Pregame with the No. 3 team in the nation

“Feet, feet, feet…” the words ring through the crisp winter air as we link arms and go around the circle, making sure our cleats are touching one another, tightly linked. My back is cold in the chilly wind, but my face is warm, facing in toward my teammates.

We all lean forward as one, Malanna Wheat ’14 in the center of the circle because she was assigned to provide “inspiration” today by co-cap­tain Hannah Lichtenstein ’13.

She chooses a clip montage from “Friday Night Lights” and reminds us of the words of the show’s Coach Eric Taylor: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts.” A ripple through the circle, then we break for the warm-up.

Warm-up is curiously si­lent, each girl pursuing her own ritual of preparation. For me, this means repeating my lucky number four in the taps of the ball on my knees, feet and head.

For Malanna, it is six. We break into pairs and knock headers back and forth. The defense splits off while the of­fensive players go to shoot on goal.

We defenders lob long balls across the field to one anoth­er, chasing each other’s stray kicks and trying to find our rhythms alone and together.

Captains are called for the coin toss and we jog to the side of the field. After the toss, we circle around co-captains Emily Persky ’13 and Lichtenstein and again make sure our cleats are touching. All talking stops.

Christine Sasaki ’13 begins: “Make your first tackle your hardest, because first impres­sions last a lifetime.” Emily and Hannah start with Chloe Castaneda ’15, sweeping their hands from player to player, touching each of us for good luck – a reminder of a ritual from seasons past.

We lock arms, Hannah starts a beat box, and Emily begins the chant: “this is our field and we dominate because this is our field.”

We repeat it over and over, increasing in volume until we culminate with “H-W on three” and break for the field.

Taking our positions in the back line, we four defenders finish our own ritual: a high jumping double-hand clap between me and Malanna, a knuckle rub to Tiffany Guer­rera ’15’s head, and a high-five to Brianna Gazmarian ’15. We’re ready for the game. Rit­uals are not new but instead have been carried from past seasons.

Something new this season is our approach to the game plan.

In previous years, Coach Richard Simms would bring a detailed game plan with posi­tions and clear expectations for each player based on the specific team we were facing and the coaching strategy for that particular match.

After trying this tactic for a few games, it was apparent we were not playing to our po­tential.

Richard pivoted as a coach and decided to try a new ap­proach based on the chemis­try and instinct of our young team.

One of Richard’s best strengths as a coach is that he realizes what we players need and adapts his plans and his systems to suit his specific team.

He took away the game plan and told us not to focus too specifically on our individ­ual jobs in a game.

Instead, he found ways to work on bonding us as a team, building our inspiration and ritual, and improving our group communication.

He helped us understand that our winning plan was to back up our teammates, use our instincts and play with flu­idity. This new approach lifted the team immediately.

We watched our game come together as the team played as one, each of us rais­ing the others’ games with ac­tions and words.

Our rhythm is played to­gether, like a great orchestra or band, reaching new heights at the Mater Dei tournament where we emerged the cham­pions and won the No. 1 rank­ing in Southern California.

Now our season has begun, and we feel the best may still be ahead of us.

From the back line, we four defenders exchange glances and give a shout of encourage­ment to the forwards as they kick off.

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