Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Selection Show

The NCAA Women's Soccer Selection Show was Monday at 6pm on ESPNews. We got the atrium at the last minute. Debbie and Gerard did a nice job of setting up a space for the team to watch the show together with friends and family. There were drinks and snacks.

It was a small group of mostly parents. Mr. Strickland was there. Dr. Fisher and his wife, Judy, were there. I thought it was unique that the soccer parents were interacting with the president and his wife. I doubt that happens at many universities. It was very nice of the Vanderbilt coaches to come. I got to introduce Ronnie to Mr. Strickland. I wanted to give her the credit for us having such a great place to train and play while we were displaced during the fall.

Ronnie is basically the reason I am coaching at Belmont today. We were having dinner together in January, 2005 at the National Soccer Coaches Convention when Ronnie told me that I should apply for the Belmont job. She said, "Come be my neighbor." I did not apply. I did not want to coach at a small, private school that had two 1 win seasons in the last 3 years. I did not want to take a pay cut, a budget cut, a scholarship cut. I was not interested. Ronnie did not adhere to my wishes. She gave Belmont my name and number. They called me.

In February, I had an OVC meeting in Brentwood. I went early to Belmont and dropped off my resume in person. The rest is history.

In 4 years, we have gone from RPI #267 to #90. The history is nothing compared to our future. Ten starters from the 2008 championship team return next year. All 5 All-Tournament players return. Our 2009 recruiting class is multi-talented. Our 2010 recruiting class consists of impact players, and our 2010 fall schedule will give us the opportunity to get quality wins over quality opponents, which will give us the opportunity for regional rankings and national recognition.

From the moment Sari made that final save, we had wondered who we would play first in the NCAA Tournament. The A-Sun champion had been matched up against Florida State in the first round the last 3 years - FAU, Jacksonville, and Kennesaw State. FSU had been to the Final Four at least 2 of those 3 years. I expected to get matched up against an opponent with that kind of history. It could be FSU, Florida, or UNC, maybe even Notre Dame. It's funny to me, but most players want to play North Carolina. I guess under these circumstances, the girls want to experience playing against the program with the longest dynasty and richest history.

There is much more concern over budgets when it comes to placing soccer teams in the 64 team tournament. Maybe we could get lucky, and the regional location of our game give us a chance to play against a team without the Final Four history of the earlier mentioned teams. I would not let myself believe that. Fortunately, we heard our name early in the show. I can't tell you another team in the bracket after they said Belmont and Auburn. There was some confusion over where we would play. I thought for a moment we would be playing Auburn at Florida State. I could hear all the other A-Sun coaches, especially Kennesaw State, thinking how lucky we were. A quick text to the Auburn coach, and it was confirmed we would play at Auburn with Florida State and Mississippi Valley State making up the rest of the group.

I make it sound like Auburn is a slouch. Obviously, they are the favorite - SEC division champions, fully funded, million dollar facilities, regional team players, national staff coaches, etc. We were the #2 and #3 seeds, not #1 and #4, and that was already an accomplishment in my mind.

Now begins the decision making for me. Different Belmont coaches were giving me advice on how to handle the team during this stage of the season. Two of the coaches had led their teams to the NCAA Tournament - volleyball and basketball. Most people told me to enjoy ourselves. Don't forget to have fun and allow the team to have fun. Don't get so wrapped up in preparing your team to win that you don't enjoy the experience. There was a brief mention of a coach regretting the preparation of his team for their first NCAA Tournament game, but the majority of advice was to have fun.

I was all ready to just be happy to be there to play UNC or FSU. We weren't playing that type of team. We were playing a team that had never gotten past the 2nd round and a team who had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2004. Just being there was not going to be enough for me.

We would practice at home (well, Vandy) on Tuesday and Wednesday. We would leave Thursday morning and practice at Auburn Thursday afternoon. Then, we would play Auburn on Friday. Our team has a great understanding of defending. They can defend effectively in any formation. However, it takes a lot more work to be able to attack out of a new formation. We decided to stay in our 4-3-3. However, we were going to withdraw our center forward into the top of the midfield and leave our 2 wide forwards high and wide. We would spend Tuesday training how to make entry passes, time our runs forward, how and when to penetrate, and how and when to possess and the supporting runs for possession. It didn't go so well.

Wednesday, before practice, we met in Vanderbilt's team room. We handed out a written scouting report on Auburn. We talked about not making any changes to the way we defend or attack in our 4-3-3 and just ignoring yesterday's practice. Then, we went out to the field and took penalty kicks. Even though our team was young, they could be and had been effective against all levels of competition without changing their formation. They did not adjust well to the changes against Kennesaw State, so I would probably be crazy to try making changes against Auburn at the end of the longest Belmont soccer season.

Speaking of a long season, that will be in my next recruiting speech. We needed certain types of players to get us to this point in our improvement. To continue improving, we must get players who want to be training in November. They cannot be worried about missing class time and social time to prepare for and play in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, you might have to miss one more concert, one more football game, or one more test review if we win the A-Sun Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, next time, the players will be better mentally prepared to extend their season another week. Just two years prior, our last game was on October 22nd. We did not get to play our last home game of the season (Senior Day) because the field was unplayable due to rain. Extending the length of the fall soccer season is just another step in the evolution of our program.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Half Time Speech

I forgot to tell you about one of the most effective and appropriate halftime speeches of the season. At halftime of the championship game against Mercer, there were many frustrated faces - coaches and players. Like I said, I had no idea that game would be so hard for us and seemed so easy for Mercer.

Justin and I tried to solve everything tactically. Better individual defending on the player with the ball. Better cover for the first defender. Don't let our center midfielders get so deep on our center backs. Possess the ball longer by changing the point of attack, etc.

While Justin was talking to the team, Kyle asked me if he could say something when Justin was finished. Kyle rarely addressed the whole team. He coaches the goalkeepers, talks to individuals, and gives his input to the coaches. I appreciated him asking and of course said yes.

Kyle has been a great addition to our staff. He is doing a good job of working with 3 very different goalkeepers and personalities. He has embraced his role with our team. It has turned out to be a win-win situation for both of us.

Anyway, Kyle told the girls that their attitudes were wrong. He told them that they were the 1st Belmont soccer team - men's or women's - to play in a conference tournament final. They should not be mad. They should be happy. They should be excited. They should enjoy the experience. Kyle told everyone to smile and laugh. He got all of us to laugh when he told the team that they acted like, "Lisa just dropped the curfew bomb on them." It was good advice for all of us and a great punch line.

As the 2nd half progressed, you could feel the frustration be passed on to Mercer. They could not score, and we were getting more chances. We ended the game more relaxed and confident. Mercer ended the game uptight and frustrated.

Kyle's halftime speech could not have been more appropriate.

The Championship

My first couple of years as a Division I head coach, our team's top goal was to win a national championship. I am not sure how realistic that was. Actually, I am sure that it was totally unrealistic. I was under the impression that if we didn't set our goal as the highest possible achievement, we wouldn't work hard. At Belmont, we have always set realistic goals. Up until this year our goal was to qualify for our conference tournament. In 2005, if we had beaten Stetson at home, we would have qualified. In 2006, if we had beaten Gardner Webb at home instead of tied, we would have qualified. Basically, we were 2 goals away in 2005 and one goal away in 2006. In 2007, we accomplished our goal of making the A-Sun Tournament, but we one upped our goal by going in as the #3 seed and winning our quarter final game and actually tied in the semi-final.

In 2008, our goal was to make it to the A-Sun championship game. Were we selling ourselves short? No, we were setting a realistic goal. Today my teams and I are so much better at setting realistic, achievable goals. It is actually more motivational, more rewarding, and more measurable than setting the old goal of winning the national championship.

Also, the way we worded this goal allowed us to one up it once we reached it. Our goal was not to make it to the championship game. Our goal was to play in the A-Sun championship game. By wording it that way, it did not give us the excuse to be satisfied with meeting our goal for the season. It actually gave us a chance to win the tournament.

Saturday's game was at 6:00. The hotel required us to check out at 2:00. The timing was not bad. It was about the time we wanted to eat a good meal. We would eat, walk around a couple of stores, relax on the bus, watch the highlight video (of course), and go to the Kennesaw State locker room to get dressed and taped. As I sat at the Italian restaurant eating my 2nd roll (or was it my 3rd?), I started fearing that the players might overeat. I can't say that everyone overate, but in general, the team ate too much heavy food too soon before a game. Not just any game. I was thinking about how careful I have been all year with the timing of meals, the location of meals, the foods we ate at different times. Four hours before the biggest game in Belmont history, we are eating big, buttery garlic rolls and huge plates of pasta and cheese.

I had to trust the players to eat what was appropriate for them. I usually do not put them in that situation to be tempted to eat too much before a game, but we were severely tempted before that game. I knew some players would eat that meal and still make a peanut butter bagel on the bus to eat in the locker room. Everyone is so different that it is difficult to make sure that they all have what they need to get their bodies ready to play. Very often, a player is a junior before she really gets her pre-game eating patterns. We had 14 freshmen and sophomores sitting in that restaurant. I was very nervous.

I do not believe I was nervous otherwise. I give credit again to the particular wording of our ultimate goal for the season. We had achieved our goal to play in the championship game, and this was our opportunity to one up our goal. Kyle, Justin, and I left the girls in the locker room and walked to the soccer field. They asked me how many championship games I had coached in. Obviously, this was their first, and I guess they were expecting the experienced coach of the group to say 3 or 4. The answer was none. This was my first.

Until warm up, there were 2 things about our team that I didn't realize. I had no idea we were that tired and that nervous. The players were very quiet during warm up. There was very little power in our step, very little change of speed, very little pace on our passes. I assume the combination of fatigue and anxiety caused some paralysis among our players.

The warm up on the other half of the field was different from ours. Mercer was vocal. They were excited. They were moving. And they were confident!

We went into the game knowing that we would have to absorb a lot of pressure in the first half to have the energy to finish off the game in the second half. I did not realize just how much pressure we would be absorbing. Mercer played better that game than they did in the regular season. To be honest, Mercer was far better (more skillful and more athletic) than I gave them credit for being. We played better in the 2nd half. I was so proud of the bravery of our players defending long, high serves on all throw ins and free kicks. I was very proud of the work rate of Jamie Bullock and Jayme Trocino in the center midfield, both offensively and especially defensively. In overtime, Jamie saved a certain goal when Mercer redirected a corner kick past Sari to the far post. Jamie took it in the midsection and cleared it while many Mercer people were cheering because they thought it was going in the goal.

Unlike the semi-final, we did not feel like we had the advantage in penalty kicks because Mercer watched our kickers two nights before. We had confidence in Sari, but it was going to be much more difficult for our kickers. I knew I had to change at least 2 kickers. Annie and Jess would remain in the top 5, and Jamie Bullock would come out. I had to decide about JTro and Bublis. I think Bublis is the better penalty kick taker. Our goalkeepers know which side she is going to, and they still can't save it. However, we freaked Bublis out when we asked her to practice kicking to the opposite side, and she was exhausted. She didn't finish the game on the field and had to come out. I stuck with JTro. I felt like even though she was tired, she does not put much pace on her kick anyway. If she placed it well enough, it would go in.

The 2 new kickers would both be freshmen. Jamie Loftis had not been as consistent in practice as I would have liked. But Lofty is a competitor. She thrives in that pressure situation of shooting the last second free throw or kicking the game winning field goal. I put her first. Morgan McBride would kick 4th. She told us in practice that she can kick to either side, and she doesn't decide until she goes up there. As long as she stuck with her late decision and did not second guess herself in the pressure, she would be fine. She had been consistent in practice.

When Lofty went up to take the first kick, the Mercer goalkeeper looked to her coaches to see which side she would kick to. The coach shrugged his shoulders as he looked at the piece of paper he held in his hands. He had written down every one of our kickers. He did not know this one. Lofty made her kick. When Mercer's first kicker made her kick, she seemed to "bow up" and taunt Sari. It was totally unnecessary, because she hit her kick so hard, it could have moved the goal, but Sari still got a hand to it and almost pushed it wide. That Mercer player had played the game with reckless abandon with no concern for her safety or the safety of others. The officials also had no concern about anyone's safety. I do believe the actions of that player put Sari in the zone. Not another Mercer shot would go in the goal after that taunting.

Annie missed wide. The goalkeeper saved JTro's shot, because she knew exactly where she was shooting. Morgan made her kick. I should have told Jess to kick to the opposite side. When Jess went up to kick against the goalkeeper that had saved her penalty kick last year, she was shooting to win the game and the tournament. Talk about pressure. But the keeper knew exactly where Jess was going, and Jess' tired legs could not put enough on the ball to get it past the keeper. A Mercer senior would get the opportunity to tie the game and keep them alive for at least a 6th kicker. Sari saved her 4th penalty kick in a row to make the Belmont Bruins the Atlantic Sun Champions!

Wow! From that moment, my life went about 100 miles an hour for about a week. Sari was Tournament MVP. She saved 6 out of 9 penalty kicks faced, including 4 in a row in the championship. Jessica Rix and Erica Carter were named to the All-Tournament Team. The other 2 players who made All-Tournament are key reasons why our program has become so successful. Marcela Sanchez and Annie Musacchio performed as 2 of the best players in the tournament. The year before, I did not choose them to dress or participate in the tournament. Only 22 players are allowed to dress and sit on the bench. Annie and Marcela both watched the 2007 tournament from the opposite side of the field in the stands. What a difference a year makes. Annie and Marcela changed their behavior. They changed their attitudes. They came into 2008 prepared to take advantage of any opportunity to help the team. If either one of them had quit or given up or continued the same behavior, we might not be tournament champions. I hope all of our future players learn from Marcela and Annie.

I wish I could say that I was totally elated when I ran out on that field after Sari saved the 5th kick. Unfortunately, I felt mostly relief and pressure. Today, I feel joy and elation. Immediately after the game, I was relieved that we did not lose, and I was thinking 2 things in my head. "We're going to have to play much better in the NCAA Tournament." And "We have to win this again next year."

Finally, I want to say thank you to my parents and my family. They have supported me and my coaching career from afar for 15 years. I have felt their unconditional love through it all - wins and losses, frustrations, attitudes, fields, players, parents, administrators, trainers, road trips, games, injuries, recruiting, and now a championship. They watched the game on the internet at my grandmother's house after my cousin's wedding. They called me immediately after the game to ask why I did not say "Hi Mom" during any of my post-game interviews. My dry sarcasm comes naturally. It is a very good possibility that my dad and Wendy are the only 2 people that read this, especially as it turns more into a book and less like a blog.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Day Off

When we drive to or through Georgia on I-75 south, we always stop at the Georgia Welcome Center outside of Chattanooga to use the restroom. For 4 years, I have been picking up brochures to give me an idea of something to do on our day off, if we were to ever have a day off in Atlanta, especially during the conference tournament. I have brochures from the Aquarium, Stone Mountain, Coca Cola, CNN, etc. We finally get our opportunity to put my research to work. What does the team want to do? Nothing. They are exhausted, and they have missed almost a week of school. Everyone wants to study and sleep. We have enough to do at the hotel if there are a few that get restless.

After breakfast on Friday morning, we went to the field for practice. Not exactly practice but plenty of stretching and of course penalty kicks. I have a difficult decision to make about the kickers. First of all, I believe chances are slim for us to tie and go to penalty kicks again. However, I am worried about the fact that Mercer sat at our game and watched and wrote down which direction every one of our kickers goes. We tell the shooters to practice going the other way. Jayme Trocino and Elizabeth Bublis are not comfortable doing so. I take a look at the next 3 or4 kickers on my list. Two of them are freshmen - Jamie Loftis and Morgan McBride. I do not believe in freshmen taking penalties. When I was in college and went to PK's in the semi-finals of the national championship, we lost when a freshman missed her 5th kick. Jessica Rix had her penalty kick saved against Mercer last year. Against KSU, we did not have a freshman in the Top 5. I am going to keep Jessica Rix and Annie Musacchio in the Top 5. Jamie Bullock is taking herself out of the top five, and I am not sure about Jayme Trocino or Bublis yet. I have over 24 hours to think about it and decide.

After a warm practice, some rain moved in, and we had a relaxing rainy day. We went to Alex Mindel's parents' house for lunch. There was some studying, TV watching, and napping. We spent the afternoon at the hotel and went to Maddie Porter's parents' house for dinner. They invited all the parents also. Our soccer families have been so welcoming and generous with their homes. We played horseshoes, luckily without injuries. There was a bonfire with singing and roasting marshmallows. Of course, we played our animal game that we like to play. BW joined in the animal game. It is a rhythm, memory game, kind of like Thumper (without the drinking). There was lots of good food.

We had a big crowd at the dinner. With all of the accomplishments despite the obstacles this year, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to this audience. I had not prepared, so I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was a good opportunity to thank the people who help me everyday - Justin, Kyle, Annie, and Danielle. Thank the parents. Thank the players. It was a great opportunity to remind everyone how far we had come in 4 years. It was a great opportunity to share and enjoy our successful season. Mercer got to celebrate at the banquet. We had not celebrated yet. This was just our 2nd trip to the A-Sun Tournament, and we have advanced to the final. It seemed to be the perfect time to reflect on our season and all of its obstacles. We survived a lack of housing during pre-season, a primitive camping trip, multiple sites for practices and games, a gas shortage, confiscation of our video equipment and peanut butter, high security, and destruction of the soccer field. So far, we had overcome all of the obstacles. There was one more obstacle to overcome - Mercer. We could do it, just like we had all season. We felt like there was nothing an opponent could throw at us that we had not seen or could not overcome.

A-Sun Tournament Semi Finals - Kennesaw State

It was another pretty day in Atlanta on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. What do you do when you don't want to be on your feet? You go to a movie. We split up into 3 movies. The majority of the team, including me, went to see The Express. A few went to The Secret Life of Bees. A few others went to Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist. I liked The Express. It was a good motivational sports movie. I didn't cry through the entire movie, but I did through most of it.

When we got back to the hotel, Alex Morgado's parents were there preparing our pre-game meal. We had amazing food - lasagna, rice & beans, pasta & sauce, salad, bread, and dessert. After we ate, it was time for a few more meetings and chalk talks. Before we left for the field, we had to watch the video again. We had a fun bus driver. He would turn up the music as loud as we wanted and even danced along to

Another thing I remember about the interview after the Stetson game is the announcer said, "Maybe we will see you back here tomorrow." They only interview the winning coach, so I immediately responded, "I would love to be back." I know that our team is competitive and capable, but I wasn't sure I would be back for a 2nd interview.

Kennesaw State has only lost 3 home games in 3 years. Their last loss at home was Nov. 3, 2006. We are one of the few teams to defeat them at home, so that was not quite as big of a psychological disadvantage for us as it might have been for other teams. The biggest motivational factor for us, besides the high definition televisions, was our tie with them during the regular season with only 10 players. We felt like we played them fairly even with 10, and we could outplay them with 11.

Since I was so out-coached in the quarter final game, I was determined to not let that happen again, so I sent our team on the field to play a 3-6-1 against KSU's 4-4-2. I will not bore you with all the details of why I thought this would be effective, but I did think having 4 in the midfield would help us defend Beth Meadors, who I thought was truly the best all around player in our conference. And I thought having wide players in the midfield would be helpful both offensively and defensively. We played the 3-6-1 correctly for about 5 minutes in the first half, between the 20th and 25th minutes. Other than that, it was terrible.

We were down 1-0 when Anna Walsh got forward on the left side. She got the ball half way across to Alex Mindel who got it the rest of the way across to Maddie who hit the post with her first touch but finished her own rebound. It must have been great for Alex and Maddie to hook up for that important goal in front of family and friends in their hometown. Unfortunately, we gave up another goal in the next minute, and we were lucky to get to halftime down 2-1. I had already blamed myself for our poor first half performance against Stetson, and I just wasn't going to blame myself again during this halftime speech. I didn't want our team feeling sorry for themselves and having excuses during the 2nd half. I wanted them to be mad and emotional, so I just yelled at them about their lack of effort at halftime. I don't think anyone was too thrilled with that halftime speech, but I wasn't going for style points at that point in time. Oh yeah, and we went back to our 4-3-3.

Erica was able to get her 2nd goal of the tournament in the first five minutes of the second half, and that really set the tone for us to be able to change the momentum for the rest of the game. We got 4 corner kicks in the 2nd half. I don't remember Walsh taking a corner kick all year, but she served it to the near post, and Marcela finished it in her first touch. Marcela's first goal of the season! Like a great team playing at home, Kennesaw tied the game in the 89th minute. Other than giving up the goal, I was pleased with how our team was playing. I did not want to discredit my own team, but when you considered all the factors going against us, we had a better chance to win that game in penalty kicks against KSU's back up keeper than we did in overtime.

Kennesaw State had the momentum. They were playing at home in front of a loud crowd. The official was terrible. We were playing our 2nd game in 2 days. KSU was playing their first game. We were not going to change our formation from the 4-3-3, but we were going to take our time and play safe and make conservative decisions when it came to possessing the ball and sending numbers forward.

At the end of overtime, when we were going into penalty kicks, I thought it had been one of the most exciting college soccer games I have been a part of, no matter what the result of the PK's would be.

Annie, Jayme Trocino, and Bublis made the first 3 penalty kicks. Sari saved KSU's 2nd and 3rd kicks. The Kennesaw State goalkeeper saved our 4th kick, so KSU got to shoot again. Their leading scorer made her shot, but when Jessica Rix made her kick, we won 4-2. It was incredible! I don't remember much about running out on the field. I hugged Kyle about half way out there. By the time I got to the pile, it looked like the people at the bottom of the pile were in pain. There were bodies and elbows and knees and noses. Someone could have lost an eye. I attempted to congratulate Sari or Jess or anyone whose identity I could distinguish. Then, of course, I was swept away to this interview.

At this point, it is so difficult to put my emotions into words, and it is even harder for me to give a game summary or talk about specific details of the game. I was walking to the table with Marcela. I hugged her, and I was trying to figure out why they were interviewing her. I said, "Did you score a goal?" Of course, I remembered mid-sentence that she scored the corner kick, but a lot had happened since then. I tried to gather my thoughts about the game and different turning points and individual performances, but I don't think it mattered.

Back to the hotel to eat, celebrate, figure out what we would do on our day off, and watch high definition TV.

Atlantic Sun Quarterfinals- Stetson

In 2007, we played at 4:00, which was nice for 3 reasons. The temperature was still above freezing by the end of our game. There is not as much pre-game time for me to plan. The game is over early enough to have a good dinner and start renourishing their bodies earlier in the evening. However since we were in the same bracket as the host team, our game time was 7:00 this year. Fortunately, the weather was mild. Lows were going to be in the mid 40's all week.

The complementary breakfast at our hotel was nicer than the banquet, so we got our day off to a good start. We spent the lunch hour shopping and went to Olive Garden for a late lunch. We spent the afternoon at the hotel and had snacks, sandwiches, and leftovers. There were meetings by position. We watched the highlight video on the way to the bus and left for our game against Stetson.

When we got to the field, JU and ETSU were in penalty kicks. That brought back memories. As we walked to the home bench, I thought the field looked very wet and a little soft. During warm up, I thought Sari struggled with how much the balls were skipping along the ground. I was worried about our first touch, and I was extremely worried about our footing in our defensive third. As I looked to the opposite half to watch Stetson, I didn't notice them having any of the problems we were having. In fact, their field looked dry. Call me crazy, but half of that field was wet and half was dry. We played 3 games there, and it was that way for all 3 games.

Justin and I decided to defend the wet half first. We did not want to defend that soft ground with tired legs. I actually thought the Stetson goalkeeper would not be prepared for the speed and the skip of the ball.

Introductions lasted forever. It is nice because they introduce all 22 players, and they announce any post-season or academic awards each has won. Eighty percent of our team was All-Academic, and we had one 1st Team-Jessica Rix, one 2nd Team-Annie Musacchio, and 2 Freshman Team-Jamie Loftis & Sari Lin All Conference Players. Stetson had the A-Sun Player of the Year. She was just the first of many talented players we would face in the tournament.

The game began, and I was out-coached more than any other game I can remember. We prepared for Stetson by playing against a 4-4-2 with the A-Sun Player of the Year at forward. She, Tessa Gavilsky, accounted for at least 70% of Stetson's goals and assists. We practiced entry passes against a flat defense with a fast center back. Other than that, we trained set plays and the usual Belmont soccer and style - possession and defending, etc.

Stetson played a 4-4-2 with Tessa Gavilsky playing center midfield. Their backs were not just flat, they were pulling an offside trap with the goalkeeper playing high on the field. It seemed high risk, but it was something we had never seen. We easily got behind their defenders several times in the first 10 minutes of the game, but the goalkeeper was there to prevent us from getting on the end of our final pass or getting off a good shot. We were offside the other times. We did not train (and we are not good at) weighted combination passes to get behind the defenders. Our long penetration passes were not going to work in this game. After us missing what seemed to be wide open opportunities in the beginning of the game, the momentum changed, and Stetson had the better of us in the first half.

I would never say we dominated the 2nd half of the game, but we did play better, and we scored 2 goals. The first came early enough in the 2nd half to eliminate some of the nerves and frustration we were feeling. We had changed our positioning and runs for Jessica's free kicks from midfield. It worked perfectly as Jess hit a long high ball into our numbers, Charlotte flicked it with her head behind the defense, and Erica pulled the goalkeeper out and finished her first goal of the year. Good timing!

The second goal from Bublis to Annie was the way we should have played the whole time and could have scored five goals if we had. To Stetson's credit, they prevented us from playing that way. My hope is that as we get older and more experienced, an opponent will not be able to prevent us from being effective, and we make good decisions on what is effective against a certain style. My players and my teams have always been prone to doing exactly what is told to them in the pre-game speech and/or halftime. Very few of my teams have been sophisticated enough to make good decisions on their own in the heat of the battle against an opponent. There are some good decisions here and there by a few individuals but not by an entire team over an entire half or game. I think it is pretty typical at this level, and it is my goal every year to prepare and allow the team to make good decisions on their own. Doesn't that sound a lot like parents preparing their children for life?

At the end of the game, I thought we were fortunate to be advancing. I was disappointed in the way we played and mostly disappointed in the way I prepared the team.

One of the things that is hard about the conference tournament is the post-game TV interview. I barely get to shake hands with the other coach and other team, and I am whisked away to the opposite side of the field for this interview. Last year, after the quarter-final win against Jacksonville and Jayme Trocino's game winning goal within 30 seconds of JU's tying goal, I was the happiest I have been about a victory in a LONG time. I didn't get to share that emotion with the team, and I sounded like a blubbering idiot during the interview, because I can't get my thoughts together.

This game was almost opposite. I was disappointed in myself and I was scared to play that way against Kennesaw State. I think my interview probably sounded a little down, because that is how I felt. A player goes with me to do the interview, and Erica was chosen because of her game winning goal. I heard the announcer tell Erica that he heard the team was trying to win the conference tournament for their coach. (That's me.) I never heard that. Erica confirmed that the team talked and part of their motivation for winning was me. She said they thought I work hard and provide for them, and they wanted me to get a championship. The announcer said that said a lot about our team and a lot about me. He's right. It does. But that is all that has ever been said about it. The team never told me they wanted to win for me. I never asked them to win for me. I did request the wins for the longer stay at the hotel with the high definition TV's, so maybe that is what Erica was talking about.

Seriously, it was a nice confirmation for me to hear that. I always worry about my relationship with my players. Sometimes I think I don't communicate enough with them. Sometimes I think I am too soft or too hard or too distant. I know I am too sarcastic. I'm sure sometimes they hate that.

It is such a fine line. My goal is to be friendly but not their friend, to be approachable but appropriate, to be demanding but patient, to be respected and respectful, and to be competitive and compassionate. Some of these roles are so contradictory, especially to 20 year olds who do not quite appreciate my responsibilities yet. I have not mastered the art of being a great coach, but I do appreciate the team's solidarity that week during the tournament.

After the game, the hotel lobby was a great place for the players and families to spend time together, eat, celebrate, and not disturb the other hotel guests. It was a great space with great people, and we enjoyed it until it was time to go to bed and start preparing for the next day and the defending tournament champions - Kennesaw State.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Banquet

After our practice and a LATE lunch at Quizno's, it was time to go to the hotel and get ready for the banquet. The hotel was awesome! It was the Homewood Suites in Kennesaw. When we walked into our rooms, it was like walking into an apartment. There was a full kitchen. There was a sitting area with nice furniture and a flat screen HDTV. And there was a huge bedroom with another flat screen HDTV. I don't have high def at home (yet), so I asked the team to keep winning, because I was addicted to my hotel TV's. Now you know my motivational secrets.

Outside, we had a courtyard with a small basketball court, putting green, heated pool, gazebo, grill, and fire pit. In the lobby, there was a billiards room. I highly recommend using a pool table for chalk talks. You can use the appropriately numbered balls for each player. When you move a ball forward, you don't have to go back and erase the old player, like you do on a board. It's great! We did have a meeting room where we used the old fashioned white board.

Justin made a highlight/inspirational video for the team. We watched it in the meeting room the night before our first game. It was so good, we had to watch it again before every game. I admit it was a little more motivational than my TV speech.

Erica with some help from Annie and some input from Bublis styled my hair for the banquet. Erica straightened it and gave it a little flip. All the girls and Justin looked nice, and many pictures were taken in the hotel lobby. Many of the pictures were taken in front of a fireplace, which had a TV mounted over it. The television was on CNN reporting the results of the presidential election. You can see the TV reporting the historical night in many of the pictures.

When we got to the banquet, I learned that the team was very excited about being the #3 seed in the tournament, because that meant they would be the 3rd team in line to get their food. There was much disappointment when the servers hand picked the order of the tables, and we ended up being the last people to go through the food line. The buffet was out of spaghetti by the time we got up there. The plastic cups, plates, and utensils were nothing to write home about.

Then, the banquet turned into a Mercer pep rally. Most of these things do turn into a celebration for the regular season champions. All-Conference players are recognized and the trophy is given to the first place team. Mercer racked up the awards including freshman of the year, defensive player of the year, and coach of the year. I can't say that they acted any differently than any other teams do or than we would if we were in the same situation, but it definitely struck a nerve with our team that night.

I had a meeting after the banquet, but when I got back to the hotel, the girls were still talking about too much Mercer and not enough noodles. It was a pleasant time with the team - sitting by the pool, putting on the green, playing pool, and holding my breath hoping no one got hurt during the pick up basketball game. I thought certainly no one would play basketball while I was gone. I saw people out there, so I thought they were at least playing horse. No, they were playing 3 on 3. Oh well.

Finally, the banquet held true to form when most of the team was searching for food before bed.

Pre- Atlantic Sun Tournament

When we finished our conference schedule, we were in 2nd place. As you know, the top two teams get a bye to the semi-finals of the tournament. The problem was not all the teams had played all their games. Specifically, Kennesaw State, who was 2 points behind us in third place, had to play Mercer. If Kennesaw State tied or lost, then we would finish in 2nd. If they won, they would get the 2nd seed and the bye to the semi-finals on their home field.

In 2005 and 2006, our team got caught waiting for results from other teams' games. In 2005, if Jacksonville would have beaten Stetson, we would have qualified for the A-Sun Tournament as the 6 seed. In 2006, we were waiting for the Gardner Webb/Campbell result to get us into the tournament. I forget who we needed to win. I assume it was Campbell. Obviously, it did not go our way. While it does feel much better to wait for a result to see if you are going to be the #2 or #3 seed, it is still not fun. I think in the long run it is going to be good for the team to think about the advantage of finishing in 2nd place. However, for this year, I did not want the team thinking that if we finished in 3rd place that we could not win the tournament. I did not want them to be too upset if Kennesaw State won, which is what happened.

We got our seed, we got our practice and game schedule, and we got our opponent. It was time to prepare. We thought Stetson would play a 4-4-2 with a 1st Team All-Conference player at center midfield. We watched video and trained a few things we thought would be effective when attacking and defending Stetson. We practiced set plays and lots and lots of penalty kicks. We did not train at a consistently high level, but with the injuries and numbers we had, we had a decent preparation. Without looking ahead too much, we would throw in an exercise that we thought would be beneficial against Kennesaw State.

The biggest regret I have of last year's tournament was not practicing penalty kicks for the 2 days immediately prior to our first game. It was due to weather and classes and travel. We had practiced pk's for 2 weeks, but the last time we practiced them was on a Sunday, and we went to penalty kicks against Mercer on Thursday. This year, we were going to practice penalty kicks rain or shine, and we were going to practice at Kennesaw State even if we had to miss extra classes to do so. This is just one example of the kind of dilemmas I face. If we go into penalty kicks at the end of a game, probably six players will be involved. It could be a few more, but that is unlikely. In order to practice penalty kicks at the tournament site, I have to use our practice time which is assigned by the conference office. It means I have to take 22 student-athletes out of class, so we can get to KSU by our 1:00 practice time. It is not as easy decision to make. It is not easy for the student-athletes.

So, I make this decision to leave at 8:00 so that we will be at KSU by 1:00 EST for practice. The bus was over 30 minutes late to pick us up, and we only have 50 minutes on the field, so now we don't know if we are going to make it or not. Thank goodness Wendy made tournament goody bags for the girls to take on the bus. Because we skipped lunch and the rest area, we arrived at the field right at practice time. We will never know if that penalty kick dress rehearsal was the difference in a tournament championship or not, but it didn't hurt.

Senior Night

Our last regular season game was October 31st against Austin Peay. We stuck to some of our traditional senior day activities, but I also decided to try some new things this year. Last season, I was a little disappointed with my usual post-game tribute to the seniors. We lost a conference game that we needed to win and some thought we should have won. It was not fair to the seniors to meet after the game in that state of mind. This season, playing at Vanderbilt did not allow us to have a place to go after the game to talk about the seniors, so I knew we would have to make some changes.

The underclassmen made sheets for the seniors, and we hung them behind the goal. Even the sheets were a little different than past years, because Charlotte bought fitted sheets. That was pretty funny. The team decorates the sheets with pictures and words that remind them of that senior.

Last year, I went to Vanderbilt's senior game. As we walked over to the stands, they had displayed picture collages for each senior. I thought this would be a good idea because I was not going to speak about the seniors outside of the team. Parents and fans could look at pictures of Anna Holt, Jamie Bullock, Anna Walsh, and Annie O'Steen from the last 4 years.

I also decided to borrow an idea from a somewhat successful college coach of whom you may not have heard - Anson Dorrance. Anson writes a letter to each senior and reads his letters in front of the team before their last game. I wrote one letter and dedicated a section of the letter to each senior. What I enjoyed about doing that was it was not only meaningful and appreciated by the seniors, but it was motivational to the entire team. Although we were late getting to the field for warm up, the girls were inspired to play well that night. It showed in the first 10 minutes when we got 6 corner kicks in a row and Bublis scored her 1st goal of the season on an assist from Marcela after an Annie Musacchio corner kick.

The final score was 2-1. We won. I had mixed emotions about the game. It was great to have senior night against a non-conference opponent. It was great to play everyone and give Renee Pilch some time in goal. It was great to win. However, I was worried the entire night about injuries, accumulating yellow cards, and losing. We started the game with a lot of passion and intensity, but it did not last the entire game. I really don't have to worry about whether or not to schedule this type of game in the future, because our conference tournament format is changing, and it will do away with that non-conference game at the end of the regular season.

Beginning next year, eight teams will qualify for the Atlantic Sun tournament. Seeds 1-4 will host seeds 5-8 on the first weekend. There will be a final four at one site the next weekend. Originally, I was opposed to this format. After having to play 3 games in 4 days at this year's A-Sun Tournament, I decided it wasn't such a bad format after all.

I know I have written endlessly about the strides of improvement in this program. On behalf of the seniors, I just want to remind you that the four years prior to Anna, Anna, and Jamie Belmont`s record was 13-60-1. Anna, Anna, and Jamie's career record is 37-31-12. Over the last 4 years, our RPI has gone from 279 to 99. Since I wrote this blog after the fact, we also know that in 4 short years, these seniors took Belmont from next to last in the conference to A-Sun Tournament Champions. Even if we did not accomplish this amazing feat, the leadership, character, and perseverance of Anna Holt, Jamie Bullock, and Anna Walsh would not go unnoticed by me, their teammates, or Belmont. As they have been saying, good things come in threes.