Monday, October 26, 2009

We are the CO-Champions!

It was the most exciting final weekend of the Atlantic Sun regular season in my 13 years in the league. There were 3 teams playing for first, 3 teams fighting for the final playoff spot, and 2 teams playing for the highest seed possible. It was even more exciting, at the end of the weekend, when we finished the regular season in first place. We are tied for 1st place with Kennesaw State. Sharing the championship is a bit of a bummer, especially since we lost to Kennesaw, but I do feel like we deserve it since we only lost one conference game.

We waited until the last 7 minutes of the regular season to claim our crown by scoring 2 goals in the 83rd and 85th minutes of the game against UNF. Jamie Loftis had a huge impact on the game when we changed her position in the 2nd half. She, deservedly, scored the game winning goal. Ironically, the person she traded positions with at halftime, Jayme Trocino, scored the insurance goal 2 minutes later. Is that great coaching to swap their positions at halftime and it have such a profound effect, or is that bad coaching for playing them in the wrong positions the other 18 ½ games?

We are the #2 seed in the conference tournament. We earned the much sought after bye into the semi-finals. However, this is the first year for the tournament to be split into two weekends, so the quarterfinals are played on October 31st, and the semifinals are played on November 5th. Of course, after playing back-to-back quarters and semis in my first 6 A-Sun Tournament appearances, there are 4 days of rest between the two games the year I coach a team that gets the bye. Before Belmont, I have coached teams that have fallen hard in the semifinals. They just could not overcome the physical and emotional fatigue of playing the day or night before. Tying Mercer in the 2007 semifinals was the best result I had ever had in the semifinals, even though we lost in penalty kicks.

My A-Sun Tournament record with JSU is 1-4-1 (I'm pretty sure). With Belmont, my A-Sun Tournament record is 2-0-3. The championship game last year was my first time to coach in a tournament championship game. Last weekend was my first time to coach with the regular season championship on the line. We talk a lot about taking advantage of these opportunities and being in these positions, because a player may not have the same opportunity the following year. It's so true. I coached 16 years before I was in a position to win the league in the last game. I think JSU had a chance to win the OVC with 2 or 3 games left in the season. That is about as close as I had gotten.

Certainly, I have to thank my assistant coaches and players for this accomplishment. Other than a Gatorade shower and some ice cream, we have not done anything to celebrate our co-championship. There is work left to do. Winning the tournament is what gets you respect and publicity and an even bigger opportunity to participate in the NCAA Tournament. The statistics are bad for #2 seeds, defending champions, and even regular season champions. I am going to look all of them up and make sure the team knows how difficult the tournament is going to be and that the odds are stacked against us.

I am not afraid to motivate the team this way. There are some teams that would not respond to negative news. This is not one of those teams. These girls love a challenge! They have for 2 years now. We deal with more than our fair share of obstacles. So many in fact that it makes me wonder... Wouldn't we be better without all the distractions, or are we good because of the obstacles we must overcome?

The team was eating dinner on Saturday night, and Renee informed me that she is making a movie about her life. It will be similar to Rudy. She will play the role of herself because "no one else can capture this essence." We spent the entire dinner deciding which actors would play all the players, coaches, managers, and trainers. This will be a star studded film with Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, and Angelina Jolie, to name a few. I am excited to announce that I will be played by Meryl Streep. It definitely made the time pass quickly.

What is coming up for Belmont soccer? The All-Conference Team will be named this week. Who thinks Sari Lin should be Defensive Player of the Year? Our annual Halloween costume practice will be on Saturday. The coaches are working on a couple of motivational tools for the conference tournament. We planned our trip to Kennesaw. We will play the winner of Campbell/Stetson. They play on Saturday night. We will have general practices this week and begin preparing for our opponent on Sunday.

Hopefully, I will have good news about All-Conference awards in my next post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Win, A Tie and a Loss

We still control our own destiny. Those are words that every coach wants to be able to say this time of year, especially when your destiny could be first place. Ideally, we would have liked to have won both games last weekend against Florida Gulf Coast. Instead, we were able to accomplish 2 things that we have not done in my era at Belmont – beat Florida Gulf Coast and not lose to Stetson at home. The best news of Sunday probably came when we found out that ETSU beat Kennesaw State.

KSU is in 1st place with 18 points and one game left. We are in 2nd place with 17 points and 2 games left. Jacksonville is in 3rd place with 15 points and 2 games left. We have a difficult road trip to Jacksonville, FL to play Jacksonville and North Florida. When we play JU on Friday night, both teams will be fighting to give themselves the opportunity to win the regular season championship on Sunday. If UNF beats Lipscomb on Friday night, they will be fighting to win the final playoff spot when they play us on Sunday.

The stakes are high. I am excited, and so is the team. I plan for the team to be properly prepared and make sure the players properly channel their excitement. The weather forecast is good for the early part of the week, so we should be able to get 2 good practices in before we leave on Thursday.

The weather was not good last week for our preparation. We only practiced on our field on Tuesday (in the rain) to get ready for Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson. The field was saturated for Friday’s games. The men’s soccer team played after our game on Friday. The field was in bad shape for Sunday’s games. The ball would stick in the mud and slow down our players.

Sunday was Senior Day. I stayed with the tradition that I started last year. In the locker room, before the game, I read a letter that I wrote to the seniors. Before the game, the seniors walked out on the field with their parents to be recognized. The team made them scrapbooks. I was impressed with the effort and creativity of the players. Thank goodness for fall break. As usual, each senior had a sheet hanging on the fence.

All the seniors started, and I was happy with their effort and their performances.

We were on fall break last week, so the cafeteria was closed. Lydia Wright’s parents had the team over to their house for dinner on Thursday night, so the girls would eat right to be ready for Friday’s game. I am so grateful to all the parents who take such good care of these student-athletes. In Georgia, we got to break up the monotony of eating in restaurants by eating lunch at Laura Harris’ house before the Mercer game and eating dinner at Alex Mindel’s house the night before the Kennesaw State game.

I watched the Jacksonville vs. North Florida game tonight on JU scored in the first minute of the game and held on to win 1-0. I got a good look at both teams. Now I’m nervous. I am so happy to have our team in this situation. I told our team on our bonding trip that if we were going to win a championship, we were going to have to do it on the road. Here we are, 10 weeks later, ready to jump on that bus!

Sari Lin got defensive player of the week for her 155 shutout minutes last weekend. She made some crucial saves against Florida Gulf Coast. Sari had great help from her defenders as well. Sari has only allowed 5 goals in conference play. Four of those goals were to the same team – Kennesaw State. Two of the 5 goals were penalty kicks – one for KSU and one for Campbell. Those are the statistics it takes to win a championship.

See you when we get back from Florida.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No Need to Panic

Our trip to Mercer and Kennesaw State resulted in 1 point. Even though Kennesaw State passed us in the standings, and they have an easier road than we do, we still have the potential to finish with more points than them. They have 2 losses, and we have 1 loss. If we both win the rest of our games, we will finish ahead of them. I don’t know if it is realistic for me to think we will win out, but I know it is possible.

I don’t worry about that stuff with the team. We will prepare for one game at a time, and concentrate on correcting our mistakes that were obvious last weekend.

It is hard to believe that it is the middle of October. It is hard to believe we have 4 regular season games left. It is hard to believe that Sunday is Senior Day. It is especially hard to believe the amount of rain we have had this fall.

Of course, we have anywhere from 60%-80% chance of rain on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week – the days we practice and improve as a team. Because of rain, we have barely practiced since September 15th. The only week we got to train on consecutive days was the week of September 28th. We are too young, and we do not have enough experience together to not practice on a daily basis. We have no choice. There is standing water on the field, so we run in the gym or on the road, workout in the weight room, analyze video, or have chalk talks. The team is not fit. The team should be so much better than we are. It is very frustrating. So far, we have overcome this obstacle, but I don’t know if we can keep winning without training when the games get more competitive and the stakes are higher.

Also, the weather has been much cooler than normal. We are expecting highs in the 50’s when we host Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson this weekend. Maybe that will work to our advantage. Then, we will have to hope for a cold front in Jacksonville, Florida the next weekend when we go there to play JU and UNF. Otherwise, their low temperature could be higher than our high temperature.

Yes, our road to the tournament is difficult and full of turns and speed bumps. I will do my best to make sure we are competitive enough, prepared enough, and mentally tough enough to be successful no matter the circumstances.

By the way, the Kennesaw State coaches were telling me how their field is suffering from all the rain and some flooding in their area. Their field was beautiful.

I hope to see you at the games this weekend - rain or shine.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Taking Care of Business

We are 4-0 in conference – in 1st place and the only undefeated team. However, only one of the 4 teams we beat was in the A-Sun Tournament last year. This year, it is possible that more than one of the four makes it but not likely. I do think it is an accomplishment to start 4-0, and not lose a game that we “should win.” Winning the games you “should win” is one of the many challenges of a competitive conference season.

The other achievement during the latest stretch is the fact that we played and won 5 games in 11 days. Our next 6 games will be played in 17 days. That is a huge difference.

When we set our team goals, we stated that we wanted to be 4-0 heading into the game against Mercer. In my personal goals for the team, I stated that I wanted Mercer to be 4-0 as well. I thought it was time for our program to be in that kind of game with that kind of pressure. Well, unexpectedly, Mercer is 1-4. I am not sure how I feel about this. As if Mercer does not have enough motivation to beat us already, now they are one loss away from being in a must win situation to qualify for the conference tournament.

The two games this weekend at Mercer and at Kennesaw State could be the most pressure filled regular season games of my career. I doubt many teams have been as motivated to beat one of my teams as Mercer and Kennesaw will be this weekend. By upsetting both teams in the tournament last year, I am pretty sure they put a big mark by our name on their schedules.

We are expecting it, and we will be ready. I am excited to see how we respond and how we play this weekend.

Sari just got A-Sun Defensive Player of the Week. She has not given up a goal since the penalty kick to Campbell. Her goals against average is .71. She picked up her first assist in Sunday’s game on the first goal by Erica Carter. Sari’s distribution has been awesome since conference started. I also credit our entire team but especially our backs for our league leading defensive statistics.

A couple of our players picked up a stomach bug last weekend. Hopefully, we can keep it from spreading throughout the team. We don’t have the Tim Tebow transportation for sick players.

I hope to return next week with happy stories to tell.