By Paul Siegenthaler
In early May, 2018, the Needham (MA) High School varsity baseball team sat with a record of 4 wins against 7 losses. As more than half the season had been played at that point, it had been a difficult start to the year, and the prospect of achieving ten regular season wins in order to qualify for the playoffs was very much in doubt.
Granted, the team had faced some unusual adversity. It seemed they kept drawing the number one pitcher on opposing squads, just by a quirk of the schedule. Several opposing pitchers faced by Needham were already set to go to Division 1 college programs in the fall. But that is how baseball works; a dominant pitcher can beat even the most talented team. Needham, on the other hand, had but one of its six senior players committed to playing in college, at a Division 3 level.
In early 2011, former AD Micah Hauben of the Needham School District invited a representative of the Positive Coaching Alliance(PCA) to present to the high school coaches. Generously, Micah invited all youth sports organizations in Needham to attend. Needham Baseball, the governing body for youth baseball in Needham, had a single Board member and coach attend.
Upon reporting back to the Needham Baseball Board, the member received feedback ranging from sincere interest to comments about “the cult” of PCA. But some of the more enlightened coaches performed their own investigations, and began to put PCA recommendations into practice, each in his or her own individual manner. Needham Baseball experimented along the way with various methods to bring PCA awareness to coaches on an annual basis. The group co-sponsored PCA classes with other youth organizations, spearheaded their own PCA classes (while inviting other youth sports as well) and, in a powerful statement, made PCA attendance mandatory for all travel team coaches. Still, monitoring and enforcing the use of PCA techniques and transmitting the culture of double-goal coaching – teaching life lessons while striving to win – were difficult to achieve.
The Juniors and Seniors (and a single Sophomore) who comprised the 2018 varsity team were among the first group athletes to be exposed to these PCA tenets across multiple seasons. That age group also benefited from several parent coaches who embraced PCA techniques and used them to great effectiveness in youth baseball, at ages 10, 11, and 12. The PCA message of selflessness, respect for the game, teammates, opponents and officials, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and the ability to put errors behind oneself, were all deeply ingrained in these players for many years before they faced this difficult season.
Suddenly, having never lost confidence in their abilities, or perhaps with an attitude that winning wasn’t the only measure of a successful season, the team started to catch fire. Together they ripped off wins in eight of their next nine games, to complete the regular season at 12 wins against eight losses and qualify for the state tournament. But how would a slightly over .500, #8 seed fare against the strongest programs in the State?
They never looked back. Relying on contributions from a range of players, Needham High School won six playoff games, including a heart-stopping, come from behind win in extra innings in the State Division 1 final. The team won because they ignored the doubts that inevitably creep in, they played the game the right way, they moved past their mistakes and they persevered. All the traits introduced and ingrained through PCA training from a young age.
Of course, head coach Matt Howard and his assistants, AD Dan Lee, former AD Micah Hauben, and the players themselves deserve all the credit for this spectacular save of a season. But somewhere in the foundation of this successful season – as measured by any number of different parameters – were the tenets and techniques gently planted by youth coaches and nurtured during the athletes’ formative years.