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.