Sports

If you’re looking for me this evening, check Robins Stadium. I’ll be up in the stands watching Spider soccer. They kick off against No. 4 West Virginia at 7:30 p.m.

Not to complain, but my view was far better at their last home game, back on Aug. 26. As they were beating JMU 4-2, I had a plum seat at the top end of the team’s bench, a spot I landed after lucking into a guest coach invitation from Peter Albright, head coach. His invitation extended to attending practices throughout the week and sharing the pregame meal at D-hall. I heard the coaches’ talks to the team at both pregame and halftime, and what they said to each other and the referees during the game.

I didn't mention it to anyone, but in a happy coincidence, gameday was also my birthday. Man, it was fun. Here’s a little of what I noticed and what went through my head over the week:

Dept. of the obvious: Yes, watching a game from the bench is great.
A 90-minute game never went by so fast. One insider highlight: Our head coach and JMU's are longtime friends who go back years, and they weren't afraid to jaw with each other and about each other to the referees during the game.

The scoreboard is the ultimate truth-teller.
The takeaway quote from the pregame and halftime talks that the coaches gave: “We have the feeling this is a really special team, but you become that by the results you get on the field.”

This team is built to score.
Some of the team’s strongest and most experienced players — Lexi Prillaman, Meaghan Carrigan, to name two — play up top. As of this writing, Prillaman ranks No. 2 in the nation in goals; she and Carrigan rank 1-2 in the A-10 in four offensive categories (goals, goals per game, points, and points per game). A defender, Alexis Pringle, has a kick that I sometimes think might send the ball all of the way to the Mall in Washington, D.C. When I see an opponent escape from midfield and charge into the box with the ball, I'm able to exhale when I see Pringle picking her up.

What I saw in practice bears out why they’re so sharp, but it’s hard to capture in anything other than clichés: They set a tone, set a work ethic — ran quickly, passed sharply, every try, every turn. On the night of the JMU game, Prillamn scored all four goals, tying a school record.

A fan on the sidelines with Spider soccer
A happy Prillaman (center) and team after the JMU win; image courtesy Richmond Athletics
Injury does not equal irrelevancy.

You’re not playing — maybe you tore an ACL or you’ve got a cast on your foot. If you’re still part of the team, you’re still expected to take on a role that makes a positive contribution. This was a point Mika Elovaara, the associate head coach, talked about as we chatted at the team meal. No one has a neutral impact on team dynamics; everyone is either adding or subtracting, he said.

From my mental tally of do's and don't's when you're hurt — Do’s: Keep stats, shag runaway balls, do your reconditioning, post on @spidersoccer social media from the sidelines. Don’t’s: Slouch on the bench, not pay attention, be a distraction. (Mental note to self: Sit up straight.)

Another definite Do: Work on your head game.

In Maeve I trust.
The player leading that head game is junior Maeve Holland. I thought I remembered her playing, but then I wasn't so sure when she said she hadn’t played since her freshman year. She’s coming back from a torn quad muscle, hence the brace on her thigh.

We had a nice chat on the practice sideline about cycling. I’ve done a little here and there; her mom has done century rides — 100 miles or more — and is a triathlete who also runs the Boston Marathon every year, Maeve said. It was a backstory that helped explain her intensity on the stationary cycle she’d just hopped off of.

Playing this year is doubtful for her; her injury dictates the course of her playing career, so she contributes through what she can control, rehabbing hard, tracking down the stray balls her teammates send flying over the nets during drills, and such.

When she mentioned her mom's triathlons, I said something along the lines that I could never do one. Sure you could, she told me, if you put your mind to it.

Every little bit helps, I hope.
With all of those balls flying around at practice, I was dying to be involved. I played rec soccer growing up and into my 30s. Show me someone surrounded by soccer balls who doesn't want to kick them, and I’ll show you someone I will never comprehend. It wasn’t until toward the end of my last practice that it dawned on me that I could just jump 30 yards behind the net at midfield and track a few down. So I did, and it was fun.

Those kicks.
As one practice drill ended, I was a few feet away when freshman forward Brooke Beam took a ball at the top of the 18-yard box, cut across to her left, spun, and fired one across her body into the top corner of the net, all in a split second. From my close-up perspective, the combination of quickness and power were stunning.

A comparison almost immediately popped into my mind that’s, admittedly, a little ham-handed, but for the sake of honesty, here it is. I recalled an experience at the Cincinnati Zoo a couple of years ago when I stood just a few feet away from a male lion with an amazing mane as it roared. My chest rumbled; I felt the sound before I heard it. Knowing, as an abstract principle or as seen from afar, that lions roar or that soccer players kick hard is one thing; this was a far more substantial kind of knowing.

Back to Beam: I saw her pull off almost exactly that same spin-shoot move against Sacred Heart on VCU's field a week later to get her first career goal in a game. (Watch it here; starts at the 1:35 mark.) All I could do was shake my head and laugh. That goalie never had a chance.

A fan on the sidelines with Spider soccer

Put in the time to follow a team over time.
One of my favorite players to watch last season was freshman midfielder Keaira Clark, who worked her way into the starting line-up. The roster lists her at five-foot-nothin’, but every inch of her seems like speed and guile to my novice eyes. She’s just as fun to watch this year. Beam, the spin-shoot artist, is going to be great to watch for four years.

Part of what makes Prillaman and Carrigan so enjoyable to watch as juniors and seniors comes from having seen them as freshman and sophomores. Carrigan’s a particularly good example of what I mean. She was a force in her first season, winning A-10 rookie of the year. She started her second season just as strong until an injury ended it and kept her out her junior year, too. Watching that backstory unfold deepens my appreciation of what she's been doing on the field so far this season.

The more you watch, the more players who come into focus.
I’ll be honest — I hadn’t recalled junior Olivia Aha very well from past seasons. The records show she started in midfield nine times last year, so I’m not sure what short circuit was zapping my brain cells. I've reconnected the synapses this season and have my eye on where her No. 13 is whenever the ball moves through midfield. (Note to self: Speak with a psychology professor about how this little mental lightswitch works. Is there a technical term for it? She was there all along.)

Go tonight.
Every one of these players I’ve mentioned — and all of their teammates I haven't — should be at Robins Stadium tonight (I assume). There are 31 of them — and probably 10 different stories to be told about each of them (for example). Tonight’s another chance to see more pieces of their stories unfold.

I haven’t even mentioned half of the starters and most of the defense, to say nothing of the players working hard to earn minutes as subs. Nor first-year assistant coach Marsha Harper, who finished her college career just three years ago and seems like equal parts motivational speaker, drill sergeant, and movie buddy. Nor volunteer goalie coach Melissa Pacheco, ’12, who spends night after night feeding balls at weird angles and sharp speeds to junior starting goalkeeper Katie Brennan and her backups. Or trainer Erika Johnson, a modern-day alchemist who conjured an endless supply of fresh ice packs on those late August 100-degree days.

I’ll stop name-dropping. I’ve got a game to catch. See you there?

P.S. These are just my impressions as a novice and a fan. If you're looking for the team's results, schedule, or knowledgeable sports analysis about them, go to their team page on richmondspiders.com and follow them @spidersoccer on Twitter and Instagram.