Where ‘try again’ finds victory

September 14, 2011

The Boston Globe

At just about any other place on this sports-crazed planet, the 3-1 loss suffered by the Wheelock College women's field hockey team in its first home game of 2011 would have been cause for hung heads, slumped shoulders, and a grumpy locker room.

But in the alternate universe that is Wheelock, the Lady Wildcats left the field with smiles and attagirls all around.

"We improved! Last year we would never have scored on them,'' said junior striker Despina Savvoulides, the game's lone scorer.

Thus the Wheelock athletic department philosophy: Winning doesn't matter. Improvement, enjoyment, character, and team building do. Seriously.

At Wheelock, a 1,055-student campus in Boston's Fenway neighborhood with no gymnasiums or sports fields of its own, that philosophy approaches religion. And it is attracting attention from other college sports executives unhappy with the win-at-all-costs attitude believed to drive some corruption-plagued programs.

The philosophy has, ironically, proved successful in another way: With it, the school has started winning games.

Athletic director Diana Cutaia brought the philosophy to campus six years ago, and since then the athletic department's collective record has gone from 45 athletes with three wins the prior season to 122 athletes and 40 wins last year.

"I got some strange looks when I first introduced this notion,'' Cutaia says. "But I came by this belief after years as an athlete and coach, myself. It didn't happen overnight.

''Indeed, Cutaia, a youthful 38-year-old with hipper version of Buddy Holly's glasses and blond-streaked hair, has been a winner much of her sporting career. She was a standout point guard for Greenwich (Conn.) High School in the late 1980s, followed by a solid year at Sacred Heart University. Even though her college playing career was cut short by knee injuries, Cutaia continued winning as a coach - first by leading Norwalk Community College's women's hoops team to three New England division titles along with national ranking as the No. 8 program in its division, then by helping pull Curry College's women's team out of the cellar, and finally, pre-Wheelock, by helping guide Mount Holyoke College's women's team to consecutive winning records.

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