One Year and Wake Forest

One Year and Wake Forest

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my best friend and the most talented person you’ve never heard of, Scott Arnold. But I have unshakeable faith that one day Scott will sit down and write the book that will cast him into the stratosphere of celebrity author status next to Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. Ask anyone who knows him. They’ll tell you the exact same thing.

Speaking of famous writers, I am one now. Okay, that’s not even close to being true, but I did have an article published in the latest edition of The Coaches Insider. If you're really bored, you can read the piece here. They liked it enough to invite me to write another one, so I got that goin’ for me.

Seems I’ve fallen a little bit behind here at the Poet. Yep. May as well get used to that.

Last night Izzy is munching on some of those individually wrapped rolls of mozzarella cheese – each one about the size of my index finger. And on the wrapper of each one is a trivia question. Beth is reading them aloud. The question was, “How many cows does the NFL use to each year to produce its footballs?”

And immediately I realize this is going nowhere good.

I close my eyes and throw my head back in despair. You couldn’t have skipped that question? Really? I’m silently praying that this is some type of trick question and the answer is 0 – as in the NFL has found some animal friendly synthetic way to produce footballs. It’s my only hope. Izzy loves animals. Even cows. God knows I want her to love going to Bulldogs football games and this recent hobby of our is suddenly in imminent jeopardy. And I don’t want to spend my Monday nights being chided by my little girl for supporting animal cruelty. So c’mon zero!!! Show me a goose egg!

Yeah. Notsomuch.

The answer is 3,000. 3,000 freaking cows to make footballs – each year. Even I found that to be a little excessive in a Joseph Stalin kinda way. Can’t they use some of those balls twice and you know, save us 1500 cows per year?

So naturally Izzy is mortified and declares that she no longer likes football and that I shouldn’t watch the NFL anymore because “they waste too many cows.” Fantastic.

It’s time for a long overdue word of congratulations to Danielle Johnson for once again earning herself a spot with New Jersey Sky Blue of the WPS. Really no surprise to anyone who knows her, but still a noteworthy accomplishment for one of the kindest souls to ever walk this earth. You know, Dee is not a star in the WPS, but I think she would be appreciated more if people knew that Sky Blue’s left back is actually right footed. You could never tell that by watching her play. She’s made her left foot as good as her right. And let that be a lesson to all the girls out there dreaming of one day playing professionally and thinking that you’re working hard enough, because one day you may find yourself trying to take Dee’s job. How hard are you really willing to work? How much time are you really willing to put in? Dee worked so hard that she made herself left footed just so she can play with and against the best players in the world. Yep. What did you do today?

When Dee was training in Athens, one day I set up a little technical challenge for her. I set Dee about 25 yards straight back behind a goal we had dragged out to midfield and set about eight yards in from the sideline. 25 yards to the other side of that goal I set up a mini-goal, 3’ high by 4’ wide. Just to paint the picture: you could draw a 50-yard straight line from Dee, through the center of the big goal and through the center of the small goal. Dee’s challenge was to hit a flighted bending ball around the post of the big goal and into the little goal (mind you that the ball also had to stay in bounds during the entirety of its flight). In one round Dee nailed the first 12 and finished 16 for 18… with her left foot! It was absurd! You could take that big goal completely out of the picture and I doubt I could pot more than five with a straight inside of the foot pass. But dang! There she was, bending one ball after another around the big goal before skipping into the small goal on one hop. Try it some time. Let me know how you do.

I was hoping I’d get to see Dee when the Beat came to Atlanta, but unfortunately that match conflicted with our weekend at Wake Forest (notice that smooth segue?).

Last weekend some hellacious storms came tearing in from the west, raining tornadoes down on Mississippi and Alabama with Georgia and North Carolina in their crosshairs. And somehow, despite cutting a path that more or less paved their way, we managed to miss every bit of them.

We were scheduled to play Wake and NC State in a pair of abbreviated match-ups, but the anticipation of bad weather led to a change of plans. NC State was out of the picture. The Dawgs would take on Wake in a full ninety minute match beginning at 9 A.M.

Over the past decade Wake has put together one heckuva soccer program, advancing deep into the NCAA tournament and picking up some signature wins. This past fall the Demon Deacons even won the ACC Tournament - quite an impressive feat considering their neighbors from down the road in Chapel Hill. I was really excited to see how we would hold up against an ACC power. Heck, I was pretty excited just to watch them play.

Wake’s stadium is a beautifully put together red brick facility that occupies one sideline. The way the field is framed by trees gives it an intimate atmosphere. The place just looks like college soccer. Built under the stadium are the locker rooms, and as the guests we were assigned the locker room for Wake’s men’s team. Hanging on the wall in there is a picture of their 1989 team, the only one to win the ACC Tournament. In that picture sporting a mullet that the entire 1980s would be proud of is none other than my boss, Steve Holeman. All our players took a peak at the man in his playing prime and I think it helped put everyone in a good mood to start out the morning.

Steve decided to try something different on this trip and take a really relaxed approach. Instead of having a pregame meeting in the locker room and then warming up, we just went straight onto the pitch and started the warm-up. When it was over he announced the starting line-up, offered almost no instruction and basically told the girls to go have fun. And that’s what they did.

Possession has been a major focus for us since the day we got to Athens, but it never completely clicked with the team until the SEC tournament. Down in Orange Beach it was as if we discovered who we are and how good we can be when we pass the ball. It was like an awakening. That momentum carried over into the spring and ultimately peaked with our game against the Beat. I mean let’s face it. When you can keep the ball from a professional team, it bodes well for your confidence. It also bodes pretty well for your results.

In the end we won 2-0. Wake had an early chance to go up 1-0 but their striker pulled her shot wide and that was their only really great look of the day. To be fair, we had a pretty good run of the park. We were patient. We kept the ball. We moved it from side to side and back again. And we looked comfortable doing it.

To my surprise, Wake was pretty direct once they took possession, mainly looking to pop balls in behind our defense for their excellent center forward to run onto. It was one of those balls that created their chance, but for the most part, they played a lot more hurried than we expected.

It was 0-0 at the half but we felt good about what we’d done. Wake had done a lot of chasing in the first stanza and we were hoping that would pay some dividends after the break.

Wake came out inspired to start the second half and had us pinned for the first five minutes. They had a pretty good look at the goal from a corner kick but missed the frame on a header from eight yards. Eventually we got hold of the ball and the game settled back into its first half rhythm.

In the 63rd minute Nikki Hill found herself with the ball and too much free time down our attacking left side. As she whooped in a hopeful serve, at least three of our coaches were muttering unhappily under our breaths about such a wishful cross. I hate when outside backs send in that serve just because they have some free time on their hands. It’s a great way to simply concede possession for no reason whatsoever. Unless… Then Nikki’s cross bounced in front of Carly who nudged it on to Eddy who was sneaking in behind her. Eddy smacked a first time volley over the keeper and we had a 1-0 lead. As the ball sailed into the goal the coaching staff went from Awww no Nikki to Great ball Nikki! Gotta be adaptable in this line of work, know what I'm sayin'?

Following the goal we settled right back in and did a good job of keeping the ball and staying patient. In the last ten minutes Wake changed into a 3-4-3 and threw bodies forward, hoping to drum up an equalizer. They put us under a few minutes of sustained pressure but were ultimately victimized by a pretty darn good counter attack.

I’m not sure who played the ball to spring Gibbo down the left flank, but Gibbo held off a defender near the corner of the 18, drove toward the endline and laced a low liner that found Chewy streaking in at the near post. Chewy redirected it through the keeper’s legs to slam the door and cap off a 2-0 victory. Chewy had sprinted the better part of 80 yards to get on the end of that cross. It was an excellent way to conclude our spring season.

The Dawgs are idle until August 19 when we visit Furman to kick off our 2011 fall campaign. You know, it’s been a year now since we first pulled into Athens. It seems like forever ago and yesterday that we said our goodbyes to some amazing people in Oxford and make tracks for the new world. Every once in a while I take a deep breath and reflect on my remarkable fortune. I mean holy smokes… I’m a coach at the University of Georgia. Beat that with a stick.

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5 Days In The Life

5 Days In The Life

THURSDAY

Okay, this monkey thing has gotten entirely out of control. I know I don’t post a daily monkey despite a title to the contrary, but believe you me, the pictures folder on my PC has more monkeys than a Lewis Leakey biography. They’re coming in from everywhere. My sense of monkey consciousness has become so deep, so finely tuned that it’s downright scary. Plus we have an army of monkey hunting enthusiasts here in Athens, and when they see a monkey, it comes directly to me via MMS. I’ve become the hub of our monkey wheel. And that’s just with the visual monkeys. Since my introduction to the M.O.D., I’ve been literally astonished by the amount of monkey references I hear on radio and TV. How did it take so long for me to realize this? I musta been going through life with blinders.

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The other night at 8:30 P.M. I got a text from Jon Harvey who was concerned because he hadn’t yet had his daily monkey sighting. I wrote back telling him to turn on the Cartoon Network. About ninety seconds later he sent me this picture. Yeah, the Cartoon Network is a bit of a gimme, but desperate times….

Jon’s text reminded me that I too had been monkeyless for the day, but I was busy writing and forgot all about it. Plus, I never panic. I don’t know the last time I turned on the TV for more than 30 minutes without a monkey reference. Honestly, and I don’t know I this is just sort of cosmic monkey timing I’ve been blessed with, but I usually get a monkey within the first four minutes of turning on the television set. That’s no lie. It’s pretty frightening really. Anyway, Beth had DVR’ed American Idol that night so we sat down around ten to watch it. It was Elton John night and James Durbin performed Saturday Night’s Alright For Fightin’. Listen to that song for 20 seconds. Then believe.

A couple of nights later we rented two movies. On Friday night we watched Step Brothers. Sure enough, there’s a monkey reference. The next night it was The Fighter and even I was astonished when Mark Wahlberg says, “…you attacked him like a silverback gorilla.” That’s not just a monkey. That’s an Academy Award-winning monkey!

Since we were talking about American Idol I’m going to interrupt this entry to vent. Between the end of the last paragraph and the start of this one, I watched tonight’s elimination round only to see Pia sent walking. Are you kidding me! Freaking Pia??? Isn’t she, you know, the best singer? And by best I mean better than everyone else? Okay, so Pia’s immensely talented and beautiful and I’m sure she’ll land on her feet. That’s dandy. But what about me? What about my needs? I’m invested in this stinkin’ show now and this is completely unacceptable. I’m devastated. And I’m not sure why but I suddenly have this remarkable urge to beat the spray tan right off of Ryan Seacrest. Am I alone on this one?

Okay, since I’m rambling… are you interested in sharing my latest addiction? I recommend you say no, especially if you consider yourself to be 1. Competitive 2. Intelligent (and stuff) and 3. A Computer Owner. Back at Ole Miss, our other coach on staff, Ellen, stumbled onto a game called Word Bubbles at www.lumosity.com(it’s tabbed as a Flexibility game). In short, you are given a 3-letter prefix and then must come up with as many words as you can that start with that prefix. BUT! (There’s always a but, right?) You can only use three words from each word length. So let’s say you’re given the prefix SCA. You type in R (Scar), M (Scam), B (Scab). You’ve closed out the 4-letter column. You create words from 4-13 letters (words with more than 13 letters fall into the 13 column). Each round is one minute long. To have perfect round you must create 30 words. There are three rounds to a game. Make sense? Well you’ll have to trust me; it’s easy to get compulsive about this game, especially when you’re a competitor surrounded by like-minded souls.

So back to Ole Miss… At first all three of us would just plod along racking up scores that peaked around 2600 and feeling pretty good about it. Then one weekend Ellen breaks 3000. And now it’s on. Steve soon chalks up 3500 and now I’m like the odd man out and that was unacceptable. I needed my own little piece of Word Bubbles glory. That’s right about when I started throwing around the term ‘addiction.’ Word Bubbles was consuming entirely too much of my time and energy and I was on the short end anyway so I made an agreement with myself. I would be the first of our crew to break 4000. Then I would never play that stinking game again. And I did. I broke 4000 and quit cold turkey. I was walking away with a clear conscience – going out on top – and suddenly I had a lot more free time. Well, a week or so later Steve has not only broken 4000; he’s also beaten my score. But I was fine with that. I had officially retired. I really had. Or so I thought.

So for about a year I stayed away. But the thought that Rain Man had bested me in a word game was eating away at my insides. It was a festering wound that would not heal until I conquered Steve’s score (4200) – convincingly. It was an itch I refused to scratch. It took discipline but I stayed away. Then a month or so ago, Ellen posts a picture on her Facebook page. She had reached previously uncharted territory by scoring a perfect round - 30 words / 1800 points. None of us had ever mined perfection. It was the proverbial last straw. I was back to the bottom of the pile. I could no longer stay away. I went back to work.

After much ill-advised dedication to Word Bubbles, I am proud to announce once again my re-retirement.

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I have put up a score I am convinced will stand up for quite some time, and as a bonus, it included a perfect round. At this point I feel compelled to mention that I cannot type. Yes, that probably sounds strange coming from a blogger, but honestly, I’m 100%, two-finger hunt and peck – a severe handicap in Word Bubbles and if you must know, a handicap my cohorts do not share. As a celebration of my triumphant re-retirement, I invite you to send in a pic of your Word Bubbles scores that top 4000 points. But I warn you, you’re going down the rabbit hole. It’s okay though. I’m developing a 12-step program, so maybe I’ll see you in rehab. Cool?

Tomorrow is a big day so I need to go to bed.

FRIDAY

Today was ‘Golf For Kicks’, the annual fundraising golf tournament for UGA Soccer. 22 foursomes hit the beautiful UGA links under sunny skies. Robin and Jon organized this from top to bottom and it went off seamlessly. Goal Club president Jim Turner was not only a major contributor in putting this together,

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but he was also rode shotgun in my golf cart. Our compliance guy Eric Baumgartner and Steve rounded out our foursome.

Like any painfully average golfer, there’s only one shot I really care about – the first one off the tee. That’s the one shot where a whole bunch of people not in your foursome will watch you hit. And if you flub it, you’re going to hear about it for weeks. Thankfully my drive was long and straight-ish and enough to keep the peanut gallery at bay. I could golf the remainder of my round in peace.

The first time I golfed in a scramble was circa 1995 in Fort Lauderdale as a part of college soccer’s Senior Bowl festivities. By the way, the Senior Bowl was one of the best events in all of college soccer and if anyone ever wants to revive it, you’ve got my support. Anyhoo… so I’m with my old boss from Wheeling Jesuit, Jimmy Regan, who’s pretty decent with his clubs, but he’s no scratch golfer. We’re paired with a couple of guys who actually took pride in their golf game and had visions of winning the event. Jimmy thought it best to break the news before the round got under way. He said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m petty average and he (me) is worse. You guys may as well just enjoy the round because we ain’t winning anything.”

Their initial disappointment was soon mollified by the amusement of watching me try to get my club to actually make contact with the ball, which was about a one in four occurrence. On the fifth hole I was certain that I smashed my drive. Finally! It was a watershed moment. It made a loud noise on contact and left my club-face so quickly that neither Jimmy nor I could track it. There we were, looking in earnest at the great expanse of the fairway, trying to locate my drive. “You see it, Jimmy?”

“Nope. I lost it.”

Then one of the other guys calmly walks up with club in hand, and without saying a word, points to a spot in the ground where my tee had previously stood. There was my ball, 2/3 of it buried beneath the turf. I had somehow managed to hammer the ball straight into the ground. All four of us fell over laughing. It was at that point that those guys realized Jimmy hadn’t been kidding about our chances of winning anything and flagged down the beer cart.

In addition to the buried ball, there’s one other reason I remember that event. The rules dictated that you had to use at least one drive from every member of the foursome. When I hit a shot on 16 that was good only to the point that it made forward progress and stayed in bounds, they felt obligated to use it. It was the only shot I contributed to our foursome the entire day. I tell you that story to tell you this one…

Today we used at least one of my shots on 8 of the first nine holes. Don’t know exactly what happened out there, but for some strange reason I resembled a golfer. Of course when we made the turn I regressed into my natural existence as a total hack, but I’ll always have that front nine.

We finished a respectable six under. Yes, that was about nine shots out of the money but not a bad effort overall.

SATURDAY

Today was our alumni match and accompanying festivities. There really hadn’t been an all out effort to put together an alumni event in the history of UGA soccer, and again it was Robin who made all the wheels go round.

We planned a 10 A.M. kick-off for the match between the current players and their predecessors. Well, having been around college soccer for some time now, I can tell you it was no surprise when at 9:50 A.M., only one of the alums was actually on the field. Steph Ransom, the one true legend of UGA soccer, was short about ten teammates as game time approached. This is how alumni games go. Included in the list of factors that annually favor the active team is a good night’s sleep – or any sleep at all for that matter. Thankfully the alums did eventually straggle their way into the stadium and we had ourselves a pretty darn good game.

Our alumni team is no second-rate squad. For starters, most of them are under 25. Three of them are pros. Five of the girls just finished their eligibility in Novemember and still come out and play on a fairly regular basis. I’ll spare you the play-by-play (although there was probably a live feed on all-white-kit), but some fabulous goals were scored and the current Bulldogs defeated the Legends by a score of 4-2.

Alumni games are as memorable for their follies as they are for any flickering moments of brilliance. And no folly was quite so spectacular as Alex Thomas getting sat down by a Gibbo fake. As she fell to the ground for no really good reason, players from both sides were gasping for air between belly laughs. That little maneuver earned Alex the game’s MVP Award.

The match was followed by a BBQ out on the practice pitch for players, friends and families, and later that night the alums all gathered at the Foundry for dinner and some very cool retro highlight videos. I love alums.

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I love the perspective they gain the moment their careers end and in the years that follow. That’s when they genuinely digest how much their college soccer careers meant to them. And when they take a moment to verbalize that, well, that’s when you wish every current player could be there to hear it.

I should also point out that on Saturday we were introduced to someone who apparently has a laundry list of phobias. Phobia #1: Afraid of being buried alive. Any idea what Phobia #2 is? Sure enough… a fear of monkeys. No kidding.

SUNDAY

Spent the morning prettying up the lawn. Had to break out the mower for the first time in 2011. I enjoy yard work, but I gotta tell you, my passion for the task wanes considerably when it’s 80+ degrees and I’m not the one who owns the yard. Still, there is pride to be taken in a job well done and the lawn now looks pretty darn stellar.

Sunday’s highlight was our Over 35 league 7-a-side match. Steve and I are on the same team along with Steph Ransom and assorted others. If you ever have the chance to catch any of our games, do something else instead. Trust me on this. Geriatric soccer is not meant to be seen.

I try to keep these matches in perspective. It’s a way to have a little fun, play a little ball, get some desperately needed cardiovascular exercise and meet some people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. I don’t take it too seriously and my #1 goal is to leave the park uninjured. I compete under the motto of We All Have To Work on Monday. But not everyone shares my view.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived there are people who approach these games like it’s their stinkin’ World Cup. They’ll cheap shot any opponent who runs by them and argue every call from the referee. These are the people I fear because I’m at a point in my life where it’s just not worth it. I want to enjoy myself and then leave the field in one piece. These weekend hacks usually share two traits: they’re pretty bad soccer players and they’re always on the other team. So when Steve pointed out that our opponents actually had legit uniforms with their names screened on the back, well, it didn’t bode well. As for us… we’re wearing lime green t-shirts and we have one sub and one soccer ball between us.

Anyway, the game starts and after about 45 seconds I’m already half-gassed. And oh yeah, I’m playing center back – the position I seek out specifically because it involves the least amount of running. I used to be able to play this game at full speed for 120 minutes. How can I possibly be tired already? This is humiliating! One stinkin’ sub?

Anyone familiar with our sport knows that there is a clear difference between being fit - and being soccer fit. Anyone familiar with me knows that I am neither. I get it. But I can manage a decent bike ride or 20 minutes on a treadmill with relative ease. But in soccer, where you are constantly changing speeds and directions, well, those variables will gang up on you in a hurry.

I’m smart enough to know to pace myself. I’m so good at it that anyone inclined to watch me could make a pretty good case that soccer doesn’t actually involve exercise. But I’m also dumb enough to occasionally get caught up in the moment and go bombing forward on an ill-advised mad dash for glory, which I did about fifteen minutes into the match. Keep in mind that this a 7-a-side field, so it’s only about 70 yards long, and I received the ball about 25 yards in front of our goal. The point is, even at a sprint, I didn’t have very far to go.

So I start bringing the ball forward at a casual dribble, looking for passing options. As the opposing players move to cut off my passing options, a gaping hole opens up right down the center of their defensive shape. Next thing I know I’m going full speed at the defense, all the while the little voice in my head is telling me to abort this suicide mission because I’m about to crash the entire system. I get to the last defender, fake a shot with my right and cut it back to my left – a clear sign that rationale thought has abandoned me. I hit a weak shot with my left that, of all things, gets blocked by a defender. If it goes out of bounds or the keeper saves it, the play stops and I’m off the hook. A blocked shot is the worst possible outcome. It is my doomsday scenario. Since the ball is still bouncing around in their goal area and I’m in the vicinity, the smart thing to do is to chase, chase, chase.

Huh?

Yep. There I go, running around like an idiot pressuring enough defenders to eventually force a corner. I don’t remember exactly what took place. I may have blacked out. It was all sort of a blur – the ball pin-balling around and me in hot pursuit. I remember seeing knees and grass. From the time I took that initial shot to the time the ball went over the endline probably took a grand total of seven seconds. But it nearly killed me. My skin was on fire and my mouth was drier than attic insulation. I was dizzy, my knees were wobbly and I thought my heart was going to explode. I heard a voice telling me to go into the light. I waved on our one sub and then staggered back to our bench to feel much shame and then hopefully die.

Whatever happened to me? When did this soccer thing get to be so difficult? When did my legs completely seize up? I remember when the physical part of this game was a breeze. Once upon a time, there was this magical place called The Past, where I could run – really run – up and down a soccer field for 120 minutes and absolutely love doing it. And my hips… back then they, you know, turned. Now I’m like the Tin Man with a heart condition (ironic, right?). I run 5 yards that way and 4 yards back this way and I start scanning the complex for a paramedic.

Anyway, that was about where I peaked. In the second half I just couldn’t run. My tank was on ‘E’. Even when I told myself I need to start working harder, I just couldn’t. My legs refused to move. I did so little work in the second half that I never even subbed out. I didn’t have to. I didn’t run enough to be tired. Now that’s setting a pretty high bar for laziness.

Steve didn’t fare much better. As he said after the match, “I think that may be the worst game of soccer I’ve played since I was born.” Yes, we were that bad. And we lost 6-3. To their credit, despite their fancy uniforms our opponents were not hacks at all. Just a better team than we were. And by better I clearly mean younger.

MONDAY

Today was Staff Appreciation Day. The title is a topic we will assuredly revisit. It started out with a fairly posh Athletic Department breakfast at the Georgia Center. Following breakfast our entire department was broken into groups. Each group was assigned to a community service venue to do volunteer work. My group was assigned the North Georgia Food Bank.

I didn’t know anything about how a food bank worked, but I was under the impression that we would be stocking shelves in the warehouse. I was all for it. I was happy to get in a couple of hours of contributing to the greater good. As it turned out, our job had nothing to do with stocking a warehouse. Nope. As it turns out, the Food Bank has a big, fat yard and we were assigned to do some landscaping. More accurately, we were tasked with clearing an overgrown gulley that was about seven yards wide and 75 yards long and a wonderful habitat for snakes. Our tools? Yeah… sickles.

Really?

People still use sickles?

Yep, there were the seven of us under another scorching sun, swatting at giant swaths of head high saw grass and assorted other species of trees, shrubs and weeds like a prison work crew. Staff appreciation? We were on the danged chain gang.

Eventually we did complete our task and felt good about our work. Jim, the guy who runs the Food Bank is a super nice and he was awful appreciative of the job we did. Personally, I was plumb exhausted. I musta swung that sickle 500 times. My shirt was drenched in sweat and my shoes were soaked from the swamp water at the bottom of that gulley.

Then it was back to the office to plan the afternoon training session.

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Upon my arrival I saw that the landscapers had already begun tearing up our game field. We’re replacing it with brand new turf and a major upgrade from our drainage system which I think may have been no drainage system whatsoever. Regardless, come August our pitch is going to be as pretty as any in the land.

Monday’s training session was fantastic! The girls competed hard and worked their tails off. We’ve got a couple of games on Saturday and this is our last full week of training until August, so everyone is trying to squeeze the orange for every last drop of juice. When everyone is working that hard, a coach goes home feeling really good.

On Monday night Beth and I watched a DVR episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Charlie and Dee are desperately trying to match the taste of the mystery meat they stole from Frank. Searching for exotic meats, Charlie suggests monkeys because, “Monkeys are nature’s humans.”

Yep.

The Beat

The Beat

So the Atlanta Beat came to Athens last night (at the time of this writing, last night has faded into last week). It’s not every day that you get to square off with a full-fledged professional team, so even for a spring game, and as much as we didn’t want to admit it, it was kind of a big deal. I mean, how do you not get just a little bit star-struck when Ms. All-Everything, Heather Mitts, is in your backyard? We’re only human. It was a gorgeous night for soccer and all signs pointed to a memorable event. The day’s only downer was that Izzy had come down sick and wouldn’t be there to meet some phenomenal role models.

As you might expect from a pro team, the Beat have some talent... Like two-time Olympic gold medalist Heather Mitts for example, and her gold medaling teammates Carli Lloyd and Kat Whitehill, not to mention fellow National Team member U.S. Lori Chalupny and uber-athlete and collegiate All-American, India Trotter. That’s just the start of a pretty deep cast. The Beat were 5-0 against college teams this spring and hadn’t conceded a goal. They defeated UNC 3-0 and the Heels didn’t even record a shot until the 85thminute. Let’s just say we were looking at an uphill battle.

Okay, a little comedy you just can’t get from the box score. Capitalizing on the fame of our visitors, the Home Team from 960 The Ref - the local sports-talk radio show - broadcasted live from our press box in the hours leading up to the game. They included a live interview segment with Steve, which I sincerely hope you heard, as he did a bang-up job discussing the world’s best players and addressed a host of other topics. Then, because there was still plenty of air to fill, our opportunistic sports marketing staff started poaching the Beat’s players for interviews. It’s not every day you get the chance to interview some gold medalists, so you gotta strike when the iron is hot, right? Well, apparently protocol dictates that when you interview a professional player, you first get it cleared with through the appropriate channels - namely their coach. Our people, me included, did not. Ummm… Yeah. Our bad. For us it was just a carnival of star power and we wanted to enjoy it while we could. Was that wrong?

While his team went into the locker room to, you know, focus on the match, the Beat’s coach, a very likeable and accomplished Aussie named James Galanis, stood gathering his thoughts out on the empty pitch, fifty yards from the fence-line in front of the grandstand. (Keep in mind that there was music blasting over the PA system, so on the field, there’s no way to hear someone who is more than 15 yards away from you.) Anyway, in the solitude of the deserted stadium, Coach Galanis is dialed in to the game at hand, reviewing his notes, thinking through what he’s going to say to his team in pre-game. That’s right about when the circus began.

Galanis sees Keely Dowling and Lauren Sesselmann marching their way up to the press box for a heretofore unscheduled and unapproved pregame interview. He didn’t say anything, because with the distance between the parties and the music blaring, let’s face it, there wasn’t any point to it. He just intimated his displeasure by checking his watch, dismissed the distraction, then refocused on his notes. Five minutes later, with Dowling and Sesselmann on the air and Coach Galanis still wandering the field, starting center back, Kat Whitehill, strolls by - headed for where else? The press box, naturally. Galanis, growing a bit more visibly agitated, again checks his watch. A disapproving shake of his head followed by a heavy sigh tells me he is wondering what in the world his players could possibly be thinking this close to game-time. Now, while the Beat are supposed to be in the locker room focusing on the match, we’ve got Dowling and Sesselmann on the air, Whitehill actually waiting in queue, an irritated coach wandering the field, and whataya know…. here comes Heather Mitts bopping her way to the press box. The Beat may have had more players in our press box than in their locker room. It was fantastic!

The cavalcade of stars was lovely, but there was still the matter of the game we were about to play against a very strong opponent. We didn’t bother with a scouting report for this match. I mean what were we really going to say? These three players have played in two Olympics and two World Cups, but these two only played in one World Cup? So we decided to just worry about ourselves. We’ve been focusing a lot on possession this spring and it’s been paying off so there didn’t seem to be much point in changing. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, if you play quick and simple, you’ll be difficult to beat. At least that was our logic.

Before each game the players gather in the video room and wait for the coaches to address them. Waiting for them on the white-board at the front of the room were these pearls of wisdom:

No one can outrun a moving ball

  • Keep the ball
  • Make them chase
  • Don’t abandon our style

By the time the coaches got into the room, someone had done some editing and changed ‘style’ to ‘SWAG.’ I liked that. I like it a lot.

Steve made a great point in pre-game. As a matter of fact, it was the only point that really mattered. He told the girls not to wait to start playing. He said, “Let’s not come in here at half-time and realize we can actually play with that team. Let’s not wait to realize that we’re a good team, too. Let’s go after them right from the start.” As far as I was concerned, that was the most important message our players would hear.

Then I got my chance to speak. I was a little worried about our nerves. If it was a big deal to the coaches, then it was an enormous deal to the players. Heck, half our kids want to play for the Beat after graduation. So I talked about what a great opportunity we had. For one of the very few times in their careers, our players got to play a game they weren’t expected to win. We had nothing to lose, and that gave us the freedom to play with a little reckless abandon. If we lose, who cares? But let’s take advantage of this chance we’ve been given.

Then I asked the girls to take a few seconds and think about the end of the game, and what words they wanted to use to describe their performance. I told them that this was a fantastic opportunity, but they needed to leave the field with a clear conscience about the amount of effort and courage and aggression they brought to the field. They didn’t have to worry about what the Atlanta Beat thought about them. They just had to be square with themselves.

It’s funny, but when you stand at the front of that room, you can see which players are actually digesting your words. Their heads will nod, just ever so slightly, without them even realizing it. As much as you’d like to, you’re not going to hit home with everyone. But if you pay attention, you can do a decent job of predicting who was tuned in. And most of our girls definitely were. I thought we might have a pretty good night. Then, well, the game actually began.

Like any coach in this situation, I was desperately hoping we wouldn’t concede an early goal. The game wasn’t twenty seconds old when the Beat picked off a lazy pass in our defensive third and promptly pinged it off the bar. Baker had gotten a mitt to it or we would have been down a goal before the last note of the national anthem had wafted out of the park.

For the first ten minutes it seemed to rain Beat corner kicks. We were a nervous lot and some normally dependable players were having some abnormally bad first touches. Those were typically followed in short order by a Beat shot that was either saved by Baker or block over the endline by one of our defenders. It wasn’t looking too promising for the Dawgs. For the Beat it looked like an excellent night to practice their attacking corners.

Fair play to our girls – regardless of the pressure we were under, we didn’t panic and we didn’t abandon ship. We stuck to our style and got the ball on the deck and started to move the game into the Beat end of the park. Then, in the fifteenth minute – a most remarkable sight! Ashley Miller is first to a loose ball and absolutely crushes it into the upper right corner from 23 yards! It was our first shot of the match. It was our first of anything that even resembled an attack. And it was sensational! And better yet, it completely changed the game.

Do you remember Rocky? The first one? Remember round one? Rocky’s face is absorbing jab after jab after jab as Apollo dances around the ring, stinging him at will? Rocky can’t land a single punch – not one. He throws a couple of wishful haymakers that catch nothing but air. Meanwhile Apollo is methodically pummeling Rocky’s face with a series of combinations and all signs point to a bad, bad night for the challenger. Then, out of nowhere, Rocky connects with a roundhouse left that knocks the champ to the canvas. And in one of my all time favorite cinematic moments, as the champ gathers himself, we hear that ominous bell - a bell that signals not only a shift in momentum, but also a seismic shift in possibility. That bell tells us that everything has changed; that the challenger is for real – and that it’s time to fasten our seatbelts. When Miller’s shot – the first punch we had thrown – screamed into the net, I swear to you I heard that bell.

Suddenly we weren’t playing against professionals. Suddenly our opponent was something we see all the time - a team full of good players. And we can play against a team full of good players. And for stretches we played them beautifully. After Miller’s goal, the game moved into the Atlanta end and that’s where it stayed for much longer than I ever imagined. Eddie, Miller and Pollock were magic in the middle of the park – escaping pressure, keeping the ball and spraying it around the pitch. The Beat weren’t helping their own cause as we caught them offsides five times coming out of their end in the first half an hour. Whenever it looked like they were about to build something, our defenders would put on the brakes and their forwards would run offsides, sometimes by as much as ten yards. To be honest, we were playing a heckuva game.

For a week I’ve been trying to figure out how to address this next issue. Frankly, it’s the main reason this entry has taken so long to write. My better angels have told me to ignore it and take it on the chin like a man. But I have also been schooled as a journalist, and as such it would be remiss/irresponsible of me to omit what was by all accounts the game’s pivotal turning point. So here’s how it went down.

Before the match, the Beat asked for a couple of concessions. The first was that we play with their balls – the ones that are WPS league issue. Sure thing, we said. The other concession we agreed to was that the game clock would count up, from 0:00 to 45:00 in the first half, and from 45:00 to 90:00 in the second. We couldn’t possibly see the harm in this. And that’s why you should be happy we’re coaches and not air traffic controllers.

The head coaches met with the three officials to agree to terms. The clock would count up. It would not stop for anything – not goals or injuries. Not anything. When the clock hit 45:00, the half would be over. No stoppage time. These are the facts and as Don King would say, they are irrefutable and incontrovertible.

The major difference in this clock counting thing is that pretty much every scoreboard in the country, including ours, is wired so that when the clock winds down to 00:00, a buzzer automatically sounds. That doesn’t happen when the clock is counting up.

What is also without debate is the position of the ball when the clock reaches 45:00. It is outside of our 18. There’s a great view of it on our match video. What the video doesn’t show is our staff of coaches yelling to the ref that the half is over, and her acknowledging our shouts with a talk-to-the-hand wave.

At roughly 45:12, the Beat tapped in at the back post to bring them level at 1-1. It was, conveniently, the last touch of the half as the ref whistled time.

As you might imagine, we were incensed. As if we didn’t have a big enough challenge, you’re going to actually give a handout to the professionals? In our park? Are you serious? We argued our case but the referee kept pointing at her watch and saying, “Forty-five.” Because you know, saying “forty-five” matters. I’d really thought I’d seen every possible mistake a referee could make. But in my 35 years as both a player and coach, I have never seen a ref screw up half-time. With the advent of scoreboards I didn’t even think it was possible. But there it was, right in front of me. Half-time had been botched.

Before the second half starts, Steve gets with Coach Galanis and together they approach the referee and tell her what everyone in the stadium already knows - that the goal was scored well after time had expired and should not have counted. The problem now is that if you take the goal off the board, the referee might look bad. So let’s not worry about doing, you know, the right thing – the thing that should have been done in the first place. Let’s not correct a perfectly correctable mistake. No, no, no. First things first. Let’s make sure we save face. Because that’s what’s important.

The goal stood. Naturally. We started the half at 1-1.

The second half was practically a mirror image of the first. As was the case in the first half, Atlanta stormed out in the early going and had us pinned for the first ten minutes. We almost scored another sizzler against the run of play as Lex’s bomb from 30 yards beat the keeper but not the crossbar and we remained even at 1-1. In the 60thminute the Beat finally capitalized on a corner kick as Chalupny volleyed home from 18 yards to pull them ahead 2-1. Then we settled into a comfortable rhythm and had our fair share of the ball and territory and put together a succession of chances in the game’s final ten minutes. Unfortunately we never did find the late equalizer and fell by a 2-1 final.

It was a bittersweet night. The girls played well and they knew it. As a matter of fact, they had a ball. And why not? As far as anyone in our camp was concerned, we played a pro team to a 1-1 draw and looked good doing it. That’s something to hang your hat on.

GTV interviewed Miller after the game and since I was in the vicinity I made a point of eavesdropping. Miller had played an absolute burner of a match, even if she hadn’t scored that ridiculous goal. But she had done that too, and that made her an easy choice for the cameras. Miller went right back to the pregame talk. She explained, “We said before the game that we wanted to leave here with our heads held high and be proud of ourselves and we did that.” See that? I knew they were paying attention. I love it when that happens.

After the game the Beat players stuck around to sign some autographs.

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Because I had a heartbroken little girl at home, I decided to take advantage of my position and get my kid a really cool souvenir. Heather Mitts is as classy as they come (and not just because she got engaged to a Philadelphia Eagle). When I told her how upset Izzy was about missing the game, she told me to let her know when I bring Izzy to a Beat game. She’d be happy to meet her. Don’t for a second believe that we won’t be taking her up on that offer.