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.