Yale balances school, national powerhouses

Losing is an unavoidable fact of life in sports. It's losing without learning any lessons that transforms simple defeat into disgrace.

Of course, when a sideline debate on the nature of racism in America breaks out during a practice scrimmage, you're reminded that kids at Yale generally tend to have a good handle on the whole lesson-learning concept.

The opening weekend wasn't especially kind to Yale. Hosting the Yale Classic at Reese Stadium in New Haven, the Bulldogs dropped games against national powers Duke and North Carolina by 3-0 and 4-0 scores, respectively. It turns out that while the academic calendar at Yale may open with a two-week "shopping" period that allows students to ease into rigorous classwork, the soccer schedule offers no such breaks.

"You learn a lot, that's the reason that you play those teams," coach Rudy Meredith said on Monday. And while the coach admitted that he hadn't really slept, let alone stopped thinking about the games since the final whistle against the Tar Heels the previous day, the solace comes in the lessons offered by losses.

At least, that's what the coaches hope will come out of the setbacks.

"I think if they go out of that game saying, 'Well, they got a lucky goal here and we did this,' and make excuses, then they gain nothing out of it," said Bob Dikranian, Meredith's coach at Southern Connecticut and a special assistant to his old pupil this season at Yale. "If they realize what they did, by what we saw on film and what [Meredith] says and maybe a couple of things I brought up, and they see it and they say, 'Yeah, we need to improve on that,' then I think playing teams like that, the objective was to play against a good team, I think there is great value to that."

The outcomes over the weekend were the same as when Yale traveled to North Carolina last season to take on the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, but little else felt the same. That trip, which produced back-to-back 1-0 losses, showed the Bulldogs, and observers around the country, how close Meredith's program was to breaking through on the national scene. This year's losses, while at times competitive and far from embarrassing, showed how little margin for error there is for any team hoping to maintain a foothold in the national rankings.

"To concede seven goals, concede 24 shots, it's not acceptable," Dikranian succinctly summed up.

But as traffic patterns around New Haven over the weekend reinforced -- with an influx of loaded-down vehicles making license-plate bingo a breeze as students moved into their dorms -- the Bulldogs are just getting started. Having opened preseason training less than two weeks before the Duke game, they took on two of the nation's top teams at a stage when most programs are still scrimmaging against themselves.

"Our move-in day for freshmen was actually the day of the Duke game, so yeah, I had parents up and running through my room as we were trying to rest before the game," freshman Sophie Merrifield joked.

One day you're dodging moms, dads and little brothers in the hallways, and two days later you're trying to mark Heather O'Reilly. Good luck coming up with an orientation program that covers that.

And so perhaps not surprisingly, the mood at practice on Monday was a mixture of relaxed and resolute.

"Surprisingly so," junior Mary Kuder said about the team's upbeat mood. "We're fine, we can joke about things. We know that all we can do now is just get ready for the next game, so that's what we're doing."

All in all, the players seemed anything but scarred by two losses at the beginning of a long season. And much to Dikranian's delight, there weren't many excuses being offered throughout the weekend.

"We lost, and that sucks, but in terms of what we can take out of that game is huge," senior Mimi Macauley said after the Duke game. "It's the beginning of the season. I think that coming off of last season, if we had pranced into a game and won it, you know, 6-0, I think people would have gotten a little comfortable in their shoes."

Added senior captain Christina Huang, "What's good about playing against such good teams in the beginning is that they really get to highlight your weaknesses, things you need to work on as a team, as an individual. Playing against weaker teams in the beginning of the season, you're not going to learn that."

Judging by Meredith's words and actions, perhaps the most important lesson learned came in putting an inexperienced defense through the ringer and coming out with a group that seemed no worse for wear.

"We found out a little about our defense," Meredith said. "I think our defense is going to be OK."

Against Duke, freshmen Sophia Merrifield and Hannah Smith started alongside Hayley Zevenbergen and Kuder, a quartet that had a grand total of two seasons of experience at Yale (Kuder transferred to Yale before last season). Huang moved from midfield to defense for the first half of the game against Carolina, replacing Smith, but down 3-0 at halftime, Meredith decided to stick with Merrifield, Zevenbergen and Kuder in a 3-4-3 formation for the second half.

"We played three in the back against Carolina, and they didn't kill us," Meredith said. "You know, it could have been suicide when I was thinking about doing it, but it ended up being OK. So I'm confident that we can probably play this formation for the rest of the season."

For the defenders, it's a vote of confidence.

"I think it's going to be good, because we played 3-4-3 in the second half yesterday and I didn't feel too exposed or anything," Kuder said. "And I know the forwards like it. The challenge is to just make sure we have enough support behind them."

A commanding physical presence in the middle of the defense at 5-foot-10, Zevenbergen is a converted midfielder still adjusting to the vocal requirements of organizing the back.

"A lot more, that's my biggest problem, I think," Zevenbergen said of the communication required in playing defense. "Which is ironic, because I talk a lot regularly."

Countered a mildly amused Kuder, "She was screaming. She lost her voice a little bit, I think."

If it sounds like a work in progress, that's because it is.

"The big thing is within your formation, how do you defend, obviously individually and then collectively," Dikranian said. "There are times that I thought collectively this past weekend they were in good positions, but individually, people were beaten on dribbles or overcommitting and the collectiveness broke down because of the individual. And then there are other times that guys did a great job individually, but collectively we weren't together."

But as the second half of the North Carolina game wore on, the Bulldogs began to come together. While they were more focused on surviving rather than stifling the Tar Heels' attack, they kept the visitors from scoring until late in the half, when both teams had already commenced substituting liberally. In playing with more passion and precision after halftime, Meredith's team appeared to start a learning process that continued 24 hours later in practice.

"Especially with Coach Dikranian, we're very good at pinpointing our problems from the games, so we're already working on getting it to the midfield and keeping more possession," Kuder said on Monday. "And just having confidence with our midfield, because we were sort of skipping them in our games, just playing more direct. When we shouldn't be, because we're a good passing team."

Perhaps no experience better summed up the unique challenge that faced the Bulldogs than that of Merrifield.

"I never would have dreamed of getting an opportunity to play in a game like that," Merrifield said. "I mean, I'm from Hawaii, and it's really hard to even get to a place like this. In terms of the speed of play, it was fast. A lot of those through balls, I mean, tough sprints against Heather O'Reilly. But it was good. I think we're pulling it together pretty well. The score wasn't so good, but I think we played well."

It's true that it's not easy to get from Hawaii to New Haven. But Merrifield is right on other levels, too. It's not easy for players to get into top college programs or to find themselves on the field against players like O'Reilly. And it's not easy for a team to get to a place where its fate as an elite program rests in its hands.

Despite a disappointing start to the season, Yale is still in that position. You don't fail a class in the first week, and the Bulldogs still have a long time to prove how much they're capable of learning this season.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.