt, egos shattered, and old traditions dismantled -- only for the whole to be reassembled -- more efficient and deadly than ever.

With dawning comprehension as the rumor spread it was questioned how George and Bourtney could so willing give up control to Muffin? How many practices until 2 girls cry? As it turns out, it took the full binding power of a G-5 Summit to allow Muffy absolute veto power. So finally, here is the confirmation to the rumors on the street -- mostly proliferating from Ted Tripoli's nightmares; Muffadonna is for real.

The best part is that Wisconsin will have ammo to spare in 2010, even after graduating Callahan Courtney (Nemesis). The 2009 All Region returners from Wisco include Georgia Bosscher (Fury), Emelie McKain, Laura Bitterman, and Frances Tsukano (Showdown); plus Rachael Westgate who won the Freshman of the Year in the Central. This is all without Eyleen Chou who captains Atropa and Amber Sinicrope, who punches faces with Brute Squad.

Now comes the real challenge; how to overcome the lip service and make measurable impacts on game. What am I bringing to the table? Obviously, Muffin will need to gain the trust of the players before they can take serious critique and input about strategy. Women tend to take things more personally and will want more of an investment of a whole person. This will involve a better/nicer communication style and a different method to the madness. What's the best way to deal with an intense dictator? Hopefully co-coach Courtney can mediate the differences in opinion.

And then we have the hard questions like: Who will get the best nicknames? Who will be made fun of the most?  How often will the disc be spiked?  How many times will I have to deal with Hodag/Bella drama? I expect this season to be very fun as well as a learning experience as it will be crazy jumping straight into a girl's team dynamic. Besides, if Ben Wiggins can coach, then it must be easy ;p
So Is Belladonna Taking Home the Title in 2010?
That's my bet.