Tuesday, November 4, 2008

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.

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