Championship athletic programs are often built around adversity. How a team reacts to being challenged is a measuring stick to determine if it is capable of the endurance and mental fortitude needed to succeed over the course of a three-month season.
For the members of the Woodburn girls soccer team, this summer is the perfect litmus test to prepare them for defense of their 2019 4A state championship — whenever that will be.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulldogs have been meeting twice a week online for more than a month to train, socialize and re-establish the intangible bonds that were so important to bringing home the program's first state championship in November.
"I think at first it was pretty difficult for them, just because they're excited to come back for another year," head coach Andrea Whiteman said of the team's inability to meet in person when the Bulldogs began meeting via Zoom video chat in June.
"They want to win another championship," she said. "To have this kind of stop that and stand in the way of that. I think it's been frustrated for them, especially our seniors."
Woodburn had three players on last year's title team that will be going into their senior season this year — Jessica Baron, Yahaira Rodriguez and Alyssa Padilla . Rodriguez scored the game-winning goal against Marist in the championship, while Padilla captained a stalwart defense that included Baron and held opposing teams to just one goal in four playoff games last year. Waiting in the wings are eight incoming seniors who were members of the junior varsity program last year and eager to compete for a coveted roster spot for the varsity team this fall.
With no word yet from the OSAA that a fall athletic season is even happening, the Bulldogs are in a holding pattern waiting to see if their season will go the route of the canceled spring season. But Woodburn has no intention of sitting around until they get the thumbs up. In the absence of in-person practices, the Bulldogs are taking advantage of technology to train in other ways.
"The really nice part about it is that we've been able to shift our focus to work on things that we're not able to work on when we're on the field," Whiteman said.
A language arts teacher at the Wellness, Business & Sports School, Whiteman prompts her student athletes each week questions about their lives, encouraging the Bulldogs to open up to each other and take advantage of the twice-weekly meetings to build relationships and camaraderie from the relative safety of their living rooms.
"One of the things that we do is go around in a circle and say one thing they're proud of themselves for, or what is their favorite thing about themselves as a soccer player, just try to get them to be open and vulnerable with each other," Whiteman said. "Most of that comes from the teacher side of me. I think a lot of our success we've had in the last three years has come from that."
Great teams thrive on communication and a desire to sacrifice personal gains for the greater good of the surrounding teammates. Whiteman knows her athletes are more likely to make that extra pass, to fight for that loose ball, to get in the way of an opposing player if they deeply care for their teammates. In the three-plus years since Whiteman joined the program, she has worked with her coaching staff to build those bonds up and down the Bulldog roster so players are willing to work hard not just for the coaches, but for each other.
"It can't just come from me," Whiteman said. "If they see that Padilla is going for a run today or Myranda (Marquez) is going from a bike ride today – that just becomes a standard for the program."
That camaraderie exists not just within the select 18 members of the varsity roster, but up and down the program, from junior varsity teammates to incoming freshmen who have yet to take their first high school classes.
Last year's championship team featured eight freshmen, many of whom began working with Whiteman and the Bulldogs in the summer leading up to the 2019 season. Whiteman and Padilla have already met with this year's freshman class via Zoom and came away impressed with the collective professionalism from the group, which is eager to carry on the new championship tradition that has been established.
"They were very detail oriented. Many of them were taking notes," Whiteman said. "I had many of them follow up with an email, telling me they're excited."
Outside of the pandemic, this year's team was always going to be different. In previous seasons, Whiteman and the Bulldogs were operating from a perspective of earning a seat at the table among the elite 4A programs in the state. Now that they've proven the deserve to be there, the bar has been set for future teams to meet.
"I think it's going to be an entirely different feel going into it," Whiteman said. "I think it's better, because I don't have to justify how hard I train them.
"I think that they know that I'm going to expect a lot, and they want to show that they're working towards that."
And while other schools have begun slowly returning to in-person practices using social distancing, Whiteman and Woodburn boys soccer head coach Leroy Sanchez have opted to continue holding team practices online until they feel more comfortable returning to the field.
"It's a hard decision," Whiteman said. ""What we would be doing in person and what we're able to do in person is not very different than what we're already doing through Zoom."
"To me it's not worth the risk yet," she continued. "My job is to keep them safe and healthy. For me it comes down to: if one of our players got infected at a practice and brought it home to a family member, would I feel that I did everything I could do to keep them safe?"
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