Soccer Poet

Making a Pro

Making a Pro

Danielle Johnson prepares for her start against the Atlant Beat.

A year ago I was living in Oxford, MS and one of our graduating Ole Miss seniors, Danielle Johnson (Dee), was a candidate to continue her playing career as a professional in the WPS. We had talked about her post-college career only once while she was still playing. It was early in her senior season and the conversation was brief. I told her that if she wanted to make a run at the pros, I would be happy to help her train. She said she’d like that. And then we agreed we wouldn’t talk about it again until after the season had ended.

When the time came, we sat down and addressed her strengths and weaknesses, not just as a player, but as a professional prospect. And trust me, there is a difference. Dee was plenty talented enough to play professionally. I never doubted that for a moment. But college women’s soccer isn’t like NCAA football or basketball where the players are constantly on television for professional coaches to evaluate. And teams in the WPS don’t have the budgets for scouts to scour the country looking at players. So a lot of their draft decisions are done blindly and depend heavily on consultations with college coaches who know the players they are considering.

Naturally, the big hope was that Dee would get drafted. That was the first hurdle and would save her from the grind of travelling from city to city to attend player combines and open tryouts. But even if the draft dream came to fruition, there was no guarantee that Dee would be on a WPS roster. She would still have to try out for whichever team had selected her.

We couldn’t control whether or not a franchise would use a draft pick on her. But we could at least be prepared if that moment came along. So in January we went to work preparing for the best. Dee was a sensational center back and that was her preferred position, but as a pro, her size would likely dictate a move to outside back. So that’s what we focused on in training.

In mid December Coach Holeman and I started taking calls from a couple of WPS coaches asking for evaluations on Dee. This was how I summed her up:

For starters, Dee’s one of the best all-around people you will ever meet. She’s a fantastic person and teammate. She’s always cheerful and she’s got a fantastic sense of humor. Her teammates will love her. She’ll never give you any problems. She’ll work her tail off every single day and you won’t have to chase her out of the clubs. She’s serious about soccer and she’s dedicated to improving.

The problem you’ll have with Dee is that her two best soccer qualities are probably the two most difficult things for a coach to notice in a short period of time: Her 1v1 defending and her consistency.

Dee is the best 1v1 defender I’ve ever seen. She never gets beat. I mean NEVER. Sometimes I’ll see an opponent in a 1v1 situation against her and I can see the wheels turning in that forward’s head and I’ll think, ‘Aw, that girl thinks she can beat Dee. Isn’t that cute?’ Three seconds later Dee will have the ball and be dribbling up the field. I’ve seen that movie a hundred times over.

Technically she doesn’t have any notable weakness. She’s just plain very good at everything. She’s got very good speed. She’s very sound technically. She’s very good in the air. She can play with any surface of either foot. It doesn’t matter what exercise you do, Dee may not be the best in any one of them, but she’ll be in your top five in all of them. And she almost never loses the ball.

In Mid-January the WPS held its draft. I was in Birmingham that morning, glued to a computer watching the WPS Twitter feed. The conversations Coach Holeman and I had with WPS coaches had us feeling fairly confident that Dee would get selected, by either New Jersey or Boston. When Boston passed on her in the fourth round of a six-round draft, I was a little on edge. But a few picks later, still in the fourth round, the defending WPS champion, NJ Sky Blue, selected Danielle Johnson from Ole Miss. I couldn’t have been any happier if I had been drafted by the Phillies. Step #1 was accomplished. Believe it or not, that was the easy part. The real challenge for Dee would be making the roster.

We did the math. There were a limited number of roster spots – 22 to be exact. We figured that no established professional player was leaving the Sky Blue roster voluntarily, so to be a pro, Dee would have to beat out some pros – not to mention three girls who had been drafted ahead of her and whoever else might magically appear as players are wont to do. Dee was a dark horse at best.

Complicating matters was Dee herself. As I said in her evaluation, she’s tough to notice in just a few days. She’s a phenomenal player, but she’s got no ‘POP.’ She’s sound and dependable and unlikely to make a mistake. What she won’t do is make your head spin by weaving through 3 players on the dribble. Defensively, she’s a pickpocket. She’s not going to turn heads with thundering tackles. At the professional level, it would take a while for a coach to notice how much Dee had to offer. But Dee didn’t have a while.

Once Dee was drafted we shifted into a higher gear with her training. Dee continued to train with the Ole Miss team, we arranged some small-sided games with some of the Ole Miss men’s club players, and we added a few sessions each week where it was just she and I. One of Dee’s goals was to be at peak fitness when she reported to camp. I didn’t worry much about that. Dee is one of those people who is naturally blessed with a deep fitness tank. She can run forever.

It’s funny how many players make fitness their #1 priority, as if they are joining a track team. But it makes sense. Ultimately it’s about confidence and fitness is the one thing a player can take absolute control over. For Dee, because she is so competent technically, fitness is something she’ll gravitate toward because it can never be mastered. You can’t always measure whether or not you’re getting better technically. But you can measure fitness, and you can always see some improvement from week to week.

My goals were a little bit different. Technically I wanted her to get a little bit better with long balls, particularly low, driven balls that would serve as 30-40 yard passes that got from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. This is an important quality in defenders that a lot of players lack. I figured it might be one technical thing that would catch the attention of her new coaches. If she switched fields with a 40 yard waist-high laser, even once, someone would notice.

Beyond that, I wanted Dee to report to that camp with a surplus of confidence, which is easier said than done. In two months Dee would be on the field with legitimate international superstars and I didn’t want her feeling star-struck and overwhelmed. I wanted Dee to be so comfortable with the ball that it would seem an extension of herself. So each day I would try to create technically challenging exercises that were more difficult than anything she had seen. I tried to design exercises where she would fail initially but would master over a few sessions. Each time she took one of my mountains and ground it into a molehill her confidence would grow.

Let me tell you something about Dee. When you’re trying to design a technical exercise to make her fail, you better bring out the heavy artillery because that girl adapts quicker than a cockroach. After our first two sessions I had to step back and reevaluate my strategy because she wasn’t just turning my mountains into molehills – she was vaporizing them into dust. So I went back to the drawing board and started designing exercises that were one click below impossible, exercises that no one in the world could master on the first go-‘round. And that’s where we found some chinks in her armor.

Nothing determines a player’s level of confidence more than her first touch. When Dee got to NJ I didn’t want her to see a single ball that she hadn’t already seen and mastered in Oxford, MS, so we began doing some drills that can only be described as absurd. In one of these drills Dee stood facing me from three yards away. I would gently punt a ball that would land 8-10 yards past where she stood. When the punt came off my foot, Dee would have to spin, chase the ball down at full sprint and before it hit the ground, cradle it on her instep and turn the ball back toward me, then return it with a pass. Dee struggled for the first few reps but after that, it was a sight to behold. She was chasing those balls down like Willie Mays and executing that turn effortlessly with either foot. First with the right foot, then with the left. One after another – flawlessly.

But my favorite confidence building game is Ping. In Ping, Dee would stand about two yards in front of the goal facing the field (the goal was only there to collect balls after bad reps). I stood at the penalty stripe with a bag of balls. Ping is a really simple game. I would blast a ball at Dee, aiming for knee-high or lower, and her job was to bring the ball down in front of her no more than a step away. Sometimes I would strike the ball off the ground. Sometimes I would half-volley it. Either way, that ball was movin’!

As you might imagine, when you’re the player in Dee’s spot, playing Ping takes a great deal of trust in your server. When someone inadvertently wallops a half-volley at your sternum from ten yards away, there isn’t a lot of time to get out of the way. And occasionally we had our mishaps (It really helps if your player is the forgiving sort). But by and large Ping was a great confidence builder. Dee got more comfortable each time we played to the point where I began to put restrictions on her. By the end of our time together I could dictate that Dee could only receive the ball with the outside of her foot. Then I would absolutely bomb half-volleys at her and watch her just clean them up, one after another, like she had been doing it her whole life. And it seemed like each day, after we had put the equipment away, I would walk into Coach Holeman’s office and say, “Man. Dee is so freaking good.”

Our fitness sessions were gruesome. Again I set out to create exercises designed to make her fail – no small feat, mind you. So I constructed these obstacle courses from hell that would leave one of the fittest people I’ve ever seen on wobbly legs, hunched over gasping for breath. And just in case you’re ever thinking about training a player with similar goals, I hope she is blessed with Dee’s work rate and determination which cannot possibly be overstated. Reading about these sessions does no justice at all to Dee’s intestinal fortitude.

Dee never, not once coasted through a single repetition of anything we did. If anything, there were times when I had to command her to slow down. She has high gear, exclusively. And she brought that high gear day after day after day. Most days it was just Dee and I and a couple bags of balls on a big empty field. There was no atmosphere. There were no teammates cheering her on. Some days it was rainy and below freezing. But Dee never shrank. Nothing muffled her work ethic. She trained with a frenetic urgency to arrive to New Jersey as prepared as humanly possible. It didn’t matter how grueling our session was on Monday, on Tuesday Dee was right back out there begging for more, like a prizefighter inviting another haymaker from his opponent. A coach would be lucky to experience even one player like that in a career. When you do, it changes your expectations of every other player you will ever coach.

When it was time for Dee to go I told her she was ready; that she belonged playing at that level – because she was. Then I gave her a Bruce Springsteen CD and wished her well.

Sky Blue held a preseason like every other team. But they also held a pre-preseason. They brought in some of the holdover bubble players from the 2009 roster, some other players they had identified but not drafted, and their 2010 draft picks. In total, about 25 players reported for Preseason 1.0. Of that group, a dozen or so would advance to Preseason 2.0 where they would meet up with the team’s regular starters and marquee players and the real fight for roster spots would begin. Dee needed to advance through both rounds to be legitimately considered a pro.

Dee survived that first cut and a series of others and was eventually included in Sky Blue’s 22-woman roster as a ‘developmental player’, a tag hung on players 18-22. And in their first game of the 2010 season, Dee came off the bench to help seal a victory. Dee, the dark horse with no POP, was officially a pro.

A month or so after the WPS season began I got to meet Sky Blue’s assistant coach, Rick Stainton. Rick was the guy I had been speaking with before the draft. He told me a great story about how Dee survived all the cuts. He said she was on the board as a potential cut every time. There was nothing about Dee’s play that warranted a cut. It wasn’t like she was playing poorly. But just as we suspected, Dee was hard to notice. She was flying under the radar – definitely not a good thing when you’re trying to get noticed. If Dee was going to be cut it wasn’t going to be because of her game. It was going to be because they had to cut someone. But then the coaches would go through the records they kept of their 1v1 battles and discover that Dee never got beat. Even the superstars couldn’t get past her. And they realized that there was something about this kid from Baton Rouge that was worth hanging onto.

So why am I driving this entry down Memory Lane? Because Dee has to go through it all over again in a few months. And her first move, literally, is to Athens, GA so we can reconvene her training. There are some logistical wrinkles we still need to iron out, but if all goes well, I’ll document our training sessions and all you soccer junkies out there can get your fix. And maybe one day you’ll have the chance to train a player and see her on national television, maybe playing against the world’s very best player.

soccerpoet 353
soccerpoet 353

updated: 6 years ago

Ten Things for a Better 2011

Ten Things for a Better 2011

Speaking of things that would make 2011 fantastic...

Happy Holidays! Hope your Christmas was merrier than a Burl Ives claymation special and that your 2011 will be everything you hoped for. As for me, my 2010 closed in sensational fashion, but more about that later. Since the New Year is almost upon us, I thought I would write about 10 things that would make my 2011 even better.

10. The Georgia Bulldogs advance to the College Cup. We’ve lost some incredible seniors, but our cabinet is still well-stocked with talent and determination and hopefully it will all come together beautifully in the fall. Atlanta is the host city for the 2011 College Cup which would make it even sweeter for the Bulldog faithful.

9. 12 months without Tiger Woods, Brett Favre or LeBron James. I’m convinced that the only reason these three remain a story is because of sports editors and programming directors who insist that they are still interesting.

8. A moratorium on anyone’s major blunder being compared to, cited as, or otherwise referred to or referenced with Bill Buckner. Find a new metaphor, would ya? It happened in 1986. That was twenty-five years ago. Let it go, man. Let it go. Besides, the Red Sox have won a pair of World Series since then. It’s all good.

7. Kristine Lilly gets her own U.S. postage stamp. Seriously, is there another athlete who deserves it more? Who else has represented the United States at anything over 350 times? She’s a national treasure and I say we celebrate her before her legacy gets shuffled to the bottom of a very large pile.

6. A change in college soccer’s official scoring system that would mandate that shots deflecting off the posts/crossbar are recorded as ‘shots on goal.’ Betcha didn’t know. (86ing the fourth official ain’t such a bad idea either. Just sayin’.)

5. Ryan Ferguson gets out of prison because his prosecution was so ludicrous it frightens me and should frighten you, too. You can read a recent update about his case from the front page of the Kansas City Star here.

4. Every professional athlete/actor/singer/performer that makes more than $500,000 donates at least 10% of his/her salary in a unified effort to combat homelessness and hunger in the United States. Anyone donating more than $5 million gets five tax free years. Anyone donating more than $10 million never has to pay income tax again. Bruce Springsteen writes theme song for the effort. Dick Vermeil cries.

3. The World Cup selection committee resigns in shame. Because it’s the right thing to do.

2. A NFL season without those horrible Coors Light commercials. What Coors executive keeps getting convinced that these are a good idea? Somebody check his pulse.

And finally…

#1 Peace on Earth, good will to man… and monkey. Amen.

updated: 6 years ago

POET MINDBENDER

POET MINDBENDER

Welcome to the world’s most important intellectual puzzle and a chance to claim the title of Smartest Person of 2010. If you can read this post, then the Mindbender is live and it’s game on! Anyone can play, but only subscribers can compete for the really cool prize. First one to submit all the correct answers… wins. That simple.

If you don’t understand the puzzle, READ THIS.

There were several solution submitted for the preview puzzle posted in the last entry:

4 = B from L.

Kathy Barlow came the closest with 4 Boys from Liverpool but Eduardo Ibanez's dark horse entry of 4 Beers from Love was the panel’s runaway favorite. Incidentally, the correct answer is 4 Beatles from Liverpool.

One other thing… feel free to work in a group, to solicit help, whatever. However, no search engine help! No technological assistance! I’ve done my best to Google-proof this puzzle but it’s not Fort Knox. We’re on the honor system here. So cowboy up and let your brain earn its money.

To submit your finished answer sheet, use the Contact The Poet link.

Okay, without further ado. Best of luck. Think well. And remember, there are no points for second place.

0 = MM in KWF

1 = L in BMS

2 = T in DS the CITH

3 = C on F in THE

4 = NB in MG

5 = OCS in AJD with JB

6 = FOT

7 = H of HEP in SCB

8 = N of BB in B

9.5 = W in MRM

10 = I from F to C

11 = PP in CC

13 = JN of NYYAR

17 = A in DCSSW

27 = BF in PG

40 = Q in R

44 = C for FCS

50 = FD in ASM

56 = S of D of I

76 = T in the BP in MM

99 = LB in NS (GV)

118 = E in PT

200 = L in DFH

1492 = YCS the OB

4815162342 = HN on L

updated: 6 years ago

Poet Primer

Poet Primer

Okay, so I’m posting two blog entries today. So if you haven’t read Ineptitude, make sure you do before checking out. Besides, this one isn’t really a blog entry. It’s more of a memo.

I am giving notice that the first edition of the Christmas Mindbender – Poet Style – will be the next blog entry. My hope is that the advance notice will put the Poet readership on some type of equal footing when it comes time to compete.

A few colleges ago I was introduced to this type of puzzle by a baseball coach named Chip. Chip handed out about two dozen of these to the coaches and assorted others and let us have at it. I was immediately hooked. Chip’s puzzle became a one-week obsession. I spent hour after hour staring at that sheet of paper trying to conquer the intellectual challenge. I was putting so much thought into solving the puzzles that one night one of the answers literally came to me in my sleep. No joke. I got out of bed and wrote it down.

The puzzle will be posted sometime in the next five or six days, so just check in from time to time so no one gets too big of a head start on you. The first subscriber to correctly submit all the correct answers will win a big fat prize courtesy of SoccerPoet. Anyone can play, but only subscribers are eligible to win. (This would be an excellent time for you to take 30 seconds and subscribe.)

The puzzle format?

You are given a number, followed by an equals sign, followed by a series of letters. The letters correspond to the number.

For example…

12 = I in F

Solution: 12 = Inches in a foot.

Here’s another…

4 = Q in D

Solution: 4 = Quarters in a dollar

Simple right? Well I can assure you that they are a lot more difficult when the solutions aren’t posted right beside them.

And just so you can have a little practice, here’s the one that was solved in my sleep…

4 = B from L

See what you can do with that.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen this, spend 3 minutes watching what may very well be the very best tradition in all of college sports. Don’t stop watching before the singing. Trust me, you’ll be happy you clicked that link.

And be sure to go back and read Ineptitude.

Enjoy!

updated: 6 years ago

Ineptitude

Ineptitude

“What’s the difference between an elf and a slave?”

- Brittany Pierce

Most days I’m a friend to the Christmas spirit. Let’s face it; I’m a kid at heart – and what kid doesn’t absolutely love, love, LOVE Christmas? I love trees and lights and shiny decorations and the conveyor belt of baked goods that magically appears each December to fatten me up. I’m crazy for piles of presents under the tree and the jolly ol’ fat man on his sleigh jingling those bells. I even like Christmas music – in moderation. I sing out loud with Bruce every time Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town graces my radio. And is there a catchier holiday tune than Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses? I’m faithfully devoted to the Christmas specials that have been around since I was a kid and I’ll watch them whenever I can. I know that Cindy Lou Hoo was no more than two and that’s the Grinch’s dog was named Max and I laugh every time I see the first time Max tugs that sled down the side of Mount Krumpet. I can practically recite A Christmas Story line for line. I have an authentic Santa hat that I am not shy about wearing, even if I’m home alone. And I can name all the reindeer. Yes, I am a sucker for Christmas magic. But there is one day each December when I find myself really looking forward to January.

A few days ago began my annual gift-wrapping fiasco that we’ll just refer to as my Holiday Nutty.

I have a gift-wrapping disorder. Anyone who has ever received a gift from me will attest to that. If you got thirty gifts from thirty people, you would know exactly which one came from me. It would be the one that looked like it was wrapped by someone with no thumbs. Or scissors.

My DNA is utterly devoid of the crafty chromosome. For the entirety of my life, any time I’ve tried to manufacture something in the ‘arts and crafts’ family, what I end up producing is what most would call a crime against humanity.

Remember in second grade when you made that house from popsicle sticks? Everyone else in my class tackled the assignment beautifully. They built luxury 3 bed/3 bath colonials with screened-in swimming pools and two-car garages. Me? I had no concept of dexterity, architecture or the glue-to-stick ratio so my finished project looked like a dilapidated outhouse that oozed vanilla icing. By the end I was covered in paste and had to be pried from my desk. I went home with so many popsicle sticks stuck to me that my mom thought Old Man Wilson shot me with his bow and arrow so she called 911.

One summer when I was about ten, Mom signed me up for a three-day arts and crafts “fair.” Mom knew about my uneasiness with both strangers and art, so she persuaded our neighbor to sign up her daughter Ellen. Ellen and I had been friends forever so Mom hoped that her presence would ease my anxiety.

The first project was turning a milk jug into a piggy bank. Easy enough, right? Yeah. Unless you’re me. I’m not exactly sure how I mangled that particular project. All I know is that Ellen laughed at it and called me stupid so I stabbed her pig with a pair of scissors and she ran crying to the teacher who promptly instructed my mother to come get her son.

My ineptitude at the whole artsy thing extended neatly into my wrapping of Christmas presents. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such a curse, but I am without question the single worst wrapper of gifts in North America. I mean I’m not just bad at this; I’m a freaking disaster. For starters, I can never get the damn wrapping paper started. It’s like they glue it on there with some industrial strength piece of scotch tape. And why scotch tape? Why would you secure something as ornate as wrapping paper with transparent tape? I know I’m going to butcher it anyway. Can’t they at least make it easier to find? How the heck am I supposed to see the edge of transparent tape when there are 36 different colors running underneath it?

I can never get the tape peeled away without mangling the paper. I try with my fingernails, but they’re not long enough. Then I have a go at it with the scissors, but they’re too thick. Before long I’ve broken out a nine-inch Ginsu knife and a pair of needle-nose pliers because I can’t outwit a piece of tape on a ninety-five cent roll of wrapping paper.

By the time I get the roll freed up the front edge looks like it’s been dipped in a shredder. And then, when I unfurl a swatch of paper big enough to fit the first package, I loosen my grip and the paper recoils like a Burmese python strangling the center roll of cardboard and I have to start over. Because I don’t want to get up, I start looking for objects within arms’ reach that will secure the paper. Eventually I’ll settle on things like a stapler, a vase and the goldfish bowl. Then I’ll go to cuttin’.

The crux of my disorder is the inability to make a decent guess about how much paper I need to wrap the package. I inevitably commit to a length of paper that is either far too long or too short. Then I spend the next fifteen minutes channeling my inner MacGyver in a vain attempt to correct the initial mistake.

When anyone else wraps a gift, you can at least tell the shape of the package. If someone wraps a box, it looks like a box. If someone wraps a baseball bat, it looks like a baseball bat. If I wrap a baseball bat it looks like Fred Flintstone’s club. Or an oboe. Or a prosthetic leg.

There were two times in my childhood when I felt like a complete outcast: Algebra class and Christmas morning. Everyone else’s presents would be there under the tree looking tidy and impressive, like they’d been packaged by an elfin consortium of licensed wrappers. And then there were the ones I wrapped - hideously disfigured box-monsters, grotesquely misshapen and looking like they’d been slept on. The paper would be wrinkled and torn. I would try to cover the rips by taping on scraps of matching paper, which explains why I go through roughly a roll of tape with every present and why a lot of my gifts bear an alarming likeness to ransom notes.

I could never figure out the measuring thing. Sometimes the amount of paper was less than the box required, leaving amateurish gaps. They usually weren’t quite big enough to give away the entire contents of the package, but on some of my finer works my mom could still read big portions of the product description, such as ACUUM LEANER.

But more often than not my measuring mistakes are ones of gross excess. It’s customary that on most boxes I use enough wrapping paper to hide a body, giving my packages their signature feel of a goose down duvet. I could wrap a shoe box and you would swear that someone had left a bear cub under the tree. That’s why my sister would always poke air holes in my gifts. I once gave my dad a cigar box and he thought I had stolen the pillow he liked on our trip to South of the Border. It’s really that bad.

One year, when I was twelve, I bought my parents a set of wine glasses. On Christmas Eve, as I ran barefoot through the house to deliver them underneath the tree, I stepped on one of our dog’s three dozen bones, lost my balance and sent the box hurtling end over end through space. In that horrifying instant, as I lay helpless on my stomach watching that package fly through the air in torturous slow motion, the only thing dancing through my head was the seven weeks of allowance I had spent to buy the damn things. But then something remarkable happened. The box hit the ground without so much as a clink. For all my parents knew I had bought them a dozen pair of wool socks. I had used so much paper I could have dropped that box off the Sears Tower and nothing would have broken. It was a Christmas miracle.

Another celebrated part of my holiday ineptitude is the annual misplacing the scissors. I’ll be there, just sitting in precisely the same spot I was thirty seconds ago when I finished wrapping the last box, and POOF!, the scissors have magically vanished.

Really?

I do the mandatory 360 hand-pat along the floor like someone who has dropped his house key on a dark lawn until I realize that there’s no escaping the inevitable: I have to stand up. I hate that part. Now I’m standing in the middle of a ring of presents and other assorted holiday clutter, spinning in circles, trying to convince myself not to look under that scrap of paper because I’ve already searched there, wondering what maniacal force visits me each year and HIDES. THE DAMN. SCISSORS.

Eventually I find them underneath a scrap of paper I’m 100% certain I’ve already looked under five times. At which point I sit back down to resume wrapping and then realize that now the scotch tape has run away.

Where’s the tape?

Where’s the tape?

Where’s the freaking tape, fat man!

If I don’t find the damn tape in like two seconds this gift is going through the television and the Christmas tree is gonna be firewood. Before you know it I’m tossing scraps of wrapping paper in the air like a madman rifling through a dumpster for the wedding ring he accidentally left on his tray at Taco Bell.

The tape is always in the same spot. Always. It’s camouflaged on top of a gift I’ve already wrapped and I can’t see it because it’s freaking transparent! Oh I curse you, maker of scotch tape. You and your invisible ways are the bane of my holiday existence.

Eventually the gift is enveloped in a cocoon of bright paper pieces giving it more layers than a blue ribbon Vidalia onion. It’s bad, but it’s as wrapped as it’s gonna get. I’m not proud of what I’ve done. Despite my high hopes for the contrary, my wrapping has not improved since last Christmas and this gift looks as bad as any of them ever have. I surrender to my mediocrity. Wrapping isn’t my thing. It’ll just have to do.

I reach for the bow and the tag to put this project out of its misery and move on to the next. It’s right about then when I realize I haven’t the slightest idea of what I just wrapped or who it’s for.

Really?

updated: 6 years ago

Wings

Wings

Photo by Mitchell Anderson

As promised, the Belmont story has wings. Today CNN’s Headline News ran this segment. But the report that must have a battle-weary Belmont brass wondering where exactly the wheels came off was Tuesday’s story from Nashville Scene that proposed this little gem:

Belmont University may have been founded by… (wait for it)… (honestly couldn’t make this up if I tried)… LESBIANS.

Doh!

Man. Talk about your all-time backfires.

In a 1996 article, Nashville Scene reported that Belmont’s founders were Isa E. Hood and Susan L. Heron, whom historians have suggested were lesbians.

Ida E. Hood and Susan L. Heron are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in a grave with a double marker. Documents and papers found in the Nashville Room of the public library paint a picture of two lifemates who very likely shared much more than a devoted ‘friendship.’ (One oft-repeated antecdote tells of the two women daily pushing the sofa in front of the door when it came time for their afternoon nap.

The Scene felt obliged to remind its readers about that little tidbit of research. Of course there’s plenty of speculation weaved into the Scene’s theory and no discernible proof, but again Belmont finds itself in an impossible spot. The recent wave of bad publicity has had Belmont’s P.R. department burning the midnight oil, espousing a campaign of tolerance in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. The enlightened stance of a kinder, gentler Belmont was hammered home when university president Dr. Bob Fisher (who has probably spent the last few sleepless nights wishing he’d never heard of soccer) declared that Belmont seeks to be a “safe and welcoming place for all.”

That stance, laudable as it may be, prohibits Belmont from even questioning the veracity of the Scene’s story. Because why would they? If the university’s stance of tolerance is to be believed, then they wouldn’t care whether or not the story was true or false. So the powers-that-be just have to sit there wondering exactly how much further down they have to go to hit rock bottom, waiting for this to all go away. It’s straight out of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The bottom line is that the university’s actions regarding Coach Howe a week and a half ago are incongruent with the message they’ve been trying to sell ever since. I don’t care who you have writing your press releases, when words don’t match actions you’ve got yourself a problem. And wow, do they ever have themselves a whopper.

You know, this all reminds me of some sage advice I got many years ago:

There are two steps necessary to climb out of a hole you’ve dug. Step #1 is to stop digging.

Until Belmont does that, Step #2 just doesn’t matter.

updated: 6 years ago

Front Page News

Front Page News

Let me begin by saying that Robin Confer makes the best chili I’ve ever had. At first I thought it was because there’s about a pound and a half of ground beef in every bowl – and let’s face it, we award big big bonus points for that – but it’s also just plain delicious! I’ve had three bowls in the past two days and she may find me at her door begging for more before the week is out.

One of the cool things about keeping this blog is it puts me back in touch with a lot of the players I’ve coached over the years. Every school I’ve coached at is represented in our subscriber list. A lot of them followed my other blog and are happy to have a new excuse to not do work when they’re at work. And I applaud them for it.

Tonight I got a call from one of my all-time favorite people/players, Shorty. Anyone who has ever met Shorty will back me up on this – she is one of the nicest people to ever walk this earth. She’s warm and friendly and loyal and has a great big heart. She's perpetually cheerful and laughs at everything. She’ll help you before you have to ask, even if she’s never seen you before. So from a personality standpoint she is about the last person you’d ever expect to be a boxer.

Shorty took up boxing when she moved from Daytona Beach to Long island and she immediately fell in love with the sport. As it turns out, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met is actually a natural pugilist. So much so that about 12 months after taking up the sport, Shorty nearly won the New York Golden Gloves title and qualified for the Olympics. So yeah, all things considered, that would qualify her as a natural.

When Shorty was considering a career move that would relocate her off Long Island, the most difficult part of her decision was leaving her trainer. An engineering firm in Kansas badly wanted her services. So did one in California. Did you know that Wichita is one of the hotbeds of women’s boxing in this country? Neither did I. But it is and that’s where Shorty went. And that is where she met her trainer, Tommy Morrison. Yes. That Tommy Morrison. You know. The boxer. The power puncher with the devastating left hook.

Not ringing a bell? Well, he defeated George Foreman and was WBO World Heavyweight Champion. He also knocked out Razor Ruddock. Remember yet?

Still nothing? Okay, let’s take a different approach. You seen Rocky V? Remember Tommy Gunn? Yeah. That’s him.

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I mean how cool is that?! I mean how would you like to train from a guy who can do this?

Okay, so for a sport that flies conveniently below the radar, women’s soccer has produced two media worthy scandals in one season. First was FSU coach Mark Krikorian leaving his starters in Tallahassee during the ACC Tournament. That one made it as far as the NY Times. Here’s a pretty balanced look at the Times’ take on it.

But I have a feeling that story is going to pale in comparison to what’s been happening at Belmont University in Nashville. To make a long story short, Belmont walked away from its women’s soccer coach, Lisa Howe, because she’s gay. Not because she’s gay and can’t coach. Because she’s gay. Here is the article from WKRN that got the ball rolling.

The story quickly became big news across Tennessee and is now snowballing its way to national attention. Sportsillustrated.com weighed in dramatically with this piece.

And the latest to tag along is the Los Angeles Times.

SI and the L.A. Times? In the world of journalism, those are two heavy hitters. At Belmont’s student newspaper, The Vision, Coach Howe is top to bottom news. And The Tennessean, another Nashville paper, has been doggedly and dutifully stoking the anti-establishment fires at ground zero.

As for Belmont’s leadership, they seem to have backpedaled themselves out of any comprehensible stance, claiming that Howe not only wasn’t fired for being gay, but that she wasn’t fired at all. Nor (and this is the real trick) did she resign. She just sorta stopped being an employee, like a pencil that had run out of lead. Now with the storm of negative publicity picking up strength like an August hurricane, Belmont, a Christian University, can’t realistically make a stand. The leadership has fallen into its own trap. They can’t say that Howe wasn’t forced out because let’s face it, no one is gonna believe it. And they can’t say that she was fired for failing to uphold their Christian ideals without also saying that she was fired. (For some reason this reminds me of Bill Clinton, during his impeachment hearings, asking for clarification on the definition of the word ‘is.’ )

I’m not here to pass judgment on any of it. Just seems to me if you’re going to take a hard-line stance about such a hot-button subject, you’d be better off stepping up and owning it. Raise a flag and say, “This is who we are and this is what we believe in and this coach wasn’t living up to our values so she was dismissed.” Sure, plenty of people would rise up against you. But others would rally behind you. At least everyone would know how you want to define yourself. I mean realistically, would Belmont be any worse off right now?

Regardless, if my little slice of the internet is the first you’re hearing of this, I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. Some very high profile people will eventually be asked to opine on this matter before all is said and done. Right now Belmont is looking at a snowball. In a week or two it will be squaring up to an avalanche.

updated: 6 years ago

EBOLA.  Day 105

EBOLA nbspDay 105

It’s 11 P.M. You may be thinking, aren’t you supposed to be asleep? Well, here’s the thing. By and large I slept until 4 this afternoon. And I’ve got to be awake at sometime I reckon. So 11 P.M. it is.

One silver lining to this Ebola thing is that I’ve been having these really vivid (and wonderfully bizarre) dreams. The other night I had one that I was returning to Bethany to play one more year of college soccer. My college coach, JC, was still the coach. The program was in trouble so I decided to move back to West Virginia to help them out (because yeah, like I’m the solution). So I met with JC and told him that I could help, but I had one demand. My legs would hurt so agonizingly bad after practices or games that I required post-soccer leg massages or else I wouldn’t be able to walk. It just got worse from there, because although my demands were being met, I still could barely walk, and often I couldn’t walk at all. I would try so hard to move my legs but they just wouldn’t go anywhere… which could have been part of the reason I was failing my classes. The remainder of the reason was threefold: 1) I could never find my class and usually ended up sitting in the wrong class; 2) My professors hated me because, well, they just hated me; and 3) I was always completely unprepared. I couldn’t find my books. Couldn’t find my assignments. And when I did manage to stumble into the proper class, I realized I had no idea what anyone was talking about. And I mean NONE whatsoever. The subject matter was completely foreign to me (so let’s assume it was some type of math). And just to throw a cherry on my sundae, all the other students hated me and no one would speak to me.

But the real highlight of the dream was the game. I was going to play college soccer again, so that gets a big WooHoo! Except, in a town of 1,500 where I spent five years, I couldn’t find my own soccer field. And when I did, there were only five minutes left in the game. It completely sucked.

It was the most frustrating dream of my life. When I woke up, everything was all too familiar. I’ve had all three pieces of that dream before – the aching legs that just won’t move; the academic ineptitude; and the missed soccer game. But I don’t think I’ve ever had all three at once. It was my nightmare Triple Crown. I’m no Freud, but I’m going to wager a guess. The three notable qualities of the dream were immobility, unpreparedness and frustration. Sounds like a guy without a vehicle who is stuck on a couch with the holidays approaching and a heckuva lot to do. Feel free to mail me my Ph.D.

The 2022 World Cup is going to Qatar. Yes, that Qatar. The one in the desert. The really hot desert. Where temps will be hovering near 130�. So yeah, that should be fun. Allegedly the organizers are going to build state-of-the-art air-conditioned outdoor stadiums for the event, which must lead any rational person to ask, How is it actually possible that there is poverty in this world? HOW!!! Doesn’t it just make your head hurt?

In August of 2009 I was on a boat that toured around Miami and gave us a look at the homes of the uber-wealthy. Of all the amazing things we learned about these estates, my favorite was the guy who had an air-conditioned backyard. On an island where the residents are forever trying to outdo the Joneses (and the Jameses and Winfreys and Cruises), I thought it was a fabulous and untrumpable display of unadulterated, shameless excess. I don’t care if Bruce Springsteen did play your kids Bar Mitzvah. I’ve got so much money I can literally watch it blow away. Game-Point-Match. I mean there’s pretentious, and then there’s just plain over-the-top, sensationally ostentatious. To be certain, cooling your backyard - in Miami - falls into the latter.

Here’s the thing… Just installing the system cost the guy $18,000, and his back yard wasn’t very big. I mean it may have been roughly half the size of an 18-yard box. Mind you, that’s $18,000 before anyone even turns the thing on. I’m no expert on this but I’m gonna guess that cooling a back yard in Miami is gonna run you a pretty penny. And Miami’s summertime high temps usually peak out in the low 90s. That would be forty degrees cooler than Qatar… which makes you wonder if they really even need AC in Miami. Seems kinda soft by comparison.

So anyway, I’m not even going to try extrapolating that backyard into 12 full-size stadiums, because let’s face it, I can’t. Then, just for kicks, let’s tack on the $18 million Qatar has given Zidan Zidane for being the point man for their bid. You can see they’re racking up quite the tab. Point is… can’t we, and by we I mean everyone, find a way to end hunger? To end poverty? To cure cancer? Do we really need 12 air-conditioned stadiums for an event that will last 30 days???

Well, considering the temperatures, apparently so. But still.

I dunno. Just seems silly. We’ve got so many real problems in this world, I’ve never understood why we spend so much on sports and entertainment. Yes, I know, we’re not the ones building the stadiums; Qatar is. But you’d be making that argument from a glass house… one with wafer-thin glass.

22% of American children – that’s more than 1 in 5 – are living in poverty. And that’s just the children. There are over 650,000 homeless people. 564,000 Americans will die of cancer this year. But instead of getting them sorted, let’s pay Jim Carrey $20 million for, of all things, The Cable Guy. He got paid $20 million dollars… FOR. ONE. MOVIE. Let’s pay Alex Rodriguez $250 million for playing baseball. Everyone okay with that? And by all means, let’s for God’s sake build 12 air-conditioned stadiums – on the sun - for one month of soccer!

C’mon. Surely someone can back me on this, yeah? Doesn’t it seem our priorities just a little out of whack? I mean, do you think if pro sports and Hollywood studios capped their salaries at $1.5 million per, would people stop playing ball? Would actors stop acting? Or would some of them just stop acting like fools?

How much does someone really need? How many houses and cars and toys can you possible want? At a certain point isn’t it just overkill? Isn’t there a certain point of wealth that not even your great grandkids can dent? When you reach that point you have the ammunition to help solve some really big problems. So why not do exactly that?

Mark Zuckerberg could give away $5.9 billion and still be a billionaire – that’s a millionaire a thousand times over! How many houses do you think Habitat for Humanity build with $6 billion?

Well, quite a few.

With air-conditioning.

updated: 6 years ago

Guest Monkey

Guest Monkey

Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Christmas! As a matter of fact, Happy Everything! And congrats to the Georgia football Bulldogs for a great win over Georgia Tech on Saturday! State Champs 2010!!

Just a heads up, I’m heavily medicated so this one is gonna be all over the shop. Thanksgiving was spent on the couch (more about that later) but thanks to Nooj, his wife Janna who prepared an amazing
Thanksgiving dinner, and to my boss who drove it to me a la meals-on-wheels, I got to wolf down a delicious feast.

Let’s begin with one of my favorite things, a guest monkey submission that came in a while back but was just recently uncovered in the stacks at HQ. It’s from our good friend Reggie who writes:

Being an avid disciple of all things Zeppelin, I was surfing for news regarding Robert Plant as he has a new album out (yes I said album, I turned 45 this year...) and I ran across a recent interview he just did with Canadian radio. The host ended the interview by playing a track from Plant's new album and wait for it....the track is titled "Monkey". Here is a link to the interview. Skip to 42:00.

Congrats to the United States for qualifying, albeit by the skin of our collective teeth, for another women’s World Cup. Remember when we were the preeminent force in women’s soccer? Well, that time has passed. The world has caught us, and some nations have more or less sped on by. The way this all has transpired has made me think of two words: Anson Dorrance. The U.S. had a head start on the rest of the world (and a much larger talent pool to choose from). But in the 19 years since the inaugural 1991 World Cup, the head start has evaporated. We’re no longer a favorite. Well, at least we’re no longer the favorite. And that was to be expected. I mean, how could we not expect a country like Brazil, where soccer is culture, to catch us? They produce and dispose of legitimate world-class superstars (remember Sissi?) every four years. Meanwhile, we can’t develop the player to replace Kris Lilly (keep in mind I am a huge fan of Lil) who has been on the national team since before the invention of DVDs and the internet. In Lil’s lifetime, she’s lived more years as a member of the national team than not. We’ve got to find a better way to develop players and keep them passionate about playing. But that’s not my point.

My point here is to laud Anson for what he’s done at UNC. Yes he had the same head start. And yes, the days when everyone else was playing for second place have long since passed (as evidenced by UNC’s 4-1 drubbing by Notre Dame last week), but for the better part of three decades, Dorrance kept the Heels atop the women’s soccer mountain, and even now they’re not far from the summit. The funny thing is… the man still has his critics. How? I have no idea. Here’s the thing… I don’t care what you think you know about soccer, when a guy has more rings than fingers, he should be presented with the mother of all immunity idols. I don’t care if the man couldn’t kick snow off a rock, he’s obviously doing something right. Just sayin’.

There are a lot of big events going on in the world this week, but obviously none bigger than SoccerPoet registering its 100thsubscriber! Thanks very much to the other 99 of you! Actually, we’ve cleared the century mark by a comfortable margin which I’m told assures me of riches beyond my imagination. I don’t know why. It’s just a rule. Start a website, get 100 subscribers and someone will back a truck full of money up to your front step. That’s how it goes. The truck hasn’t arrived yet but I left the front light on for him with a note to wake me upon arrival.

Speaking of awake… that’s something I haven’t been a lot of lately. Y’all who tagged along from that other journal I kept know all about my annual bout with Ebola. This year is no exception. It crept its way into my life down in Orange Beach and has picked up steam ever since. These last two weeks have been miserable and the days sorta bleed together so my timeline is a little fuzzy. Okay. Real fuzzy. Think shag rug.

It may have been last Tuesday that I dragged myself to a doctor to do something about the sinus infection that had clobbered me on the Kansas flight. If you happened to be sitting near me on that flight you’ll be happy to know that I wasn’t holding my head and rocking back and forth simply because I’m a prize nutter trying to make the voices stop. Turns out, my left eardrum ruptured on that flight, and the right one nearly did also. And would you believe that my ears STILL haven’t cleared? Yeah. So that’s fun.

Anyway, the doc gave me a prescription for the sinus thing and that has mostly cleared up. What hasn’t budged is the overwhelming fatigue that has pretty much kneecapped me for 14-16 hours a day and shows no signs of relenting. When you’re getting 14 hours of sleep a day, you’re not going to get a lot of sympathy. But I assure you, it’s insanely frustrating, especially because in the evenings I start to feeling better. Last night for example, around 8 or 9 P.M., I staged a mini-rally and felt good enough to start writing this entry. I was certain that when I woke up today I’d be feeling right as rain. Today was gonna be the day! So I went to bed shortly after midnight and woke up at… wait for it… NOON! Are you freaking kidding me??? Here’s the thing… after 12 hours of sleep you think a body would wake up energized. And of course you’d be dead wrong. Well, I dragged my butt to the sofa and 30 minutes later I was back asleep. For another. Three. Hours.

So now four o’clock rolls around and my body clock has popped all its springs and my mind doesn’t have any answers. Try this one on: When it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, what the heck are you supposed to eat for your first meal of the day? Breakfast? Dinner? Candy?

This isn’t just today. This has been the pattern. So I’ve settled on a steady diet of everyone’s favorite anytime meal, PB&J. On white.

Yep. That’s me. Livin’ the dream.

So anyway, when your sleep pattern goes completely off the rails, you never know what time of day you’ll actually be awake. And because I usually don’t have the energy to do much more than watch TV, that’s what I do. What has happened to television in the past decade is amazing, and I mean that in the Holy smokes what in the world is this? kind of way. The way ‘reality’ television has snowballed is astonishing. For example, who knew a show about crab fishermen would be such a hit that it would spawn a copycat show about lobster fishermen? It seems practically every occupation has an accompanying reality show. There are shows about trash collectors, pawn shops, ghost seekers, meter maids and hopeless addicts among many, many others. There’s a show called Hoarders… about hoarders… who, well, they hoard things. And those are just the shows where no one gets voted off. Even the UFC has a reality show because, you know, getting in the cage and going primal against the best fighters in the world isn’t real enough.

Now animals have their own reality shows, which is to be expected if Animal Planet is going to fill a 24 hour programming card. And animal shows, my friends, is where we have finally crossed the line. In a matrix of television ironies, animal programming has jumped the shark.

I’m fine with a lot of the animal programs. Heck, I’m fine with almost all of them. Who doesn’t love watching a family of antelopes being all warm and fuzzy before the hungry cheetahs lunge out of the underbrush and break bread? But a few nights ago I found the show that has to make any rational person ask, “Who on earth would possibly watch this?”

I’m speaking of course of the show entitled… My Dog Ate What? I promise you I am not making that up. That’s really the name of a television show. I didn’t watch the show and I can’t imagine anyone ever would, but I read the description. It’s exactly what you think it would be. The contents of dog stomachs are examined for missing household items.

Really.

You know, there are moments in our history that I wish I could have been a part of… Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence… Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown… the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Now added to that list is the meeting where some lunatic pitched the idea for this show about what the neighbor’s dog may have eaten, and the guys in the suits across the table saying, “Yes! You’re really onto something here. This is a great idea! Let’s make it happen!”

And here’s the thing… how’d you like to be the guy who has to sell the advertising for that show? Can you imagine pitching that to… well, to anyone? Who could their target audience possibly be? Rats?

Anyway, My Dog Ate What has inspired me to create a couple of television networks of my own. In early 2012 I’ll be launching TBN… The Bibliography Network. It’s going to be 24 hours of rolling end credits from shows and movies, just in case you need to reference, for example, the key grip from Mystic Pizza (Shunil Borpujari) or the best boy from Cry-Baby (Edgar Martin). Genius, right? It’ll be the first television network in history that doesn’t have to pay for talent.

As soon as TBN is launched and stable, fast on its heels will be my true labor of love, The Weather History Network.

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Our motto: Yesterday’s weather with 100% accuracy. See the difference? It’s thinking completely outside of the box! Weather forecasters are basically just guessing, right? They make mistakes. A lot of them. But not my crack team of weather history experts! Forgot how cold you were yesterday? Not a problem. The WHN team is on the case! Forgot where you left your umbrella? WHN can tell you if you even used it yesterday. See where this is going? The practical applications for this technology are boundless. And I’m in on the ground floor!

Okay, naptime. Thanks for subscribing. Tell a friend.

updated: 6 years ago

Jeep 1994-2010

Friends, it is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Jeep who drove her final quarter mile this past Saturday morning. She went out as she would have chosen, much like we all would – making another airport run. But let us not dwell on the sorrow in our hearts, but instead celebrate the life of our newly departed sister as she crosses over to a smoother, better lit highway free of toll booths, texting drivers and flattened armadillos, where windshields need never be scraped of bugs, and where her miles per gallon won’t bankrupt her heavenly driver.

For over 200,000 miles, Jeep never met a stranger. She was inviting and accessible – the Taylor Swift of automobiles. She was comfortable with her celebrity in a way few are. Oh how the people would love to ride in her with the top down and the doors off as she coasted along the sands of Daytona Beach. With the kayak bungeed to her roll bar and fishing poles jetting over the tailgate, she would sashay along A1A like a pageant beauty to the delight of all who lined the street, like heavily tattooed bikers and half-in-the-bag spring breakers staggering back to their motel rooms.

Jeep’s favorite trips were the 400 mile trips down to Key West, especially the night hauls that included a roadside camping spot somewhere south of Marathon. Jeep loved to camp, to cool her hood under a starry sky. And on each stay in Key West she would lay quiet as a homeless person scavenged her for loose change or an old pair of shoes. Jeep knew to be charitable. Some nights she was home to the neighborhood cats, and once to a raccoon. And sometimes, when the top was down and the skies would suddenly turn midnight black and open up like they only do in Florida, and the rains would fall in thick sheets, Jeep did a great impression of a fish bowl. Many motorists would pass and point at us as the rain hammered down. And they would laugh. Oh how they would laugh. And how I wish they would have stopped to introduce themselves.

But Jeep was no diva. She was tough… a mudder. She loved getting her tires wet and her windshield dirty. Twice she was rear-ended and suffered no visible damage. The cars that rammed her? Ever stepped on a Coke can? That’s what their front ends looked like. Justice served.

I was 26 when we met in Macon, GA in October of 1994. I drove her off the lot that night. She was my first, and still my only, new car. I had hair then, and also hopes of a bright future. And Jeep could comfortably purr in the low 90 m.p.h. range. But together we aged.

By the end Jeep was a wreck. Her heater hadn’t worked since the 90s. She’d gone through three tops and four stereos. The dash lights stopped lighting in 2001, around the same time the horn stopped working. The paint has peeled off her hood and the driver’s side door is rusting through – much like the floor. The emergency break is for show only. The cigarette lighter is just a hole. The right indicator died shortly after we moved to Athens. She tops out at about 74 m.p.h. unless we have a stiff tailwind or are going off the side of a mountain. I don’t even know where we jettisoned the back seat, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it. And the front seats? Well, they are so battered that they are in a permanent state of severe recline. I have to drive with two pillows supporting my back or else I would be staring up at the canvas top. But she never complained.

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When she came to her final stop just outside of the Atlanta airport, on the wrong side of a blind curve with cars zooming by at dangerous speeds, Jeep still looked so peaceful, so casual, like the beach girl she was born to be. But alas, she was gone – the victim of a dropped transmission. A senseless tragedy.

So tonight, as we say our final farewells, let us do so with joy in our hearts, a fond remembrance of a free spirit who lived a full, happy and eventful life, and who never ran over a house pet.

Thank you for attending. May you go in peace.

Please sign the guest book on your way out.

updated: 6 years ago

A Good Day to Kill Me Dead

Yesterday was the closest thing I’ve ever known to being on Death Row, awaiting the inevitable arrival of the black-hooded executioner. Not exactly the way you hope to feel on Selection Show Monday.

When we got back from Orange Beach on Saturday night we knew we were more than a bubble team. We were THE bubble team. In a 64-team tournament, we were either going to be elated to be #64 or devastated to be #65. We also knew our chances would be heavily swayed by Sunday’s results. What we didn’t need was upsets. We needed the favorites, the teams who would go to the NCAAs regardless of whether they won or lost, to win. Every one of those teams that got upset allowed the team that beat them to eat up one more slot on the dance card. No we didn’t need upsets. We needed favorites to steamroll the underdogs. But upsets were exactly what we got.

A UC-Irvine win would have helped us. They lost.

A Hofstra win would have helped us. They lost.

A Denver win would have helped us. They lost.

A win or tie by Michigan would have helped us a lot. They lost. With 13 seconds left. In the second overtime.

And with each upset the pin prodded a little deeper into our bubble.

It’s not that we aren’t one of the best 64 teams in the nation. That’s just silly. It would be difficult to find someone who would argue that we aren’t one of the Top 25. But the tournament field isn’t filled out that way. And in the end, it wasn’t our losses that did us in – though they certainly didn’t help matters. The loss to Tennessee was the nail in our coffin, but we could have survived that if not for three ties. We tied three very winnable games and ultimately those were the games that came back to bite us.

So we, the coaches, spent the day replaying those moments in the season, any one of which would have cemented us a spot in the field. If one of those 29 shots at Ole Miss had found the net... Or one of the 27 we fired at Arkansas... Or the 15 against Kentucky. If we can grind out one more goal in the span of those 330 minutes and 71 shots, right now we’re dancing.

The thing about being a bubble team is you just never know. I mean we knew, but we just didn’t completely, absolutely, 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt for sure know. We did the math and we concluded we’d be left out, but there’s always that chance. And for all the moaning we’ve been doing about our travel for the past few weeks, we would have given anything to have to get on one more bus or one more plane and to sleep in one more hotel bed for just one more night.

We were 99.9% sure that our season was over and we wished that the reaper would just come along and get it over with. Unfortunately, just like everyone else in bubble land, we wouldn’t be certain-certain of our fate until the selections were announced at 4:30 that afternoon.

Nooj had the team over to his house to watch the selection show on ESPNU, and when the final bracket was announced and our fate was sealed, that room was so quiet you could hear dust land on a sponge.

I felt especially bad for the seniors. We all did. They had been to the tournament 3 times. It would have been nice to send them off going 4 for 4.

I also felt cheated. Not by the selection committee. We didn’t win winnable games and that’s no one’s fault but our own. I felt cheated by some greater force. I felt cheated because this team played its best soccer of the year in its final two matches and we all wanted to see how far we could go playing like that. It didn’t matter who. We wanted to play Stanford and Carolina and Portland and Notre Dame. Because the way we finished, there wasn’t a team in the nation we couldn’t sting. I really just wanted to watch this team play more soccer.

Instead I went home and deleted a bunch of games I had on the DVR... games recorded at a time when every team in the nation had the potential to be our opponent in the NCAAs. Now they were just space-eaters that needed to be cleared to make more room for reruns of The Office.

Instead of going dancing, we have to take the lesson. The NCAA tournament isn’t a divine right. It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege that you earn in September and October. And if you want to dance, you gotta take care of your business. You gotta win your winnable games because if you don’t, there’s a price to pay. Hopefully it’s a lesson we don’t have to learn more than once.

The word that comes to mind is urgency. It’s the that one concept that coaches understand because we have the benefit of hindsight and the one concept we try desperately to make our players understand because they don’t.

Urgency. It means get it done right freaking now. Because if you don’t, you have to wait ten months before you can even start to ride the ride again.

updated: 6 years ago

Awakenings...

Awakenings

So the question was, rhetorically, “How bad can a bottle of ketchup go in seven hours?”  We were cleaning out our unit at the Summer House condos in Orange Beach, AL, trying to decide which of our foodstuffs would make the cut for the return trip to Athens and which would be jettisoned down the trash chute.  This particular bottle of ketchup cost us $1.79 at the Orange Beach Publix.  That’s one dollar and seventy-nine cents.  Less than a Starbucks venti.  Less than pretty much anything.

No, money wasn’t an issue.  The thought of buying food and then throwing it away when it was still perfectly useful, barely used – that was the issue.  Plenty of other food had already been selected for the trip home.  But that food had been given cooler priority and our three coolers were filled to capacity.  If the ketchup was coming home, I would be the sole caregiver for its storage and transport.  The mustard and mayonnaise were also a part of the pool of eligible candidates – also barely touched.  But this is about the ketchup.

Why am I thinking about ketchup?  How did this conversation hijack my brain?  It’s like I’m paralyzed.  How long have I been staring at this little bottle of ketchup? For Pete's sake, pull yourself together, man!

In my own defense, I was running on five hours sleep and still in a bit of a fog.  Okay, a big fog. Thing is, I easily could’ve gotten more sleep.  Could’ve gotten another three hours if I chose.  But last night I saw something special.  So I decided to forgo sleep just so I could see it again.

When last we met, I was recapping our abysmal outing with the Volunteers in Knoxville. It was our last regular season game and we knew it.  Losing would seriously damage any chance we had at an NCAA bid and we knew that too.  And with so many reasons to play, we just didn’t.  It was like our tank had hit E four days earlier against Auburn and we couldn’t find a gas station.

It was scary.  It was scary when it happened in Athens, and scarier still in Knoxville, because as a coach you have to wonder if it’s even fixable.  Our kids were just spent.

So we had hit an emotional and physical dip - an undeniable malaise.  We had become passionless automatons riding a conveyor belt, caught in a pattern of pack-bus-match-bus-unpack-repeat.  Sports psychologists will line up to tell you that you have to be stronger than the external factors, stronger than those things beyond your control.  They will tell you that you have to rise above human nature.  And for a while we did just that.  But eventually the load became too much to carry.  The too many hours on a fleet of busses; enough hotels to break the bank in Monopoly; the cycle of returning to Athens under a blanket of darkness in the wee-hours and squeezing in a glorified nap before rising for morning classes -  all of it had led to our collapse.  In the end we revealed our humanness.

The story of the year in women’s college soccer arrived a few days ago when FSU Coach Mark Krikorian left his starters in Tallahassee and took a team of reserves to the ACC Tournament where they were promptly dispatched by Wake Forest.  Krikorian felt that there was a bigger fish to fry, specifically the quest for an NCAA national title, and that resting his starters would be the best way to butter the pan.   That decision has brought a firestorm onto Krikorian and everyone in soccer had an opinion, even before the ACC carpet-bombed FSU with penalties for devaluing their premier women’s soccer event.  Well, from where I’ve sat these past few weeks, namely the front row of a charter bus, that idea doesn’t sound all that outlandish.  The lion’s share of our attention has been devoted to finding ways to buy our players some rest.  We’ve shortened training sessions.  We’ve cancelled some.  We’ve backed up wake-up calls.  We’ve done whatever we could.  The only other thing we could’ve done was to leave our starters behind, but we never had that luxury.  FSU is an NCAA Tournament lock.  We are anything but.  So we couldn’t throw the SEC Tournament.  Fact is, because of our loss at Tennessee, we probably had to win it.

We arrived in Orange Beach on Tuesday afternoon anticipating a Wednesday kick-off against Auburn.  But the gulf was hammered by rains late Tuesday and all of Wednesday which pushed the first round matches back to Thursday.  I wasn’t too sad to see us get one more day of rest.  On Thursday morning the players seemed upbeat and energized in a way that I hadn’t seen in weeks.  And on Thursday night at roughly 8 P.M., something amazing started to happen.  The Dawgs remembered how good they really were.

I love soccer when it is played the right way.  I love soccer when the team in possession values the ball and doesn’t hurry to give it back to the opponent.  I love when one team takes its time to probe the opponent by stringing passes together in long sequences and the opponent chases with dogged futility.  That was how this team was designed to play.  And on Thursday night we did just that.

So many times I watch a game and see two teams play with all the artistry of a fat roofer hammering a nail.  What I saw on Thursday looked nothing like that.  What I saw on Thursday looked like surgery.  From the moment the game kicked off it looked like our players had been bathed in the bright light of Kenny Dalglish.  We remembered how to pass a ball, how to keep a ball… how to make an opponent chase.  It was glorious.

And naturally we fell behind 1-0.

In the 15thminute Traci Dreesen inadvertently deflected an Auburn cross into our net.  The official scorer gave credit for the goal to an Auburn player.  The scorer was and still is wrong.  It should have been recorded as an own-goal.  Funnier still, there is also, ‘officially’ speaking, actually an assist attached to that own goal.

I wouldn’t have mentioned Traci’s name but the story as a whole commands it, because Traci Dreesen wasn’t just a little bit special that night.  Traci Dreesen was freaking spectacular.  Traci had an awakening after our Mercer mishap and since then she’s been a fixture in our starting line-up and the engine in our midfield.  And as good as I felt she had been before the SEC Tournament, against Auburn she was on a whole different level.  In a team where everyone was playing at a high level, Dreesen was exalted.  We paired her with Eddy in the middle and that combination was the hub of a possession wheel that sprayed passes across the park like a six-jet sprinkler head sprays water streams across the front lawn.  We went to the half still down a goal, but we had seen a lot of the ball and Auburn had expended a lot of energy trying to get it back from us.

At the half we didn’t make any significant tactical adjustments.  What we did do is lay it on the line.  If we didn’t find a way to win that game, our team as we know it would be done.  The program would live on, but as it stood, if things didn’t change on the scoreboard, this would be the last time this specific group of players would ever play together again.

The message must’ve hit a nerve for as good as we thought we were in the first half, it paled beside our second half performance because in those second 45 minutes, we were the best soccer team I’ve ever been a part of.  We played with an urgency befitting the direness of our predicament but never abandoned our style.  Far from it.  We actually got better at it.  It was our most complete half of soccer.  We were as close to perfect as a coach could ever hope to see.  And in the 67thminute Kelli Corless played a quick free kick to Traci Dreesen.  Dreesen fired from 25 and her shot ricocheted into the Auburn net to knot the score.  The game was 1-1 and Dreesen had both goals.

Our opportunities were abundant but the goals were scarce.  Locandro flared a header from Lex’s cross  that forced a great save.  Miller spun a couple of defenders but her shot clanged the outside of the post.  We got a corner with about ten to play.  We’ve had over 100 corner kicks this year and Bailey, because she stands at 5’11”, has gone forward for almost every one of them.  So when she moved forward for this corner kick I said to no one in particular on the bench, “C’mon Bay.  You’ve been up there 108 times.  Can you please score a goal?”  The ball came across with high hopes... but again nothing.

We couldn’t finish the job in regulation even though the disparity in the shot margin continued to grow.  Still knotted at 1-1 after the first overtime we told our reserves to start thinking about their penalty kicks.  I was also steadying for the unthinkable because this game was setting itself as one of soccer’s signature, evil masterpieces where the team that utterly dominates ends up losing on an anomaly – an inapposite foray by the outmatched team that almost by accident culminates with the ball finding its way into the net of the better team as if pulled there by the force of a black hole.  We’ve suffered that fate too often this season and one more miscarriage of justice would have had me jumping off the 5thfloor balcony at the Summer House Condominiums.

In the second overtime a splendid parry by Auburn’s keeper gave us another corner.  Lex curled it across the six.  This time Bailey popped off the goalkeeper and redirected her header down through the tangle of legs, arms and torsos and into the side netting for a sensational finish to our season’s best all around performance.  The dog-pile, well, dawg-pile, ensued and we had finally had a dramatic finish go in our favor. And yes there was the excitement generated by the dramatic finish, but there was also another type of excitement forming – a soccer ecstasy.  It was about more than just the end.  It was about the whole of the game, the whole of the performance.  We saw us at our best.  It was like the light bulb had gone on for everyone on the same night and we finally figured out the combination to unlock any door that may end up in our path.  Finally, in our 20thgame of the season, we finally figured it out.  And now that we had it, we craved more.  A lot more.

When you’re about to play Florida, no matter who you are or what you say out loud, it’s hard not to have a twinge of doubt about your chances because to beat them you’re going to have to be both very good and probably also a little bit lucky.  But the Auburn match cured us of any lingering sense of inferiority.  We were going to play Florida in the semi-final and this time we were doing it convinced that quite simply, we were the better soccer team.

We lost 3-1 to Florida, conceding the third goal in the final three minutes as we threw bodies forward trying to equalize.  So if you weren’t there, if you didn’t see what I saw, if you’re opinion will be married to the score-line, you might just want to stop reading because you probably won’t believe what I’m about to say.

Well, I’ll just try to repeat what I told the team after the match…

“Last night... the game against Auburn… it was freaking great.  And it wasn’t just great because of the dramatic finish.  It was great because of how we played the game… how we passed the ball… how we played with patience and composure… how we refused to abandon our style.  It was like somewhere in the past 48 hours we remembered who we were.  And it was just sensational to watch and I was thinking that if we weren’t going to win this tournament, that if I had to go down, that was the team I wanted to go down with.  That was a team I could lose with and have a clear conscience because last night you were fantastic.  It was the best performance from any team I’ve ever coached.  And tonight… tonight you were even better.”

And I meant every word.

I had never seen Florida have to spend so much time being the team without the ball.  I mean we were flat out toying with them for long stretches.  At least three times during the first half I laughed and said to myself, “This is unbelievable.  They can’t get the ball from us.”

I watch a lot of women’s soccer matches.  On Monday and Tuesday of each week I’ll watch our two games from the weekend and then at least three matches of our opponent for the upcoming Friday.  Then I’ll mix in one for our upcoming Sunday opponent.  That’s a minimum of six matches a week.  And let me tell you something… it hardly ever looks like what happened on that field last night.

Robin said it best.  She said that it was a great game because athleticism wasn’t the distinguishing characteristic.  She’s absolutely right.  It wasn’t about speed and power and jamming a round peg into a square goal.  Last night was about technical ability and tactics – those were the hallmarks.  It was two very good teams putting on what may be the best played game I’ve ever been a part of and it was an honor to freeze my butt off on that sideline just to see it.

Normally when a game ends I’ll get a hold of the video and take a quick look at the big plays – the moments that directly impacted the final score.  Last night I watched that game in its entirety for no other reason than to enjoy it all over again.  I wanted to see if, through the lens of the camera, we played as well as I thought we had.  And you know what?  We absolutely did.

So now, like another fifteen or so nervous teams across the U.S., we have to sit and wait for a committee to decide if we get to play another day.  And the thought of it ending now, well, I can’t process that.  At the end of each season I’m sad.  I’m sad the ride is over.  I’m sad for the players – particularly the seniors.  And that won’t change.  But this time I’m also sad for the soccer.  I want this season to live on just to see how good we can really be, how far we can really go.  I’m not ready for this season to be over.  This story hasn’t been finished being written.  We’ve just started scratching the surface.  Playing the way we’ve played the past two nights, we have a legitimate chance to beat any team in the country.  The question is, will we get that chance?

In every other season I’ve ever coached, when it comes to an end, I just want to take a rest.  I want to curl up on the couch for a day or two and think about something other than soccer – like Cool Ranch Doritos.   But on that bus back from Orange Beach my to-do list had just one item.  I didn’t want to sleep in or spend two days under a Snuggie watching Law and Order and getting fatter.  All I wanted to do, with urgency, was get home and start cutting up video.  I want to cut up video of us at our very best in case we make the NCAAs, and also in case we don’t.  Because regardless of when Georgia Soccer takes the field again, there’s a new blueprint that we’re going to follow.  We’re going to watch ourselves playing the game the way it was meant to be played, and then we’re going to commit to making it look like that for the ever-after.  I hope this group of players gets to stay together because they are the ones that redefined Georgia Bulldog Soccer.  They are the ones who just made the template.  I’m hoping that they get to ride this ride a little while longer.  They freaking deserve it.

updated: 6 years ago