Soccer Poet

ROAD TRIP

ROAD TRIP

THURSDAY OCT 7

9 A.M. – Our bus leaves as scheduled for the 400 mile jog to Oxford, MS. Before we get out of town we stop at Cracker Barrel to pick up our to-go breakfast order. I remind the team of our policy on red-meat leftovers – they come straight to me. I may not be passionate about many causes, but I am steadfast in my opposition to wasted bacon.

Our bus is top-shelf - six 20” screen televisions (3 on each aisle) and a 60” flat screen on the back wall. We can watch satellite television or play DVDs or both at once. Above the seats are sleeping compartments where the players can stretch out. There are variations to the seating arrangements so it’s not like 20 rows of seats all facing forward. There are some bigger spaces with card tables and community seating. And naturally we have wireless internet. I wish this team could go back in time and spend one of these trips in a pair of fifteen-passenger vans stuffed between their luggage and bags of balls listening to whatever radio station happens to have a signal strong enough to reach the radio. I think it would be a nice eye-opener as to how good we really have it.

Our bus driver, Nathan, is also an assistant warden of a correctional facility. He says he’s not packin’ so I think I can take him. Actually, he’s a real good guy and seems to be enjoying himself. And if you must know, he could break me in half with one hand never leaving the steering wheel. We’ll do our best to avoid that. Regardless, I let slip that I’m a former UFC champion just to keep him honest.

10:52 A.M. (CST) – Somewhere in the past hour we crossed the time line and are now livin’ the dream central time. At the front of the bus the coaches throw around restaurant possibilities for tonight. This conversation started about half an hour ago and has spanned a variety of tangent topics including the officiating in some recent games and currently the birthing practices of friends and acquaintances. Actually, we’ve been pinging between these two topics so seamlessly you would think they were related. If you were a fly on our window you would see how prevalent A.D.D. is in our staff. This isn’t the least bit out of the ordinary. It’s the norm. All of our meetings are like this. We start at Point A then visit Points C-Z before eventually getting to B. And sometimes we don’t even remember to finish the journey. A few weeks back we were in our afternoon meeting to plan out the next morning’s training session and naturally we lost sight of that objective after about fifteen seconds. 45 minutes later we all go our separate ways and it’s another 30 minutes after that before someone realizes we never did plan training so we have to have another meeting. It’s now 12:10, we have no dinner plan, and no one remembers that we were even discussing it.

I’ve heard no mention about the elephant on the field – Steve’s return to Oxford to try and defeat the program he built. I know this game means a lot to him even if he won’t talk about it. I’m sure there’s plenty of talk about it in Oxford.

12:35 P.M (CST) – Just east of Birmingham. At our lunch-stop exit there was a Waffle House on either side of the overpass, no more than 200 yards from door to door. All Hail the South!

We opted for lunch at Chik-Fil-A which was… interesting. Sometimes the unannounced arrival of a charter bus can make the wheels come off a fast food joint. I assure you that is exactly what happened here. Instead of just handing out our orders as his crew received and prepared them, the manager felt it best to hold all 30 orders behind the counter and then hand them out at the end. I’m pretty sure he won’t make that choice in the future. In the end it was Nooj and I standing at the counter shouting out, “Who got a grilled chicken sandwich? Who got a milkshake?” At some point the chaos reached its tipping point and the rest of the customers, now standing in a line that extended out the door, were summarily relegated to non-priority status. One woman was second in line… for 15 minutes. Three feet from the counter with no one to take her order for 15 minutes – at Chik-Fil-A! So frustrating. We felt bad about being the impetus for the delay so we assured everyone we were actually an acting troupe from the University of Florida then handed out counterfeit tickets to the 2011 VMAs. Robin passed out some extra orders of waffle fries we had inherited which distracted the hungry patrons from realizing their VMA tickets were actually coupons for 5% off their next visit to Tire World. Then we pointed to the east, shouted, “Look!” - then scurried out of the exit doors on the west wall.

3:15 P.M. CST – Just made the turn onto Hwy. 9, a two-lane little cut-through that leads to Hwy. 278/6 that will take us into Oxford. It’s a beautiful day. I’m thankful for that. I likely won’t be back to Oxford for another two years so I’m glad this weekend is going to give me a clear snapshot of a very pretty town. Everyone has rallied from their post-lunch nap and the bus has come to life. At the front Nooj

is emceeing a trivia contest for the coaching/support staff. These are must-win events for me because there are so few areas where I can best Steve and I have a slight edge in trivia. Currently I have the lead and must maintain focus. Also, I’ve kicked our trainer Mandy out of the game on several occasions but it doesn’t seem to stick.

4:30 P.M. CST – Trivia has given way to riddles. Steve is clearly my superior in these suckers so if I can steal one or two I’m ecstatic. We’re currently all stumped on these two:

  • What has a neck but no head and arms but no hands?
  • What sits in a corner but goes around the world?

5:30 P.M. CST – Arrive at Ole Miss for a light training session focusing on our defensive organization against a 4-4-2 and some set pieces. It’s a little warmer here than in Athens, but not much. The field at Ole Miss looks great with a fresh paint job of the SEC logos. It’s more than a little bit strange to digest that this isn’t ‘our’ field any more. I’d only served three years at Ole Miss. Can’t imagine what it’s like for Steve to be a visitor here.

7:00 P.M. CST – Training was upbeat and relaxed. Ole Miss Associate A.D. Lynnette Johnson (our former boss) came out to the field to greet us, as did our former video manager Mike Melton, former trainer Erica Wilburn and volleyball coach Joe Getzin. All good peeps and we were happy that they took the time to visit. It’s getting dark as the voice of the Dawgs, Kevin Kopp, films his segment for Georgia Sports Daily on georgiadogs.com. We’re wondering if anyone will be able to see him when the piece goes up on the web. Kevin does an amazing job and we’re all wondering why ESPN doesn’t hire him to do their soccer broadcasts.

8:30 P.M. CST – We’re seated at Old Venice, an Italian joint of the square in Oxford. Dinner was lovely and unrushed; the food was delish. I surprise everyone (especially myself) by solving the ‘neck but no head’ riddle. The ‘sits in the corner’ riddle is still up for grabs. Because she’s freakishly smart, Nooj invites Jenna over to the table to see how she does with the riddles. Jenna doesn’t want to play because she’s focused on some exams she has to take tomorrow morning, but Nooj sways her to stay for “just one.”

Nooj: What has a neck but no head and arms but no hands.

Jenna (instantly): A shirt.

Nooj: What sits in a corner but goes around the world.

Jenna (instantly): A stamp.

Nooj proceeds to fire another half dozen riddles at Jenna. Jenna responds with one correct answer after another with frightening speed. It reminded me of Wonder Woman repelling a volley of bullets with her wrists. I know Jenna is smart but now she’s just showing off.

9:00 P.M. CST – We’re back at the hotel checking in on scores from the A.C.C. Maryland has upset Boston College, a result that will shake up the Top 5 rankings. Steve and I sit in the room reviewing the Ole Miss line-up for the umpteenth time this week. We occasionally break up the monotony by watching game show bloopers on youtube. If you’ve never done this, you should. Bet you can’t watch just one.

FRIDAY OCT. 8

8 A.M. – Wake up, shower, coffee, breakfast. More coffee.

9:30 A.M. CST – Team meeting to review Ole Miss and watch some video clips of their matches from this past weekend against Florida and South Carolina. My guess is that any scouting report info will be irrelevant in the game’s first fifteen minutes. Ole Miss is going to be inspired. The players will want to prove a point. I expect them to start the game like they were shot out of a cannon. If we can survive that initial outburst and establish our style before they establish theirs, well, I think that’s ultimately what will decide the game.

10:15 A.M. CST – Tennis coach Mark Beyers swings by the hotel. He drops me off at Mississippi Federal so I can close out the last $223 of my account. It’s another gorgeous day so I pick up a copy of today’s Daily Mississipian, the Ole Miss student newspaper, and walk the mile back to the hotel. Yesterday’s DM had a feature article about Steve’s return to face the program he built from the ground up. Today’s article previewing the Rebs’ weekend can’t help but mention it either. I’m wondering if there’s any way to make this game mean as much to our players as it does to theirs.

11:45 A.M. CST – We send the players on a light jog and stretch just to shake out some of the cobwebs. We leave a few copies of today’s DM scattered around the lobby for our players to ‘find.’ We need them to realize that this game isn’t just another day at the office. As the players disappear around the corner of the hotel, Nooj sorta has an out-of-body experience. Forgetting where he’s at (in public) and who he’s with (his co-workers) and for no apparent reason whatsoever breaks into the ‘Ride the Donkey’ dance. This ‘dance’ consists of skipping in a tight circle as if you’re riding an imaginary horse, slapping your backside with one hand while twirling an imaginary lasso above your head with the other. Nooj is 39. This is occurring just outside the hotel’s front door at midday and it’s quite the eye-catcher. When Nooj completes his first revolution he sees four sets of very puzzled eyes looking directly at him. This snaps Nooj back into the here and now but I’m pretty sure this story won’t go away anytime soon. I don’t know if we can coach worth a hoot but our staff sure has a good time.

12:30 P.M. CST – Dee and Mal (a pair of our former Rebs) picked Steve and me up for a sushi lunch at Kabuki. We haven’t seen them since Dee’s trip with NJ Sky Blue to play the Atlanta Beat. The food is spectacular, but to be fair, if we were dining on cold cigar butts I’d still be enjoying myself. Dee and Mal are two spectacular souls and our lunch is a reminder of a wonderful time in my life. I learn that Dee is now keeping a blog for Sky Blue. I tell her she needs an agent.

3:00 P.M. CST – The team is off to McAllister’s Deli for the pregame meal. Oxford is home to the original McAllister’s. I skip lunch (no, seriously) to stay behind and work on my pregame speech. This one is going to be a little bit different and I want to get it right.

5:30 P.M. – We load the bus for the 1.5 mile drive to the Ole Miss soccer stadium. For the first time in 16 years Steve will take his place on the visitor’s bench. Steve, Robin and I ease the pregame tension by setting a new one-touch juggling record of 139. We’re declaring it an SEC record, so we’ve got that goin’ for us.

10 P.M. CST – Back in the hotel after a 110 minute scoreless draw that has left the players feeling miserable and the coaches scratching our heads. We took 29 shots. 17 on goal and another two that hit the woodwork. Ole Miss played hard and defended with life or death urgency and their keeper Sarah Story set a school record with 17 saves. Some of them were quite good, but a lot of our best chances were fired right at her. We don’t know what it’s going to take to start scoring some goals, but some of our attempts at finishing were just unacceptable.

Ole Miss nearly stole the game at the very end of the second overtime as we got countered on our own corner kick. A last second save by Baker salvaged the point and probably my life because if that ball had gone in I would have hung myself from the crossbar.

As for the ‘other part’ of this match, well, that went really well. The fans were great. I expected to see an entire fraternity sitting behind our bench heckling Steve and I, but there was none of that. Everyone was gracious and kind and made a point to say hello and wish us well. The really awkward part was bumping into our former players in the hallway between the locker rooms before the game. I mean, how do you act? Apparently no one really knows. We saw three of four of them. Most of them tried not to smile but couldn’t quite make it stick. I enjoyed that.

What surprised us all was how clean the game was. We expected that’s there would be a lot of big hits/fouls early but other than a couple of two-hand shoves, there was no real message being sent. Just another soccer game.

Afterwards we got to spend some time with a few of the girls and that meant a lot. It’s good to know that a change in colors wasn’t enough to destroy some relationships we treasure. It was pretty funny that almost all of them, separately, asked some variation of the question, “Those girls aren’t as cool as we are, right?” It’s comforting that they want reassurance that in our hearts they haven’t been replaced.

The reunions were a nice distraction, but as soon as they concluded we were left to confront once again the fact that we left two-points on the table because we practically refused to finish our sitters. Every team is going to have a game like that every now and then but for us it’s getting dangerously close to habitual.

I know the girls were particularly disappointed. They knew this one meant a little bit more and they wanted to win one for their coach. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. We played hard and we played well. Just couldn’t find the net. It can be a cruel game.

SATURDAY OCT. 9

8 A.M. CST – “We freaking tied.” Those are the first words out of my mouth. I’ve been awake for five seconds and already feel miserable about last night’s result. The past few weekends are bearing a striking resemblance to the 2008 season at Ole Miss when we were almost never the second-best team but kept inventing ways to lose. The difference is that instead of losing we’re tying, but any way you slice it, it still feels pretty defeating.

10:30 A.M. CST – On the bus to Starkville. We’re watching College Football Game Day on ESPN broadcasting from Columbia, S.C. Steve spots a Gamecock fan waving cardboard monkey. Why we have no idea but regardless we have our Monkey of the Day. I like when we find a morning monkey. Sets a good tone for the day.

Traci Dreesen took an elbow last night that left her with a prize shiner. Everyone I’ve ever met looks meaner with a black eye. Until now. Traci still looks mild-mannered and kind.

11 A.M. CST – We’re watching the Bulldogs take on Tennessee in football. Aaron Murray runs for a long touchdown to stake us to an early lead and thus bus erupts. I’ve loved my time coaching at small schools, but I gotta tell ya, there really is something to watching your school play on national television.

The drive takes us through Tupelo, the quintessential American small town. The sidewalks are lined with decorative, over-sized guitars, impossible-to-miss reminders that in case you didn’t know, this is the birthplace of the King, Elvis Presley.

11:50 A.M. CST – Football. The Dawgs have been awesome! Since Murray’s run there’s been two more highlight reel plays – a tipped-ball interception and a long catch by A.J. Green who took a colossal hit but hung on to the ball. The Dawgs are up 17-0 and we’re hoping some of that offensive production will rub off on us.

12:30 P.M. CST – We’ve arrived in Starkville. We get a little turned around so we take a detour through the Mississippi State campus. The campus is pretty enough but something here doesn’t feel right. I can’t put my finger on it but there’s something just a little bit eerie about this campus. On our second pass through it hits me. There’s no people. None. The grass is freshly cut and the buildings are in good shape, so clearly people lived here recently. But that was obviously before the aliens came. Now all that is left is a post-apocalyptic ghost town where a small band of unwashed survivors hides in a crawl space beneath what was the admissions office waiting for contact from a leather-skinned old woman named Sarah, a seer from the plains who can navigate their safe passage to the free zone. They subsist on crickets and grubs and the rain water that trickles down a rusty gutter. To pass the time they make anagrams from the names of NASCAR drivers and pick up topsoil and hold it.

12:45 P.M. CST – Lunch at the Bulldog Deli. My alien theory takes a hit when we learn that MSU is currently (and allegedly) on Fall Break. This would explain the utter absence of humanity. Of course it could also be an alien cover story to buy time until the mother-ship makes its reentry. After lunch we check into the hotel. I am now suspicious of everyone and make a point to look behind their ears for signs of microchip implants. That’s where they put them, you know. It’s difficult to do this inconspicuously so I tell people I’m a scalp specialist whose been sent to the area to investigate a possible outbreak of hat-head. Everyone checks out fine except for a man in the Liberty Bell barber shop who has a nasty case of split ends.

4 P.M. CST – We have a light training session with the main focus being… surprise, surprise… finishing. We know we’ll get chances tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll do something with them.

5:45 P.M. CST – We get back to the hotel in time to watch the #1 Crimson Tide fall to South Carolina in football. Gamecock QB Steven Garcia is lights out throwing 17 for 20 in the upset. College football Saturdays make coaching in the SEC even more exciting. Football here is a way of life. I’ve totally drank the Kool-Aid on this one and I don’t care. I love it!

7 P.M. CST – Dinner at Old Venice. At the coach’s table Steve and I share with the group my food-on-the-face theory of human behavior. And just to protect the rights to my intellectual property, let’s be clear, this theory is 100% mine and has not a shred of scientific evidence to support it. Here’s the skinny: When you’re at the dinner table and you signal the person across from you that there is food on their face, they will naturally wipe at it until you give them the ‘all clear.’ Except, and this is really the meat of the theory, even after you tell them they got the rogue morsel, the person will inevitably take another wipe at the area. I don’t know why but as sure as the sun rises and sets, the person will not fully believe that the food really is gone. The best part of this theory is the field testing. So we begin calling to some of the girls at the other tables and telling them they’ve got food on their face, at which point it all goes pear-shaped and we end up in uncontrollable fits of laughter as the players wonder what the heck is wrong with their coaches. The story of Nooj’s ‘Ride the Donkey’ moment gets its first public airplay.

SUNDAY – OCT. 10

8:30 A.M. CST – The third floor of our hotel has a major climate control issue. The floor stays at a steady 81 degrees so for all intents and purposes last night I slept in Cuba, circa 1937. When I woke up the room was lush with ferns and aloe plants were growing in the bathtub. But outside it’s a gorgeous day so after breakfast I walk to downtown and take some pics of life in Smalltown, USA. The stroll takes me past three little eateries that are distinctly southern... a catfish joint, a BBQ shack, and a cajun crawfish place. Each one of them has eye-catching signage so I snap some pics.

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There’s not a lot to Starkville, but it’s got a very safe, Norman Rockwell feel to it. Main Street is more or less exactly what you would imagine it to be. Think Mayberry. It’s clean and homey and you get the feeling that this place probably hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years. The people not swept up by the aliens are on their way to church. They’re friendly and charming in a way that only southerners can be. It furthers my belief that everyone in New Jersey should have to spend a year in the Deep South, just to take the edge off.

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11:30 A.M. CST – Pregame meeting. We stress the importance of keeping the ball and being patient. It’s going to get up close to 90 degrees and we want to make sure it’s their Bulldogs doing the chasing and not ours. We also mention patience and common sense in the final third. Our goal-scoring problems have everyone a little stressed out. We don’t need to force bad situations and take off-balance shots or shots from 45 yards. We’ll get our chances. The worst thing we can do is put the ball over their end-line for a festival of goal kicks. We want the ball on the field. Every time we force a bad shot that goes over the end-line, we let them off the hook and give them time to recuperate. We want the ball in play.

12:30 A.M. CST – During the pregame warm-up I say to Laura Eddy, “Score a goal today.”

“Okay,” she replies.

Our one-touch juggling is awful and tops out at 49. Robin went on a nine-mile run this morning and her legs are shot. I’m beginning to question her devotion to our cause.

1 P.M. CST – The Dawgs get a diving header from Alexa Newfield after three minutes to end our goalless woes. Newfield’s goal is like a release valve relieving the pressure on what could have been a tension-filled day. Pollock doubles our lead in the 35thminute and we go to half-time up 2-0. We’ve used all 20 of our field players and done a darn good job of executing our game plan. State has been content to clog the middle, concede the perimeter, and sit back and low pressure. We’ve been very patient but at times we still try to force the issue, mainly out of a sense of obligation to make something, make anything happen. Regardless, we’ve done enough. State has managed just one shot and their players have done a lot of chasing. It’s taking a toll. We want to keep a fast pace in the second half and keep them chasing. They can’t have much left in the tank. We want them to expend it defending. We’ve got to play one and two touch soccer and pass, pass, pass with speed and urgency. As Nooj says, “We’ve got to keep the ball hot.”

Twelve minutes into the second half we stretch our lead to three. Eddy’s first goal of the season is the prettiest of the day, a volley from a Nikki Hill cross that she side-foots low and just inside the post. It’s Nikki’s first point as a Georgia Bulldog and the last score of the day. We do an excellent job of possessing the ball and staying patient and taking the air out of the game and we wrap up our third consecutive SEC weekend with a win and a tie. Steve’s post-game media interview includes the quote: “We got the monkey off our back.” And that would be your… Monkey of the Day.

3:30 P.M. CST – Our manager Sheila calls in a to-go order to McAllister’s. The plan is to grab our food and get on the road. As the girls shower in the basketball coliseum, we catch the last 30 minutes of the Florida-Auburn match on the bus television. Today we’re all Auburn fans and the Tigers reward us by cashing in on a corner kick in the last thirty-four seconds to upset the Gators. South Carolina continues its torrid pace as they swept their weekend series over Auburn and Alabama.

4 P.M. CST – We arrive at McAllister’s. Robin, Mandy and I go inside to check on our to-go order. The employees look at us like we’re from outer-freaking-space. For real this time. They have not the slightest idea what we’re talking about. We quickly put two and two together and realize that if we want our food then we’re gonna have to pick it up in Oxford because that’s the McAllister’s that our manager phoned our order into. Sheila is a wreck because not only is our food not ready, but two hours up the road there’s a deli fixing 30 meals that won’t ever be eaten or paid for. Yep, we’re a well-oiled machine.

Our to-go meal becomes dine-in which is fine with me because I’m a big fan of the fellowship. So we’ll get back to Athens an hour later than planned. No biggie. These are the times to remember. And because we’re just a little bit lucky, the McAllister’s in Oxford has been getting slammed so they haven’t started preparing our food.

We load the bus and make tracks back to the University of Georgia. Between riddles we’ll watch the Braves lose to the Giants and the Phillies complete a sweep of the Reds. We took a quick break at a truck stop where Nooj found a beef jerky box with this logo.

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They're everywhere!

We’ll get to Athens sometime after midnight. Monday we’ll download video of South Carolina and Florida and start putting together our game plans for next weekend. It’s a big one.

updated: 11 years ago