Robinson soccer Coach Steve Baumann's sabbatical as a graduate student and assistant coach last year at the University of Virginia proved to be beneficial in more ways than one.
For him, it was a chance to help coach some of the best players in the country. For his Robinson players, it enabled them to play a regular season game this spring on the artificial surface of Virginia's Scott Stadium.
"It got the kids a look at the big time," Baumann said.
In that game, Robinson tied a strong Herndon team, 1-1, in a non-district contest. It was the only game the Rams (4-0-1 after defeating T.C. Williams, 7-0, in a Northern District game Friday) have not won in an impressive start of a long, grinding Northern District season.
The Rams finished 11-4 last year, winning the district, but hope to return to the form of Baumann's last season, 1984, when they went to the regional final and finished 14-2. Repeating in the district will require getting past strong W.T. Woodson and Lake Braddock. Competition for the regional title also will present the challenge of South Lakes, Herndon and defending state champion Lee, which got off to a slow start this spring.
There are only two players remaining from the 1984 team -- seniors Brendan Rugless and Glen Carrigan -- and "from that standpoint, it has been an adjustment for them and me," Baumann said.
The other Robinson players soon learned of Baumann's philosophy. "The training sessions and the intensity level are demanding," Baumann said. "The intensity has to be carried over day to day.
"The other thing that has been different for them is competition between players. No one had a position made. On select teams, everyone plays."
Baumann said the Rams always have relied on four or five players and a deep bench. This season the team is similar, although it is dominated by seniors and juniors. Seniors starters include midfielders Carrigan, Rugless and Jamie Turner, fullback David Michaud and goalkeeper Doug Fuller.
Baumann, a former professional soccer player with the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League, says the key to the team's success is being able to "establish a tradition through the program of certain ideas and concepts . . . which are transferred down through [the junior varsity]."
He said high schools in Northern Virginia generally spend too much time on strategy and not enough time on individual skills. That is something he has tried to change since his return from the University of Virginia.
"We tend to spend the majority of the time working on techniques and not tactics," he said. "It was good to see if I could take some tactical ideas and see if the players could apply it.
"Defensively, they're very organized. I think also, technically, they're certainly better than the teams we've played. More often, we can play the ball where we want it. It's real important because there isn't much time or space in high school soccer. When you get the ball, you have to do something with it. [Our] three senior midfielders [Turner, Carrigan and Rugless] do it well."
Because skill sometimes isn't enough to win the Northern Region, Baumann said the Rams might be at a disadvantage. But, he said, "One of our main goals is to train kids to be decent college soccer players. When you do that, you kind of sacrifice as far as high school competition goes. We always stress to get certain things out of the season besides championships, because they are hard to come by.
"Certainly the key element in winning the championship in Northern Virginia is the emotional aspect. I think it's so hard for them because they play so many soccer games in their lifetime because of select teams. It's a challenge as a coach to prepare teams emotionally. If it gets more and more emotional, it might hurt us."