Every athlete has dealt with it at some point: The “optional” practice.
I put those in quotation marks because, as any athlete who has heard their coach or veteran teammate call for one can tell you, it’s not really optional. Theoretically, you can miss the practice and not be punished or reprimanded, but it’s in your best interest to go.
It’s like when your girlfriend or wife tells you with a spine-chilling calmness that it’s OK to go out with the guys. Theoretically, you should be in the clear to go and have a good time, but it’s probably in your best interest to follow her subtle hints and stay home.
While both may not seem like they have any relevance to one another, listening — be it to your coach, teammate, or significant other — will make your life easier. Coaches and teammates remember who was there when they didn’t “need” to be, and women will remember, well, everything.
I use these two examples because in any strong relationship, there must be exceptional chemistry.
That’s why when you walk into the Pearl River High School gymnasium over the winter and see 25 members of the softball program — from all-state veterans to modified hopefuls — practicing side-by-side, you’re not surprised to see the Pirates win Section 1 championships and make runs at a state title in the spring.
“We’re always looking to get together here, no matter what day it is,” said Pearl River shortstop Meagan Woods, who enjoyed a tremendous freshman season last year. “It just shows the commitment of the program, and it shows that a lot of girls really care about this program, and it shows that they really want to be here.”
“I think that helps us during the regular season, that we have such strong commitment from all around. Every single girl here, it just shows, and I think that helps us in the regular season,” Woods added.
Those weeks of practice and camaraderie help build a chemistry that takes most teams an entire season to build. Even if Pearl River’s varsity lineup or positions aren’t set in stone, the unity of the offseason workouts assures that whomever is picked or called on to fill a role can do so with both skill and confidence.
“We came here almost every week with a lot of the younger girls. Pretty much eighth-through-12th (grade) were here on Saturdays, working out. It was great how many people showed up. Obviously, they were optional workouts, since we weren’t (in) the season, and so many people were coming,” Pirates senior second baseman Caroline Alicandri said. “We tell them at the beginning of the season what a privilege it is to be playing for this program and how important it is to be working hard, and they just, right away, were off the bat working really hard.”
One thing that has always irked me as a beat reporter is hearing people complain about teams and making excuses for their success, in an unflattering way. Over four years on the girls basketball beat, I’ve heard enough about Ossining to hold a full-scale open forum.
When the Pride won their first of four straight Class AA state titles, it was, “Oh, it’s because they have Saniya Chong.”
When they won again the next year — with no seniors on the team — it was, “Oh, they got lucky.”
When they brought everyone back the following year, and handily won a third straight title, it was, “Oh, well, they were supposed to win.”
Did the addition of freshman phenom Aubrey Griffin — who grew up in Ossining, a fact most skeptics conveniently forget — help Ossining? Undoubtedly. It would be ignorant to think otherwise. But is she the sole reason for the team’s success? No, and it’s insulting to the rest of the team.
Over the course of a 30-game season, when players like Griffin and Seton Hall-bound senior Shadeen Samuels are getting the majority of the headlines, it’s easy to ignore players like Alexis Bernardo, Gabby Ferrao, Kelsey Quain, and Sam Cozzolino, just to name a few — players who will rarely fill up a stat sheet, but without whom the Pride would never have achieved the success they did this year.
It’s easy to overlook that three weeks after its season ends, Ossining is in AAU mode, where all of its players stay together. It’s also easy to overlook that many of Ossining’s players also play girls lacrosse under girls basketball head coach Dan Ricci.
The point being: Ossining doesn’t show up in November, win from December through March, then go on hiatus until the next winter. The players are constantly around each other, learning from and about one another.
“It’s great,” Cozzolino said of the Pride’s AAU season. “We get to know our weaknesses and our strengths together and we all work hard together.”
It’s one thing to look at a box score and draw a conclusion. It’s an entirely different beast to watch a team — a great team, like Pearl River softball or Ossining girls basketball — in action and see how every single member contributes to the team’s success over the year.
Maybe it’s Ferrao taking a charge or getting a big put-back in her only basket of the game, or maybe it’s Jill Beckerle going 9-1 after stepping into the starting pitcher’s role when the team’s ace goes down.
It’s often said that those who fail to plan have planned to fail. Not only are great teams planning for the upcoming season; they’re often doing it months before everyone else.