2015 Women's World Cup
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Do you find it strange that as the US Women’s National Team has advanced to the World Cup quarter-final, that I actually feel sorta bad for them. Gone are the days when that team could do no wrong… or could be both sensational and anonymous. For the better part of two decades they performed in a sort of vacuum. The only people who cared, loved them unconditionally. It’s been well documented, but this institution we know as the USWNT once won a World Cup in China and was greeted by two people when they arrived back in the US. That’s right…. TWO! Back then, few people even knew we had a women’s national team; fewer cared; and those who did care were 100% behind them. Now this team that has done nothing except get the results it needed, winning its group along the way… nothing but position itself for a strong run at a third World Cup title, is being pummeled by every columnist and blogger with a passing interest in women’s soccer. The coach, Jill Ellis, is being ridiculed. Abby Wambach, a hero so many times to this team – a player who delivered one of the very best moments in the history of American sports – has been abandoned. Carli Lloyd, who has an incredible knack for scoring goals that win Olympic Gold medals, is being cast off as liability in midfield. Keyboards have become hammers and our national team has become the nail. Why is that?
Well for starters, there’s this thing called the internet and it magnifies everything. Instead of moaning to a friend about our team’s uninspired performance, now you can moan to all your friends and followers who can pass along your moan to their friends and followers and give it real legs. But isn’t this what this team has always been working toward… to grow the game? To get people to care? And haven’t they succeeded in remarkable fashion! Hasn’t women’s soccer exploded since the ‘91ers returned from China! Didn’t another World Cup championship in ’99 have all of us saying that we will have two fillings? With one shining moment after another, the USWNT has accomplished everything its pioneers had hoped. Most importantly, it got us to care. And now that’s coming back to bite them.
This entity that is the USWNT has outgrown its bubble and become a victim of its own wonderful creation, inciting an interest that has vanquished the vacuum. They hoped we’d care. And now we do. The team has evolved. Now, players get paid and the team plays to packed stadiums. That’s a good thing. But when people care, the microscope zooms in for a closer look. When people care, people expect. And from everything I’ve been reading about this World Cup, people expect more. So what exactly is it about this team that has seen them succeed while simultaneously seen them butchered in the media/social media? Why does it feel like so many opinion-makers are abandoning a perfectly good ship? Has the ghost of USWNT's past set the bar unreasonably high?
I confess, I’m no different; I’m just quieter. I’ve watched our games and each win has felt a little hollow. The important point we gained in drawing Sweden did nothing to boost my morale or optimism. Our performances haven’t excited me. Okay, that’s hardly the objective for this team. It’s just that I’m hardly alone. It seems everyone is waiting for that dazzling breakout performance where the US carves up an (11-player) opponent with a relentless commitment to attack. (You know... the way we used to.)
By and large the critics fall into one of two camps: There are those who fault Jill Ellis and her 4-4-2 system, and those who fault Jill Ellis and her personnel selections. Both camps have made some valid points. As for me, I’m more interested in trying to decipher what our style is. We’re clearly not a possession team. We’re not a transition/counter attack team. We’re not a wing play team (although we tend to do our best work when we get the ball wide down the left). We’re not a direct team. We just seem to play some hybrid, hodgepodge style that can’t be classified, and that’s what puzzles me. How can we have this amazing collection of talent and send them to the World Cup with no definable style of play? I think that therein lies the foundation of the criticism: It just hasn’t been much fun to watch us play soccer. Complicating matters is the fact that it has been fun to watch the soccer that our opponents have played against us, and that may be the real elephant in the room.
Australia and Sweden strung together some wonderful attacking combinations and runs of possession. The Nigerians had their moments too. Even Columbia, the so called David to our Goliath, was a delight to watch in the latter part of the first half. As a matter of fact, one of the best pieces of soccer in that match came from the Columbians in the second half when they were playing a man down. Surely I wasn’t the only one watching those bits of brilliance and thinking, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ Well, we can. It’s not like we don’t have the talent. It’s just that we don’t have any discernible style that seems to value one thing over another. A team’s style tells you who they are. Without the blueprint, there’s no identity. And as best I can tell right now, this team’s identity is a photo of Alex Morgan.
I think a lot of fans were angered when the Australian soccer website said, ‘The USA, well, they just aren’t that good.” But there is a big group of soccer people, myself included, who thought, ‘Oh Crap! They're onto us!" You can't rightly blame the folks Down Under. All they did was pull back the Wizard’s curtain. If you haven’t read that post, check it out here. Believe me, it’s not just sour Aussie grapes.
We’ve won and we’ve advanced. We’ve done that in large part through sheer athleticism and depth. We are bigger, stronger and faster and we grind teams down. When we bring on a sub, we don’t get worse; we get different. Not many other teams can say that. And it hasn’t hurt that two of our opponents whittled themselves down to ten players. Here’s to hoping that trend continues! Our defense has been stellar and Julie Johnston’s star is rising at breakneck speed. Hope Solo, when called upon, has cemented her status as the world’s best between the pipes. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s enough to grind out three more wins and another world championship and send the bartenders home happy.
So, in an effort to assuage my guilt, I’ll take the ‘I support the troops but not the war’ stance. I believe in our team. I believe that there is still a heroic moment or two left in the tanks of Wambach and Lloyd. I believe that Megan Rapinoe is among the world’s very best. I believe that Alex Morgan can turn a game on its ear as she did against Columbia. I believe that with or without a discernible style, we might still have enough weapons to win this thing.
We are who we are: a team that scratches out a way to score more goals than the opponent. Even if I’m not head over heels for the way we’ve been playing soccer, I’m committed to supporting these players because I owe them that much. Haven’t they taught us, time and again, that betting against them is a really bad idea? I have no intention of abandoning ship. I owe this team and these players for all the times they’ve stood strong, done the heroic and raised my patriotic spirit to a better place. If we go on to win a World Cup, who am I to say we should have won it differently? At that point, all I’ll be saying is, “U-S-A!”
The World Cup and Free Stuff
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Poetheads, are you ready to get your World Cup on? Is your red, white and blue ready to be gloriously glorious? Are you fired up to watch Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo and friends kick some global backside at the 2015 Women’s World Cup? Oh hell yes! I don’t know why, but I just have a feeling that this is our year. Believe me; as a Philly fan, I've learned to set my hope meter at something just above abject despair, so this is way out of my comfort zone. I honestly haven’t felt this optimistic since ’99, and I can’t explain it, but I just have this undeniable feeling that this is the year that we recoup the cup.
To celebrate the 2015 Women’s World Cup and a fervent patriotism for the Stars and Stripes, I’m going to be giving away copies of my new book (that hasn’t even been released yet!), and there’s no reason you shouldn’t win one of them. Keep on reading I’ll tell you how in just a moment.
In other news… Since the launch of Soccer iQ, many readers have suggested how awesome it would be if there were videos to go along with the book. And because I’m a big fan of awesome, I couldn’t agree more! So as another arm of my WWC celebration, I am happy to announce the release of the first Soccer iQ video. It’s a companion to Chapter 36, Turning the Corner, and it features a few of my all-time favorite people/players. Check it out and let me know what you think. If you like it, please share the link because Lord knows how many players will benefit from watching it. Incidentally, I apologize in advance for my comically bad narration. Clearly I’m no Kevin Copp.
Okay, let’s get back to that contest. This is how it’s gonna work…
First off, you need to have read Soccer iQ, either Vol. 1, Vol. 2 or (preferably) both. It’s not that I’m trying to strong-arm you into buying a book; it’s just that if you haven’t read either of these suckers, you won’t know what to look for.
Secondly, you have to be a Twitter follower of mine - @SoccerPoet.
With that out of the way, here’s how it works… Spot a Soccer iQ moment from any match and tweet it to me with the hashtag #SocceriQ. The ‘moment’ must be referenced in either Vol. 1 or Vol. 2. Describe the moment, include the teams, the running time of the match and stick the hashtag #SocceriQ on there. For example…
@SoccerPoet USvAUS 62:15 AUS forward Worlds Dumbest Foul #SocceriQ
@SoccerPoet JAPvSUI 24:40 JAP fwd tries Impossible Pass #SocceriQ
As Soccer iQ is about the most common mistakes, that’s mainly what we’re looking for – mistakes – not examples of players getting it right… although there certainly are some exceptions. For example… someone hunting a rebound on a penalty kick, or a toe poke for a goal. That kinda stuff will work too.
The tweeter of the best Soccer iQ moment of each match (as selected by our blue ribbon panel of judge) wins. If multiple followers tweet about the same moment, the one who tweets first will win.
At that point I’ll need to get your shipping address (no P.O. boxes) and soon I’ll be sending you a free copy my upcoming release Shutout Pizza – Smarter Soccer Defending for Players and Coaches. Then we will all celebrate our shared good fortune as Team USA emerges victorious as world champion!
So you see, it’s really quite simple, yes?
Oh yeah, one more thing… you can win up to three times.
Remember, the tournament starts this Saturday, June 6, and the US opens its play on Monday, June 8 against those Matildas from Down Under. My prediction? PAAAAIN.
The Good Fight
Friday, April 24, 2015
“The problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long.”
Suddenly awash in a new wave of free time, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about the culture of youth soccer and athletics in general. The blogosphere is heavy with articles of this genre, and as a newly minted man of leisure, I’ve indulged in many of them. As one might expect when exploring this particular brand of material, you don’t have to read very far before crossing paths with that most sinister E-word – Entitlement. And the carnival that is college athletics gifted us another shining example this past week when a strength coach at Tulane was fired for making a bowler run as punishment for being an hour late to a session. Yeah, feel free to re-read that last sentence. Surely there is more to this story so I’m not choosing sides, but the early reports suggest that the bowler’s parents got upset with the strength coach, called the AD, and the coach was terminated. Voila! Instant viral story.
So much has been written in the coaching world about the epidemic of entitlement – of how we are raising a generation of kids allergic to accepting responsibility for their own lot in life, swept away by the notion that the universe is perpetually in their debt and thus obligated to vaporize each and every obstacle to their immediate happiness, on and off the field. I’ve coached college soccer for 24 years and I can tell you, it’s not like the problem has never been there. Spoiled kids aren’t unique to soccer and they weren’t invented in the new millennium. But I can assure you that in my experience, their numbers have grown with each passing year.
It’s sad to imagine our Rudys being overrun by a generation of Veruca Salts, and that’s what drives bloggers to their keyboards. Most of the articles I’ve come across were written by coaches – frustrated coaches – throwing a Hail Mary on the interthingy, hoping desperately to spread awareness, influence parents, and score a victory for the greater good. I’d imagine plenty of other coaches, myself included, are wishing them the very best of luck.
But I’m here to tell ya that the news isn’t all bad. The Rudys may be getting overrun in the blogosphere, but they’re still out there if you know where to look. Yesterday, Glenn Crooks – former Rutgers coach and now broadcaster for NYFC of the MLS – pointed out an uplifting article about Caley Chelios, the daughter of NHL star Chris Celios. Caley barely played on the Northwestern lacrosse team for her first three seasons but her sticktuitiveness has paid off in this her senior year.
Bloggers spend so much time writing in gross generalities about the players who get it wrong, maybe it would be more effective (and enjoyable) to write about a player who got it right. Maybe turning this issue inside-out will bring it closer to home.
I actually wrote my own dispatch on this topic, but it wasn’t intended for public consumption. It was a letter I wrote to a player I was coaching at Georgia. Due to ummm – recent developments – that letter has been declassified. I’ll share it with you here. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it just a little bit uplifting. If you do, I hope you’ll share it with your little athlete.
This one is coming from the heart. I hope you enjoy it.
First, let me give you some background on a center back we had at UGA.
Jenna Buckley was a five-star recruit in high school – an amazing talent with top tier speed. By all accounts, she was an absolute flier! Then, in April of 2008, her senior year, she blew out her knee… on Senior Night no less. It was a harbinger of Jenna’s soccer fortunes for the next few years and it forced her to red-shirt her freshman season at Georgia.
Jenna dutifully tended to her rehab. Her knee recovered and eventually she returned to the field, but she never regained her track star speed. As a matter of fact, she became rather… slow. Not exactly the signature quality one looks for in a defender.
Jenna didn’t get much playing time when she returned to action in 2009, but she saw a chance for a new beginning with the arrival of a new coaching staff for the 2010 season. She won a starting position for our opening game that season, but she was eventually beaten out by a freshman named Torri Allen. It was horribly frustrating for Jenna. Even with the new staff, she was right back to Square One. More frustrating still, her ability wasn’t the culprit – she was every bit talented enough to be in the starting line-up, and her soccer IQ was off the charts – it was that darn knee; it had just made her too slow. Had she maintained her speed, Jenna’s playing prospects would have been virtually guaranteed.
Imagine knowing that if your body hadn’t betrayed you, you’d be playing college soccer instead of watching it. Imagine the maddening existence of knowing that an injury, something you didn’t deserve and couldn’t control, has shattered your dream into a million little pieces. Imagine living with that… every. damn. day.
But here’s the thing – Jenna is smart. I don’t mean like typical smart; I mean like out-of- this-world smart. She’s got book-smarts and soccer-smarts and common sense and she’s got a lot of all three. Facing a situation that would lead many other players to check out and blame their predicament on everyone but themselves, Jenna did nothing of the sort. She realized that feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to fix the problem, so she just put her head down and kept doing the one thing she knew how to do – her best.
On Wednesday nights I’d meet with the defenders to review video of our most recent games. At certain points I’d freeze the video and ask the players, “Okay, what should happen next?” Or, “Where should this player be moving to?” I wanted each player to understand not only her position, but also the positions of all the other defenders. So I’d show them these situations and ask them to give me the answers.
During one of these meetings, I noticed that Jenna was answering the majority of the questions, and she wasn’t exactly knocking people out of the way to do it. She would sit there and wait until it was obvious that no one else knew the answer, and then she would, almost regretfully, answer the question with absolute precision.
The starters could answer most of the questions, but never all of them. Jenna, on the other hand, could spit out the answer to each and every question I asked. This became a bit of a trend. Each week there was at least one question that no one could answer except Jenna. I was stunned that a player who rarely got on the field understood the material better than any of the starters. ‘How is that possible,’ I wondered.
If you’ve never spent much time doing what I do, it’s hard to explain the remoteness of this as a possibility and how impressive a feat this really was. Almost without exception, when it comes to video sessions, a player’s level of interest – and thus her comprehension – is directly proportional to her playing time. Let’s face it; no one gets too excited about dissecting video from a game where she didn’t even get on the field. And to be honest, sometimes playing time isn’t even enough to capture their focus. Jenna’s comprehension was a total anomaly. She was an outlier, and an impressive one at that. One night I pulled Jenna aside and quietly asked how she always knew the answers. “I just pay attention,” she said. Naturally.
Jenna easily could’ve checked out. I’ve seen plenty of players who lost hope and checked out after just a game or two of sitting the bench. And Jenna had a really wonderful excuse to fall back on – that stupid knee. I mean, this situation was genuinely beyond her control. She was a legitimate victim of circumstance, and nothing was ever going to make her fast again. Jenna was a very talented player, but her chances of playing were slimmer because we almost never substituted our defenders. At the start of 2011, her fourth season of college soccer, Jenna still wasn’t playing!
But Jenna never did check out. She never sat around feeling sorry for herself and blaming her coaches or her teammates or her knee. She never once mailed in her effort at practice. Her training habits never dipped. She focused on the things she could control and did her best to own every single one of those things. And she was smart enough to realize that one day her chance might come again, and if it did, she was damn sure gonna be prepared. So she paid attention.
Early in 2011, our starting center back got injured very late in a game. Jenna got to start the next match and, wouldn’t you know, she was absolutely sensational! She ran the defense like she’d been doing it all along. She never put a foot wrong and helped us lock down a difficult shutout. Her understanding of the position was so remarkable that by the end of the game, Jenna Buckley was anointed as our new starting center back. It was a position she held onto for the rest of the year.
We made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament that year. In our first-round game against Kansas, Jenna assisted the game-winning goal. Our season ended six days later at Duke. Jenna would graduate a month after that and everyone figured she was done with college soccer.
I didn’t recruit Jenna Buckley to Georgia when she was coming out of high school. She was already a Bulldog when I arrived. But now I found myself recruiting her to stay at Georgia. Having red-shirted as a freshman, Jenna had the option of playing out her eligibility or accepting any one of the myriad of seriously high-paying job offers that a brain like hers commands.
I didn’t want Jenna to leave and she knew that. Not only was she a fantastic player, she was also one of my favorite people. Seeing all that she had overcome to earn her spot on the field, well, how could you not root for a kid like that? But it looked fairly certain that Jenna was going to finish out the fall semester then be whisked away to a high-powered Wall Street investment firm. I never asked her directly. I didn’t want to add a distraction to our season and, if I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t prepared to hear her rejection. I chose to bury my head in the sand and hope for the best and imagine the day when Jenna would walk into my office, smile brightly and announce she was staying. So I waited. And waited. And I waited until I couldn’t afford to wait any more. Our season had ended. Time had grown short and I had to make a move. UGA Soccer needed to recruit Jenna Buckley. Again.
I didn’t want to just have a talk with Jenna. I wanted something more permanent, something she could hold in her hands and look at over and over. So I decided to write her a letter.
I found that letter in my computer files the other day, and that’s really the whole point of this entry. It was a nice reminder that there are still plenty of good kids who take responsibility for their own lot in life and who don’t crumble when things turn against them. If you are the parent of a soccer player – or just a parent at all – I’ll leave it to you to figure out on which side of the fence you and your child will choose to fall. Just remember, it really is a choice that you get to make.
You obviously know where I stand. You know I want you to come back and play out your eligibility and lead our defense to new heights. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why. And when I do explain why, I’m almost positive there’s no way for you to fully comprehend and internalize what I mean. But I’m gonna try.
First of all, (and I want to be perfectly clear about this) yes, my motives are completely selfish. I want you to stay because I think you’re great for the team and that you will help us win. I think we are better with you than without you and that’s reason enough for me to want you here. But that’s just scratching the surface as I am way more selfish than that.
Jenna, I love being your coach more than you can possibly imagine and I’m going to tell you why. I’ve been coaching college soccer for 21 years. And for 21 years I’ve dealt with every possible category of underachiever. I’ve dealt with every conceivable variety of victim. I’ve dealt with an assembly line of players who held everyone and everything except themselves responsible for their lot in (soccer) life. For 21 years I’ve told these players that the best they can do is to choose how to respond in a way that will change their soccer lives for the better. And I have told them exactly how they should respond. Year after year I’ve given them road maps. I’ve told them exactly what they needed to do and how to get there. And almost without exception, what they said they wanted did not match up with their physical and emotional response. Their effort was not proportionate to their goals. In a sense, they quit. They gave up hope when things didn’t immediately turn in their favor. They phoned in their effort at practice. They tuned out at meetings. As you might expect, they spent their careers mired in mediocrity, mining up one excuse after another, blaming their coaches every step of the way.
Jenna, I rooted so hard for so many of those kids. I really believed in so many of them… that if they just kept the faith and genuinely did their very best each and every day, that they could change their own destinies. I knew in my heart that they had it within them. But they just couldn’t find the resolve to keep grinding when they weren’t reaping immediate rewards. They could never get their head around the idea of a long-term investment. I’ve had my heart broken by more of those players than you’ll ever know. The frustration of seeing one player after another, year after year after year, not digging in and putting up a stinkin’ fight is so damn demoralizing, Jenna. And then you know that they’ll be back again the following fall and their situation won’t be any different and they’ll just point the finger at their coach and say, “His fault.”
This, I’ve learned, is the life of a coach.
And then you came along.
You came into my life and made me remember that this is what I originally thought coaching would be like… players digging in and doing their best and fighting the good fight day after day after day, supporting their teammates regardless of their individual desires while continuing to hold themselves to the highest possible standards. Jenna, you are not a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but you are a once-in-a-lifetime spirit. You’re the spirit that a coach is just happy to see every day. You’re the spirit that a coach watches and then wonders why so and so can’t be more like you. You’re the one we thought we’d be surrounded by.
You know Jenna, I don’t think it’s too difficult to know what the right thing is. As a matter of fact, I think most players know the right thing to do to improve their soccer life. I think that knowing is the easy part. But actually acting on that knowledge… actually making that conscious choice day after day after day and having faith that eventually it will work out… well, I think that’s just too much to ask of most people. And that, my friend, is the defining quality that will forever separate you from the legions of soccer players I have ever and will ever coach. I will be forever thankful for that. I will be forever thankful for that one kid who didn’t assign her lot in life to outside forces; who instead took responsibility for her own fate and chose the best possible response each and every day even when it would have been so much easier to lay down. So many players have been in your exact situation. So many had the opportunity to respond with their very best and to really make a case for themselves. But I only know of one who genuinely did. I waited twenty stinkin’ years to find you. Two decades! And Jenna, when I speak to the soccer gods about you, all I can really tell them is, It’s about damn time.
But you know what the best part of it is, Jenna? It’s seeing the player I root for finally break through and get rewarded. It’s seeing the kid who never gave up finally get her time in the spotlight… and seeing her make the most of it. If you only knew how much it made my heart swell when you took the field against Duke last week. I was so very proud of you because there was only one reason you were on that field – you freaking earned it.
You’re going to make your mark on this world, Jenna Buckley. You’re going to go on to do great things and you’re going to be the envy of countless people and touch countless lives. And I will remember you for a lot of wonderful reasons that have nothing to do with kicking a ball. But make no mistake… I will also remember you for being one helluva soccer player.
You know, when I was a player, I knew that my coaches had a huge influence on my life. They affected me greatly with their decisions. That was so easy to see. But I never stopped to consider that I was also having an effect on their lives. I think you should know that you have had an effect on my life, and in the best possible way.
Jenna, I hope you stay with us. I hope you come back and lead our defense for one more season. But if you don’t, I want you to know that coaching you has been one of the most inspirational experiences of my career, and for many years to come I will be telling unhappy players about this girl I used to coach and how she responded to her situation and how in her senior year she was a starting center back at the University of Georgia.
And oh yeah… by the way… you will never, ever regret playing one more season of college soccer. That’s the only promise I’ll ever make to you.
Jenna stayed. Two months after I sent her this letter, Jenna’s teammates elected her captain. On the night our season ended that year, no one cried harder than she did.
Please share this article on Facebook, Twitter, etc. If you enjoyed this entry, I hope you’ll consider buying one of my books. Just click on the links below.
Friday, February 27, 2015
Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward died today.
I’ve been sitting at this keyboard for ten minutes, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what the second sentence of this entry is supposed to be.
If you’ve been here before, you’ve met Ace. I only hope that you also had the chance to meet the man himself. If you did, you already consider yourself lucky. If you didn’t, I’m sorry you were cheated.
I count five heroes in my life. Only three of them ever knew my name. Ace was among them. I chose my college because of him, and because of that choice, my world is what it is. Many of the very best friends I have, I have because of Ace. The greatest experience of my life – college soccer – I had because of Ace. I owe so much to this guy that I can’t even begin to explain it.
A few of us visited him in the hospital on Monday. He was heavily sedated. He never moved; never spoke. We celebrated when he opened one eye for half a beat, and that one time when his right arm flinched. But they swore he could hear every word we said. I’m glad I told him he was my hero. I’m glad I said goodbye.
Seeing him in that bed, it was tough to imagine Ace pulling one last rabbit out of his hat, but the doctor was cautiously optimistic. When he said Ace might walk out of there, I literally almost laughed. I almost laughed because I was thinking about how frustrating it must be for fate with this guy Ace continually screwing up its calendar. It must be like trying to grab the last minnow in the bucket. I smiled at the thought of Ace pulling off one more great escape with all of us cheering for him while simultaneously shaking our heads in disbelief.
The outpouring on Facebook was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Within an hour of his passing, his wall was buried in eulogies. Everyone had his or her own thing to say, but what they all had in common was a deep affection for a man who made their lives a little bit brighter. Just take one look at that smile and you know all you need to know about the man. What you see is what you got.
I was sad. I cried. Again. But to be honest, the sadness has sorta gone away, at least for the time being. I’ll be sad again tomorrow. Maybe even later tonight. But right now, more than anything, I’m pissed. I want answers and I want them now. I want an audience with God. I want to tell him that he got this one wrong, that he owes us one, and that the player-to-be-named-later had better be something pretty damn special.
And then I think about what Ace would’ve said to that nonsense. It’s the same thing he said to me back in August. “You can’t worry about it, Danny. Just let it go. Life’s too short.” Ace never let himself get bogged down with the hassles that consume so much energy from the rest of us. His willingness to ignore the trivialities was his great paradox. For a man who fought so hard for so long, he was also so very willing to concede the little battles in order to keep the spirits high.
Sometime in the early 1990s, Ace had a bumper sticker. I’ve seen it on numerous bumpers in the years since, but that was the first time I’d ever seen it. Three little words so perfectly portrayed the core of this big man’s soul. It’s funny because over these past two decades, whenever I think about Ace, that bumper sticker is always the first thing that pops into my mind because it summed him up so very well. All it said was: ‘Mean People Suck.’
In the end, I think cancer was Ace’s second-greatest fight. I believe his greatest one was to cure the human condition. He wanted everyone to live, love and enjoy our time together, the way he enjoyed his. It’s like he discovered the secret to happiness and wished everyone else would just believe him and follow his lead. He must’ve picked up some knowledge during all those hospital stays, because in the end, he gave us the only prescription we’d ever need: smiledeep.
I’ve written a fair share about Ace, but there was only one time when he felt I got it exactly right. He asked me to send him this quote several times. Each time I did, he managed to misplace it, so I’d have to send it again. He told me he wanted it on his headstone, so I figured he’d be okay if I posted it here one more time.
Thank you for the friendship and the inspiration, Acer. You were a great player, coach, father and friend. You have always been loved and you will forever be missed. Smiledeep.
March 3, 1959 –
February 26, 2015
30 Days to Live
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Sometime in the middle of August, my friend and once-upon-a-time-coach, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward, went to see his doctor. This had become a pretty regular occurrence. For the past eight years, Ace had been battling Stage 4 cancer and chemo. Some days were better than others. Some days were worse. A lot worse. Ace had been going through a particularly rough patch and that meant another trip to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. After a battery of tests and treatments that pounded away at what was left of his physical being, the doctor gave him the news: 30 days to live, give or take.
I had been trying to get down to see Ace for two years, but every time I was ready to go, life got in the way. Once, on a Georgia soccer alumni weekend, I literally had my bags in my car. I was going to watch the morning match and then make the drive to Anna Maria Island. Then I got the call that Ace had an episode and was back in Moffitt and not to make the trip. Can I tell you how frustrating it is to be stuck in one state when your friend is dying in another?
The timing was no better in August. We were in preseason, and that’s the busiest time of the year for a college coach. And since preseason gives way to the actual season, there wasn’t going to be a window available for three solid months, so I decided to make one. We played at Cal State Fullerton on August 31 and took the red-eye home from LAX that night. We landed in Atlanta just before 6 A.M. By 6:30 I was in a rental car heading 500 miles south to see my friend. Since I never quite manage to fall asleep on airplanes, I was running on fumes.
This wasn’t the first time Ace had approached his expiration date. There had been a number of close calls through the past five years, but the episodes had been growing in frequency, particularly in the last twelve months. Among the most dire was a trip to Johns Hopkins last spring. Unlike his other visits to hospitals, this time Ace wasn’t being wheeled in as a suffering patient, but walking in as a hopeful candidate. Ace was hoping to be selected to a trial group for an experimental drug that might possibly relieve his condition or at least prolong his life. As he went through the extensive screening process, the doctors noticed something big growing on his kidney. Again. As Ace was already minus one kidney, failure of the remaining organ would have been fatal. His condition was so fragile that he was immediately checked in for surgery and with no family member closer than a plane ride away, the friend who drove him to Johns Hopkins had to sign off as his next of kin.
The surgeons did their job and Ace had masterfully outmaneuvered death once again. It was so very typical of Ace. Had he not decided to walk into a hospital that day, he probably would have died that night.
I was hoping Ace would settle under a similar lucky star this go-round, but this time it felt different. There was nothing unclear about what the doctor had said. 30 days.
I had every intention of driving straight through to Anna Maria, but as I crossed the Florida line, the trough of coffee I’d consumed had lost its bite. By the time I hit Gainesville I was bleary-eyed. By Ocala I was a zombie piloting a death machine, so I jumped off the interstate and checked into the first motel I saw.
I had been awake for 28 straight hours. When I got out of the car my legs were like noodles. I felt them shaking violently beneath me. I staggered inside and it took all I had not to pass out in the lobby at the foot of the counter. But alas, I had a bed and that was all that mattered. I wobbled into my room, kicked off my flops, pulled the blinds, set an alarm with a wake-up call chaser, fell into bed and within seconds I was zonked. Two hours later I awoke to the alarm and for the first few seconds I had absolutely no idea where I was. None whatsoever. After a mild panic I shook off the cobwebs, grabbed a quick shower, hopped back into the rental and resumed the trip. I got to Ace’s condo on Anna Maria sometime before 6 that night, just in time for my friend’s nightly sunset walk on the beach.
Ace always loved the beach. He’s one of those guys who can sit at the beach and appreciate the whole of it for its own sake. In this way we were kindred spirits. I had to adjust my pace to accommodate for Ace. The cancer, the treatment – they had sapped his strength. This once bear of a man, a former professional athlete, now took the tiniest steps, shuffling more than walking, and it was one of the many moments that made me reflect on how much I’ve taken for granted in this lifetime.
We sat in chairs at the water’s edge. Ace wasn’t allowed to get in the water, not even get his feet wet. And he couldn’t be exposed to the sun, so he hid under a floppy hat and a long sleeve shirt. His voice had gotten much softer since I’d last seen him, like someone had permanently set his volume to low. With alarming regularity he would break into an unholy coughing fit, spitting out words when his breath got right, only to have them interrupted by a subsequent explosion of hacking moments later.
A couple of Ace’s friends happened by and quickly talk turned to the living wake that was to take place that weekend. At this point I should tell you that Ace has a couple of defining qualities. First of all, people love him, and I don’t mean that people don’t love you; it’s just that people love Ace in a way that makes them gravitate to him. It’s always been that way. I can’t really define it, but he’s got a funny, quiet charisma that turns everyone into a friend. As best I can tell, Ace never met a stranger. He’d strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, and before long that person counted himself amongst Ace’s vast legion of friends.
I think people just sort of dissolved into Ace’s earthy vibe. After a few seconds they’d feel comfortable. After a few minutes they’d start to think, Why can’t I be like that guy? And even though they couldn’t be exactly like that guy, they could sure do with having more of that guy in their lives. Thus a friendship was born.
Ace was excited about his living wake. His fundamental belief had always been that life is for the living, that it’s meant to be enjoyed and also appreciated. As he explained it to me, “I never understood a wake. Why the heck do we have wakes when the dude misses it on the count of being dead? It’s so much better to tell them all that stuff when they’re still alive.” It’s pretty difficult to argue with that sentiment, and there was a long line of people waiting to say nice things about Ace. And because life is for the living and Ace could still be counted among them, he changed the name from a wake to a woke… “Because I ain’t dead yet.”
Realizing there was a sense of urgency to see Ace, and that the sense of urgency grew stronger with each passing day, friends from all over the U.S. and Canada were scrambling to book their spots for a visit. Nobody wanted to be saddled into forever with the notion that they didn’t get to see Ace one last time. The problem was that there were far more visitors-in-waiting then there were places to put them or days to accommodate them. The 30 day clock was now down to 14. Approaching critical mass, one last party seemed the only logical solution.
Duffy’s Bar, which was shut down for the off season, was opening up for this woke. And in the island’s laid back fashion, by opening up I simply mean the owner gave Ace the keys and told him to enjoy it.
I couldn’t stay for the woke. As badly as I wanted to, there was no way to justify missing a game or two to hang out at a party with my friends, even if one of them was dying. I’d just have to be happy with my three-day allotment of this guy who has meant so much to so many.
The next day we visited Ace’s son, Jackson Kai, age four. JK lives with his mom, Paul’s ex, Wendy. He’s also the top priority of Ace’s numbered days.
When the doctors give you 30 days left on earth, you prioritize pretty quickly. Ace said, “Danny, I don’t care about anything else right now; I can’t worry about what anybody wants from me. All I want to do is spend time with my son.” So that afternoon I got to watch a father and his son, even got to play a little sun-porch soccer with the wee-man until the sleep deprivation took hold of me and I fell asleep on Wendy’s sofa for three hours. Eventually Jackson Kai walked up and shot me in the face with a dart gun. I woke up and Ace and I went back to his pad.
There was a lot of downtime with Ace, even when I was awake. I hadn’t seen Ace since July of 2011. Three years had passed. Three cancer-stricken years. I don’t know what I expected, but I was stunned by my friend’s physical deterioration. He didn’t look bad… just a little skinnier… but his absence of physical strength was incalculable. He needed to sleep… a lot. He would nap for hours in his bed, wake up, amble to the sofa and be back asleep in a matter of minutes. He struggled mightily to climb stars. There was no quickness left about him. Every movement he made was in agonizingly slow-motion. He barely ate. He probably ate more medicine than food. And those damn coughing fits! They just wouldn’t let go of him! He couldn’t get a sentence in edgewise without that violent, phlegmy cough overtaking him. It was that cough that angered me more than anything. It made me want to grab it and beat it, the way you’d want to grab and beat the kid who was bullying your little brother. I wanted that cough to be human so I could grab it by the throat, pin it to the ground, beat its head against the floor and shout, “LEAVE MY FRIEND ALONE!!!”
I’m not exactly sure why, but during my visit, I became an astute observer of Ace. I think my power of observation heightened itself gradually while in Ace’s presence. Much like the Grinch hearing the Whos, it started in low… then it started to grow. By the end of my trip I felt so keenly alert, and not just of Ace, but of everything. I am not naturally an astute observer, but I found myself noticing the tiniest details… the splash of color on a gecko’s tail… or a crack in the tile at the local breakfast joint. It was very strange, but for a time I realized that I was completely dialed in to the world around me. And what I noticed most of all was Ace.
I noticed how he moved, how he ate, how he had to prop himself with one hand to open the fridge with the other. But most of all what I noticed was what Ace didn’t do. Here was a man who’s been told he now has about two weeks left on earth; who’s combating a disease that makes every little stinkin’ thing a battle of will, and the sonfabitch didn’t complain. At all. Not once!
I was stunned! He never mentioned the pain he was in. He never bitched about not being able to step into the saltwater or having to wear long sleeves to the beach or how crappy it was not to be able to taste his food or how he used to be able to fly up those stairs. He just didn’t mention any of it. In our three days together, I only heard one thing that even remotely resembled a complaint, and even that would be reeeeaaaaally stretching the definition of complaining. One afternoon, after a particularly brutal coughing fit, Ace nonchalantly remarked that he was “a bit coughy” today. A bit freaking coughy? It sounded like a ball of hot tar was trying to launch itself from his innards and all he could say was, “I’m a bit coughy”??? I began to see Ace as more than a friend, more than kind and soulful. I now saw him also as noble.
Everyone who knows Ace talks about what a positive person he is, and they’re absolutely right, but ‘positive’ can have a lot of variations. With Ace, positive doesn’t mean ‘peppy.’ He’s no cheerleader. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s just happy and funny and kind and generous and most of all – appreciative. He’s appreciative of the world around him; appreciative of his friends and family; and appreciative of what he has. And at that point, what he had didn’t even guarantee him another day on earth.
The next afternoon Jack Shafer was in to visit from Philly. Shaf and I played college soccer together under Ace, and Shaf has been one of my best friends ever since.
It’s strange, very strange, to be sitting in the room with a friend when the doctors have told him that he’s got a month left to live. It’s not something you want to talk about, but that won’t make it go away either. Eventually you have to talk about the future, and for Ace, the future could all be boiled down to two words: Jackson Kai. If we all had to let go of Ace… if there’s wasn’t much more we could do to help him in the present… then we could certainly help his son in the future. Jackson Kai had a fleet of guardian angels waiting for their call to action, and one of the most tangible ways we could help him would be financially. If nothing else, we could make darn sure that kid got to go to college one day.
Now here’s where it gets tricky… and this is a major reason why I really wanted you to read that old blog post… Ace has been sitting on a gold mine for more than a decade. You see, as it turns out, my friend long ago discovered that he had a real talent for creating t-shirt designs.
In 1990 Ace took a trip to Australia. Just before his return flight, he spent his last $300 buying Australia themed surf-tees to hand out to his buddies in the states because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing Ace would do. Something about the shirts struck a chord with him, and with a 26 hour plane ride and not much to do but think, Ace began to contemplate possibilities for his own surf brand. By the time he landed in the US, he had created a brand called AussieEdge. It was the first of many wonderful designs.
When he first unveiled his gear, we knew Ace had hit a home run with his Aussie Edge design. We swore he’d make millions. And he probably would have except for one tiny little hiccup: Ace never bothered to actually sell his product. He just preferred to make it and give it away and half-heartedly hope that eventually Santa Claus would show up on his door with a million dollar offer from Billabong or Hurley or some other such industry giant. That never happened and Aussie Edge quietly slipped into oblivion.
Years later Ace created a soccer line called 11-man-gang. As certain as we were that he’d be sleeping on a mattress of cash after AussieEdge, we were doubly sure that he’d be cashing in on 11-man-gang. He quickly secured a few team and camp orders from his coaching friends, and their players/campers were doing backflips over this hot new gear. Finally there was a brand whose very title spoke to soccer dudes… When we take the field, we are an 11-man-gang and we will fight for one another and we will protect one another and we’ve got the gear that tells the world exactly who we are!
In no uncertain terms, Ace’s latest creation was totally badass.
I was there with him at the NSCAA National Coaches Convention in Baltimore in January of 2000 when Ace was handing out free beanies with his 11-man-gang logo on it. Not surprisingly, the brand was a smash hit and creating quite a buzz. He had a white-hot product and lots of momentum and was on the verge of finally breaking through on a big stage. So what did he do? How did Ace leverage this momentum to create financial freedom? Well, he went back to Florida, sat on his couch and started drawing new designs. Like its predecessors, 11-man-gang fizzled without ever getting within shouting distance of its potential. And Ace’s band of rooting loyalists let out another collective sigh.
You don’t need a Harvard MBA to know that any business is going to run into problems when the CEO isn’t interested in selling his product and that the problem is further complicated when the guy at the top is a serial giver-awayer who won’t even let people buy what he’s selling. Here was one Santa Claus waiting on another. Ace’s creative genius was once again neutralized by a total lack of ambition to actually set up shop. Let me put it another way: If Ace had invented the spoon, we’d all be having our soup through a straw.
Since forever ago we’d been begging Ace to put down his pencil – to stop drawing and start selling. Had there been a hint of a businessman in that artsy soul of his, Ace would’ve been a millionaire many times over. Occasionally he’d get inspired enough to drum up some business, but it never quite took. So his condo would be stacked high with boxes of t-shirts that he’d end up giving away to friends and kids and strangers and whoever else happened by. We begged him to do something with all of his amazing designs, but it just wasn’t in him.
As you would expect, the onset of cancer didn’t do anything to help Ace’s business acumen. But ironically, it fueled a surge in his output of designs. Facing a painful recovery and a lot of time for deep thoughts, Ace began spending long stretches of time on his beach. He sat on his beach for the next eight years, just thinking. Thinking about life… and death… and everything in between. And these long bouts of thinking led to moments of inspiration – many of them. Now, stricken with cancer and uncertain of his expiration date, Ace created more than 500 new designs. 500!
Not only did the number of designs increase, but Ace was doing some of his best-ever work. Inspired by his pending mortality, his designs started reflecting his happy-peaceful-earthy vibe. He created brands such as snowcowboy and idigthisearth… which branched into idigthisisland… and the small circle of people privy to seeing these designs began clamoring for the shirts. But it didn’t matter how much money you wanted to spend, unless you walked into his pad and he just happened to have the shirt you wanted in the size you wanted, chances are you were going without.
As Ace faced off with his mortality with semi-regular scares and their accompanying trips to a bed at Moffitt, he relied heavily on his phone to stay in touch with his friends and family. Not fond of the undertones of saying goodbye, he began signing off his texts with the phrase smiledeep. And a new brand was born.
None of Ace’s brands hit home quite so hard as his smiledeep design. Such a simple sentiment, the words of a dying man reminding us yet again that life is for the living, struck such a chord with those who knew him that it became a rally cry, a logo and a flag all wrapped into one simple, beautiful design.
No nine letters could better sum up my friend or the way his friends thought of him. I guess everyone had their own interpretation of smiledeep, but for me it was quite simple: This world was a better place because Ace was in it, and it would be better still if we all treated each other the way Ace treated us. Let go of the bitterness. Don’t complain. Move forward with warmth and kindness and appreciate all that’s around us. Smiledeep.
With Ace’s plight nearing its foregone conclusion, the smiledeep design began appearing on Facebook walls worldwide. It had more momentum than any of his previous designs and once again Ace was on the precipice of becoming a t-shirt mogul, failing health notwithstanding. Not only had Ace created a tangible legacy, he had potentially secured a financial future for his young son. Except he hadn’t. Yet again Ace couldn’t bridge the gap from sketch pad to marketplace. Yet again, the only way to get one of these shirts was to have Ace hand it to you.
It was pretty apparent that if Ace was ever going to make money from his shirts, it would have to be because someone else stepped up to turn his hobby into a business. It couldn’t even be considered hand-holding; it’d have to be more of a kidnapping. He’d need a partner who would say, “Ace, just sit there and draw. I’ll handle every last detail of everything else and eventually, if you can find your way to the bank, you can go cash your checks, although let’s face it, I’ll probably have to do that for you also.”
Like many before us, Shaf and I wanted to launch Ace and his designs so that Jackson Kai’s financial future wouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. With the sand now officially trickling down the hourglass, the urgency was greater than it ever had been. I vowed to return to Athens and post a blog about my friend that would be entitled 30 Days to Live. Except the only part of that I managed to actually accomplish was the part where I returned to Athens.
As a college soccer coach, free time wasn’t a luxury I had. During the fall I barely get to spend time with my kid, let alone time to sit down for four or five hours and write/edit/post a blog. And that’s when I’m not behind schedule. I didn’t need any new commitments to knock me off the pace. Skipping town for three days had already put me irreversibly behind schedule.
The other problem was that we never intended to post 30 Days to Live until Ace had set up an online store. The idea was to use this blog to direct people to Ace’s website so they could actually purchase his shirts. It was a pretty basic strategy; there was no point in building momentum until Ace was ready to capitalize on it. But the store never got itself up and running because no one kidnapped the potential project and dragged it kicking and screaming into reality. That lull gave me all the excuse I would need to procrastinate on my slice of this project. If I can just put it off one more day, I’ll find time to whip something up tomorrow. But tomorrow came and went. Again and again. And all the while I wrestled with the knowledge that Ace wasn’t given too many more tomorrows.
Not surprisingly, Ace outlived the doctor’s prediction… again. 30 days turned into 60 which turned into 90. In the meantime, friends continued to flock down to Anna Maria to see him, maybe for the last time. The soccer community of Anna Maria hosted the inaugural smiledeep 4v4 soccer tournament, a fundraiser to help with Ace’s mountain of medical bills. Additionally, the local soccer league introduced the Paul Hayward smiledeep Award, presented to the player in each age group with a great attitude who brings pure joy to the soccer field. And that’s the thing really. You see, this entry wasn’t meant to be about Ace and his t-shirts or Ace and his cancer. It’s meant to be about this amazing man who affects people in such a remarkable way that they look for ways to spend time with him; ways to rally behind him; and ways to say a proper thank you. And when people start handing you the keys to their bar and naming things after you, well, I guess that’s when you know you’ve done something very right. But unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee anyone another tomorrow.
Ace took a turn for the worse on Thanksgiving Day and was rushed back to Moffitt. On his Facebook status he pondered: I wonder how many of my 9 lives I have left.
A lot of very concerned people were already wondering the same thing. In this game of hide-and-seek with the ever-after, Ace had been slipperier than an eel. By this point even the neighborhood cats had to be asking themselves what the hell this guy had going for him.
Ace walked out of Moffitt six days later.
It was a busy few months for Ace… but through the deluge of visitors and the woke and the tournament and the awards and all that medicine and the visits to Moffitt, someone actually managed to put Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward in business. An angel of a man named Larry Cavaluzzi, who happens to own Salty Printing in Bradenton, finally managed to abduct Ace’s visions and bring them to the public. I hope you’ll check out his Hayward von Max collection by clicking on one of the pics below. And I hope you’ll buy a shirt or two so we can help his son.
It’s been a crazy year, but how can I possibly complain? I have a beautiful family that loves me dearly and two dogs that think I’m a god. I have my health. And my friend, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward is still spending time with his son, appreciating sunsets, and bringing smiles to everyone who crosses his path on Anna Maria Island.
If you’re going to the National Soccer Coaches Convention in Philly next week, look for him. He’ll be in the convention hall handing out free 11-Man-Gang stickers. If you take one, don’t say thank you. Instead, just say Smile Deep.
Please spread the word. Happy 2015!
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
In the Sept. 30 entry, CANNONS, I mentioned the case of Ryan Ferguson, who was wrongly convicted of murder and has spent roughly a decade in prison. Well, on November 12th, Ryan walked out of that Missouri prison as a free man, his conviction vacated. If justice has a to-do list, it can scratch this one off… finally. Now, not for nothin’, but being as Ryan Ferguson was sent to prison almost solely due to prosecutorial misconduct by the District Attorney, Kevin Crane, I’m not so sure justice has been fully served. I mean the guy basically spent his entire 20s in the clink for a crime he had nothing to do with. That’s a pretty big deal. If it were up to me, Kevin Crane would go directly to jail (without passing Go and collecting $200) and serve one day for each day that Ryan spent behind bars… plus one. That’s fair, right? It’s only when prosecutors actually have some skin in the game that they will think long and hard about tinkering with someone else’s civil liberties.
Moving right along…
This will be, allegedly, the last entry until after the new year. I knew I would eventually tell this story, but the initial plan was to hold off until January. But, if for no other reason than the passing of time will dull the details, I figured I’d better go ahead and get to tellin’ it. Plus, ‘tis the season for stories of inspiration, and that’s how I would classify this one.
There have been times… not many… but there have been times when I’ve encountered people who’ve told me in some form or fashion that sports are silly. These folks believe that sports are overvalued, that they should be a recreational distraction and not much more. They can’t fathom the significance that society attaches to a bunch of people chasing a ball around a patch of grass. In relation to the big picture, they view sport as a triviality, and they feel that those of us who don’t subscribe to that philosophy need to have our priorities realigned. And you know, I totally get it. I understand that as a culture we probably do put way too much emphasis on our games. And yes, paying someone seven figures to throw, catch or kick a ball does seem a little bit backwards when one in six children are born into poverty in the United States. Yeah, I get that.
In my younger days, when someone would say, “Sports are stupid,” I would get a little bit defensive. I mean hey, let’s face it, sport was a big part of my identity. Now, when I think about anyone who carries that belief, I really just pity them. And I don’t mean that as an insult; I genuinely do feel sorry for them, because those who never had the chance to play, well, they really missed out on something much deeper than chasing a ball around a field. They just don’t realize it because they’ve only seen it from the outside. And the view from there is thoroughly superficial. It’s only when you dig a little deeper… when you get beyond the wins and losses and the statistics and the trophies that you begin to understand what sport is actually about. And for me, it’s not until you get past those things that sports truly provide meaning.
Those who never got to be part of a team sport, or who never fully took the plunge physically or emotionally, missed out on one of the most fantastic experiences this life extends to us – not the chance to win a game, a championship or a trophy – but the chance to be a teammate; the chance to give yourself to something much bigger than yourself; the opportunity to commit your mind, body and soul to a greater good; to forge unbreakable relationships through the passage of shared miseries in the pursuit of a common goal. That’s a rough idea of what sports look like from the inside.
The chance to coach college soccer has provided me with the opportunity to bear witness to some truly magnificent and moving moments that make me thank God I get to do what I do. There have been moments that I will never forget if I live to be a thousand, and if you weren’t there when they transpired, you could never feel the full magnitude of their existence or appreciate in full how they moved me. Now, there have only been a handful of those genuinely special, larger-than-life moments, but when you see one of them unfolding in front of you, you know that it will never leave you. You know that it is assigning a value to your existence that goes far beyond chasing a ball. And you immediately recognize how lucky you are to be a part of it. I got to see one of those moments this year.
Let’s begin with the fact that never in my life have I been more stressed out heading into a soccer weekend than in the days leading up to our LSU/Arkansas trip. Let’s just say there was a whole lot on the line.
We knew we needed to take six points from the weekend, no easy task, particularly on the road. But we really had no alternative. We saw the map to Orange Beach and it was demanding a six-point toll from us. Anything else would be unacceptable.
That Friday morning, at our hotel in Baton Rouge, Robin called a meeting of everyone on the team who wasn’t a senior, to try and convey the urgency that the seniors were feeling as their careers were drawing to a close. Robin told them that they couldn’t possibly understand what the seniors were feeling, but asked them to try anyway… to try and imagine that the thing you love the most could be over in less than a week, and that in order to keep it alive, you were depending on teammates younger than you and praying that they understood how important this was to you and to translate that understanding into feverish effort for 90 minutes because it just wouldn’t work any other way. Robin wanted to make sure the younger group understood the importance of the game they were about to play.
By the end of that meeting, the group decided that it would not let this group of seniors go down quietly. They wanted their seniors to know that. And they agreed that freshman, Marion Crowder, would serve as their spokesperson.
While Robin was talking with the non-seniors, Steve was meeting with senior Nicole Locandro. Nicole, who has truckloads of talent, could occasionally disappear during a game. We couldn’t afford that. Not on this night. We needed our very best Nicole. We needed her to be a force in the center of midfield. We weren’t going to win if she didn’t impose herself on the match. Steve wanted to make sure she knew that we needed a big performance from her. Actually, we needed a big performance from everyone.
A few hours later we boarded our bus for the drive over to LSU. There was an undeniable tension – an urgency – about the players as they stared out from underneath their headphones. They knew this was a big one. They knew how much was at stake. Soon we would have a lot of answers.
Our pregame routine typically consists of Steve reviewing the tactical plan for the match followed by me trying to give some type of motivational speech, and then we take the field.
The players crammed into that visitors’ locker room, elbow to elbow, and watched as Steve went point by point through the tactical keys. All eyes were locked upon the skipper. I studied their faces, searching for some telltale clue as to what our future held, hoping I might find the answer before the exam even began. But the answer eluded me. Of course it did. It always does. Still, it was impossible to miss the urgency in that crowded room. It was as real as the air we were breathing.
When it was my turn to speak, I said, “Usually at this time I stand up here and say something, but tonight I’m going to cede the floor to Marion Crowder.”
Then I watched this freshman from Mississippi, who stands no taller than an end table, rise from her seat and face her teammates, some five years her senior. She took a single, deep breath to steady herself. With unmistakable compassion and a quiet confidence, she slowly began to speak:
“Seniors, we know that there is no way for us to truly understand what you are going through, and we’ll never fully understand it until we’re in your shoes, but I want you to know that we’re going to give you everything we have tonight. You all have been such great leaders and role models for us, and you’ve taught us so much about what it means to be a part of this program.”
Ten seconds after Crowder had begun, I was lamenting that we weren’t videotaping this moment. This was a moment that, somewhere down the line, deserved a bigger audience. It was a window into everything that truly is important about athletics. This was a moment that would transcend a soccer game and justify every bit of meaning we assign to sport. This was one of those things you would never understand when you never stood on the inside. An energy was forming… a call to arms… and it was steadily picking up strength. An unspoken contract was being cemented amongst every player in that room, that on this night, there was no individual, only a common cause that everyone was willing to fight for. And then, to those seniors, Crowder made a promise of sorts.
“You’ve carried this team all year. Well, now it’s our turn. Tonight, you get on our backs; because tonight we’re gonna carry you.”
As Crowder spoke, I swallowed down the lump in my throat. I wanted to look down at the floor but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The courage it must have taken to stand at the front of that room and tell those seniors that on that night, they were going to get a gift from every one of their teammates. Her words were so thoughtful and genuine that you couldn’t help but believe in them.
And although it was Crowder standing front and center, this was not her show. She may have been the messenger, but it was this entire group of underclassmen who had made the commitment, and in their eyes, and in the subtle, subconscious nod of their heads, you could see that this message belonged to all of them. They were not dipping their toes in the water. They were one hundred percent, all in. And the seniors were right there with them.
You know, regardless of what happens before a game begins, you never really know how things will actually play out once the whistle blows. I was no less nervous when I exited the locker room than when I entered it. But I knew I had witnessed a special moment. I knew that we had the beginning of a great story. The only question was whether or not the ending would live up to it. The answer came quickly.
On that night, our team put together it’s most beautiful and convincing performance of the year. To be honest, and I’ve thought a lot about this, it may have been the single best performance of any team I’ve been a part of. It was as perfect of a game as I thought we were capable of playing. On that night, we made a stand. Each and every player committed wholeheartedly to the cause, and it was surely a sight to see. It was as if everything we had worked on since August came together in ninety remarkable minutes. And Nicole, the senior whom Steve had asked for a big game, well, she went out and delivered the single-best performance of her career.
We won that night, 2-1. But for the sake of the story, we had to do more than just win. For this story to truly have legs, some underclassmen would have to make tangible contributions. After all, that was the promise, right?
Freshman Rachael Garcia scored her first SEC goal, two minutes into the game, to put us out front. We added another in the second half to go up 2-0. It was from the foot of Marion Crowder.
If you like this entry, I hope you’ll consider buying my book, Soccer iQ. Just click on the icon below.
Maddy and the Light Bulb
Sunday, November 24, 2013
One of the more regular comments I get from readers is that the thing they enjoy the most about this blog is the ‘story behind the story,’ – the stuff you can’t get from the box score or the TV broadcast. And to be fair, that’s one of the cooler things about my job (as a coach, not a writer). I have a backstage pass to the Georgia Bulldogs. I have access to the plotlines that very few people ever know exist. And these storylines are where the real value of college sports can often be found. College soccer isn’t about kicking a ball; it’s really about the intangibles that we all cherish; it’s about the relationships and the struggle and the way we respond individually, and as a team. Those are my favorite stories to tell, because they are the ones that mean the most. Those are the stories I’ll tell for years.
So the Poet is taking a new direction. Instead of worrying about a multitude of current posts, I’m going to strive for a random smattering of meaningful ones that I hope you will enjoy. And that begins right now.
It was a Friday night in August of 2010. We had just beaten Utah 3-0. It was my first win at Georgia, so the world was particularly perfect on that night. At least that’s how it seemed to me.
Maddy Barker stopped me in the hallway outside of our video room. She had tears rolling down her cheeks. She wasn’t just crying; she was practically convulsing. I don’t remember why she was upset, only that she was. And I don’t remember what she said exactly, save for this one sentence: “It doesn’t mean more to anyone than it does to me.”
Once in a long while a player will say something unforgettable, and you know it as soon as the words hit your ears. Maddy was so genuine when she spoke that night, I completely believed her. She was born to be a Georgia Bulldog. In her heart, it would never mean more to anyone than it did to her.
I had only met Maddy a few weeks earlier, but that night I realized that this was a kid who wore her heart on her sleeve. And for four seasons of college soccer, that’s exactly what she did. There was no disguising what she was feeling… good or bad.
I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that when a player issues such a dramatic statement, she’s handing you a magazine full of silver bullets. Maddy said that it would never mean more to anyone than it did to her, and I fully intended to make her back that up. I knew the day would come when I’d have to force feed that sentence right back to her.
Two years later, we’ve got a Sunday game against Arkansas and we are playing like we never got out of bed. I mean we are just flat out awful. So I try to shake the rafters a little bit at halftime to snap us from our funk. We’d been struggling to score goals in a recent stretch, so I decided to call out our forwards, one by one. When it was Maddy’s turn, I turned over the mother of all trump cards. I said, “Maddy Barker, you TOLD me that it didn’t mean more to anyone than it did to you! Was that just a lie? Was that just a load of crap? Because right now it doesn’t look like it means a thing to you!”
(At this point you may want to make a note to have your future college soccer player read this entry.)
The tide of the game turned immediately after half-time. We scored two goals in the first five minutes of the second half to win 2-0. The players had responded.
For three years Maddy was a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get when she showed up to training or a game. She doesn’t compartmentalize her emotions. She’s fully committed to whatever emotion happens to be prevalent at any given time. A bad day of class could easily translate into a bad day of soccer. A bad day of soccer could spell trouble for the world. She could be the sweetest, funniest kid in the world on Tuesday. On Wednesday she’d make me consider alternative careers. But like I said earlier, there was no mistaking what she was feeling. What you see is what you get.
Maddy was one of my favorite people when she was happy, mainly because she’s just so damn funny. She can be so dramatic and so expressive that you would think that she was playing for an invisible camera. On bus rides, in airports, at restaurants… she could be the life of the party. At one point I told her that the day she graduated, she should just forget about the real world and catch the first plane to Hollywood because she was meant to be an actress. I stand by that.
Because Maddy ran so hot and cold, our relationship was sometimes tenuous. I’ll put it like this: if soccer was going well for Maddy, our relationship was dandy. If soccer wasn’t going well for her, well, then nothing else mattered. There were days when she could be an absolute lunatic… and not the good kind. But those weren’t the days that formed my opinion of her. I was 100% won over by the good, kind, funny, heart-of-gold Maddy; the girl who loved animals and children and would do anything for a teammate. When that girl went away for a while, I just waited for her to come back.
Anson Dorrance once said that a player doesn’t have to like him for him to like the player. That’s how I felt about my relationship with Maddy. On the days when she would have preferred to see me dead, I still liked her. Why? Because I don’t value people based on their soccer ability. You can stink at soccer and still be a great person. I can compartmentalize like that. I liked Maddy because at her core she was a kind soul with a warm heart who genuinely loved her teammates.
Now… as much as I adored Maddy the person, there were many days when I wanted to strangle Maddy the player with my bare hands. Believe me, I’m not alone on this.
For three seasons, Maddy never really changed how she played. For three seasons we asked her not to try and dribble her way through a scrum of four opponents. We asked her to recognize when she was running into a bad situation and to just put on the brakes and turn around. We asked her not to force shots from bad positions. We asked her to calm down and pick her moments. By and large, we asked her to do less. And she summarily ignored our advice. It was a very frustrating existence. Here was this player with all types of speed and potential, but for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get the message past her ears and into her brain. We spoke with her. We coached her. We drew things up on the board. We showed her video. We showed her more video. We showed her video of other people. But for whatever reason, none of the concepts we tried to impart onto Maddy could find a way to stick. I thought they never would. And then… well... something quite remarkable happened.
Last spring we played a friendly in Atlanta at the Greater Atlanta Christian school against Auburn. GAC, coincidentally, is where Maddy went to high school.
A really strange thing happened that night, and on my honor, in 23 years of college coaching, I’ve never seen anything like it. Actually, I’ve never seen anything even close to it. I don’t know what caused it. I don’t know if it was something to do with a cosmic realignment. I don’t know if a stubborn synapse finally fired. I don’t know if the Holy Spirit decided to take in a game that night and was sitting in the stands. All I know is that on that night, Maddy Barker changed, and changed like nothing I’ve ever seen. Out of nowhere, without warning, rhyme or reason, this kid, who had made the same mistakes over and over again for three years, was suddenly a soccer savant. She was the best player on the field by a mile and not because of her athleticism; she was the best player on the field because for whatever reason, the light bulb had finally come on. She was a whole new player, making one smart decision after another after another after another. It was like an episode of Touched by an Angel. I swear she had backlighting.
I’ve seen players show remarkable improvement, but the word gradually has always been involved. A player might improve tremendously over the spring season. A player might go home for the summer and come back vastly improved. But I have never seen a player go from one level to another in such dramatic fashion with a perfectly vertical trajectory. On that night, Maddy Barker was magnificent… and the thing about it was… no one knew why.
I was so proud of Maddy that I wanted to say something to her after the game. But as I approached her, I noticed she was sobbing. Okay.. can someone please explain women to me right now? The kid had played the game of her life and was in tears five minutes later. I didn’t know what it was. Heck, it could’ve been anything. I figured that maybe there was some type of emotional undercurrent because this was her high school field and she would never play on it again and she was overcome with sentiment. Why did I think that? Because I’m an idiot.
As it turns out, Maddy and her boyfriend had broken up that day.
Yeah. Makes perfect sense, right?
So immediately I’m thinking we have to kill her boyfriend because as soon as these two get back together, the new and improved Maddy will go away and we’ll have our old model back.
Except that’s not what happened. Not at all.
From that one glorious night, a new player was born. A player who could terrorize defenders on the dribble, yet be dependable in her decision making. A player who would score fantastic goals, yet be wise in her shot selection. This player would cement herself as a critical cog in our attack; a winger who would soon show up in everyone’s scouting report. Maddy Barker, in a moment as sudden as the flick of a switch, had become an exceptional and intelligent soccer player. For whatever reason, all of the sudden, Maddy just got it. And not even a reconciliation with her boyfriend would change that.
Back in August, Kate Burkholder, our SID, invited Maddy to keep a blog about our season for the UGA website, and Kate couldn’t have picked a better candidate. With her emotions so much on the forefront, Maddy would express herself the way few could and shine a light into the life of a college soccer team.
There’s a value to seniors that goes far beyond playing experience. Your college soccer career is like a lifetime. You’re born on the day you show up for your first preseason. You die with the final whistle of your final game. Most freshmen can’t grasp how quickly this lifetime will pass them by. But seniors… well, they can see the end, and it’s rushing headlong toward them at breakneck seed. So seniors tend to approach their final season with a sense of urgency to accomplish as much as they can within the limited amount of time they have left.
That this was her final lap was not lost on Maddy. From the moment she showed up for preseason, she was acutely aware that the sand was draining from her hourglass.
She made that clear in her blog entries, even two weeks before our first game, when she wrote, “I know in my heart I am not ready for this chapter in my life to be over. I will do everything in my power to extend this season for as long as possible.”
Two weeks later, discussing our trip to Texas, she wrote, “As I sit here on the plane coming home from Texas, I realize this was my last “first - big” travel weekend… Typically everyone sleeps on the early morning bus ride, but strangely enough, the seniors, were unusually talkative. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was one of those “last” moments, and we were going to make the most of it.”
And two weeks after that, “We are so blessed to have so many little girls who come to our games with our names and numbers painted on their faces, and they wait in long lines just to get our autographs and have their pictures taken with our team after the game. They may dream of having the chance we have each day to play soccer for the Bulldogs. That is truly a humbling experience, and I am reminded to never take this opportunity for granted.”
Maddy was playing out her senior season with more than just urgency; she was playing with unmitigated desperation, holding on for dear life, cataloging every moment that would qualify as a ‘last’ for her: the last preseason, the last home opener, the last practice, the last home game, the last road trip, and on and on. Maddy had an unobstructed view of her own mortality and she was going to squeeze the orange for every last drop of juice. And that’s how she played. Every game.
Maddy wasn’t just better than she had been; she was stellar by anyone’s standard. Fueled by desperation at the thought of losing that which she held so dear, Maddy became a dominant soccer player and, of all things, an important leader. The player who had needed so much ‘counseling’ from teammates as an underclassman, now counseled others. It was truly a sight to see. One day it occurred to me: Maddy Barker was all grown up.
Each year at some point or another the players will hear me say, “Your career is finite. One day it’s going to end and there’s nothing you can do to change that. And when it’s over, the very best that you can hope for is to leave with a clear conscience and no regrets about the effort you gave.” Maddy was going to leave her senior season with a clear conscience. That was unmistakable. Anyone who saw her would attest to that. The girl was on a mission.
Now, as I may have mentioned, Maddy is an emotional person as it is, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. Given the chance, she’d play soccer forever. Soccer is her everything. It is her greatest passion and her identity. With the stress of her career coming to an end, her pot was often on the verge of bubbling over. In her previous years, it was easy to shrug off those moments because the physical commitment hadn’t always matched the emotional response. But this time it was different. This time we watched a kid put her heart out there for the world to see, game after game. This time the effort dwarfed the response. This time Maddy led by magnificent example. So when some players were flat and unfocused at the start of a late season practice and Maddy came to the coaches to vent about it, well, let’s just say her credibility had grown.
I’ve seen the end of 23 college soccer seasons. It’s never been a happy occasion. 23 times I’ve seen careers die. It’s always heartbreaking in some way, form or fashion; not for the end of my season, but for the end of their season… or the end of their lifetime as college soccer players. If you haven’t had this experience for yourself, let me assure you, it’s devastating.
When we got knocked out of the SEC tournament, Maddy, not unpredictably, was a complete wreck. Her greatest fear had been realized. College soccer was no more. No more games. No more practices. No more teammates. Nothing to do each afternoon when 3:30 rolls around. At that point there’s not much a coach can offer except a hug. So that’s what I gave. And feeling all of that sadness bursting out of that kid, well, it brought a tear to my eye, too. This girl had worked too hard. She deserved better.
When we didn’t get an NCAA bid, Kevin Copp made a wonderful observation. He said that the biggest disappointment was that Maddy’s story was left incomplete… her movie was missing its third act... and what a sight it would have been to see her playing in that tournament knowing that every game was potentially her last. Her story deserved a better ending, if only for the handful of people who understood the beginning and the middle.
All Maddy had really ever wanted was to be an important part of this team on game day. Eventually, she got there. Through determination and hard work and a timely sprinkling of divine intervention, she got there. She was fabulous all season long, and the longer the season went on, the more fabulous she became.
If you ask Maddy about her best moment, she’ll probably tell you it was scoring the tying goal with about two minutes left against Alabama. It was a heckuva goal and a wonderful moment and I’m glad it was hers. But for me, Maddy’s shining moment was the game against Florida. In her final game in Athens, Maddy gave every bit of herself to this team. Her work rate was off the charts. She played that game like her life literally depended on it and man, it sure was a sight to see. As Robin noted, Maddy left everything on the field that night. In her final home game, that’s when Maddy’s legacy was truly created. She walked off that field with a crystal-clear conscience. On that night, I can say with certainty, it didn’t mean more to anyone than it meant to her. I’m just happy I got to be a part of it.
I’m glad that, at the very least, Maddy got to leave that game with one very memorable souvenir. How’s this for your final goal as a college soccer player?
If you enjoyed this blog, I hope you'll consider buying my bestselling book, Soccer iQ. Just click on the icon below. Thanks!
Monday, September 30, 2013
I’m going to begin with a little shameless self-promotion as Soccer iQ was named as one of the Top 5 soccer books of the year by the NSCAA Soccer Journal (otherwise known as the Best Publication Ever!). It’s been quite a month for Soccer iQ. In addition to the laurels bestowed by the Soccer Journal, September was also a record sales month, more than doubling the amount of copies sold on Amazon during its previous best month, which incidentally, was August. I thought I might mention that as we approach the holiday season and you’re brainstorming for gift ideas for the soccer people in your life.
Now, about them Georgia Bulldogs… We all anticipated a very difficult away weekend against the likes of Missouri and Kentucky, and we were not disappointed. I’ll try to get to Kentucky in the next entry. For now I’m just going to focus on Missouri. I have my reasons. If you think it has anything to do with the result, well, just keep reading. We arrived in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon, grabbed lunch and headed straight to training where Georgia soccer legend Carrie Patterson was waiting to greet us. Carrie holds about 101 scoring records for the Bulldogs, and she’s followed soccer into an assistant coaching gig at Mizzou. We had a light walk-through session to show our players what we expected out of the Missouri team. Their style was going to be a lot different than the teams we’d recently played. Mizzou is very athletic, fast and physical; and they like to go forward at the speed of sound. It was going to be a game of opposing styles and whichever team could best impose its style was likely going home with the result.
If you’ve been a follower for any length of time you should know two things about me: I love the road trips and I love to eat. Typically these two things fit quite nicely together as our travel weekends are always highlighted by some quality dining experiences. Let’s just say the Dawgs don’t skimp when it comes to food stops. Many a fine cow has found its way onto my plate during the fall. I have absolutely no discipline when it comes to restaurant dining. Maybe it’s because we almost never ate out when I was growing up, but whenever we go out to dinner, I eat like it’s an Olympic event and I’m favored to take gold. I think that subconsciously there’s a part of my brain saying, “This may be the last time you ever eat out so you’d better make it count.” Regardless, that’s why I balloon up in the fall. (I can’t really say why I balloon up in winter, spring or summer.) My motto is No Food Left Behind. Anyhoo… Beth has our family on a gluten-free diet. In case you’re like I was a week ago, gluten basically means wheat. And any diet means a life-altering challenge for me. It’s not the taste of gluten things that it’s difficult for me to sidestep; it’s more a matter of convenience. Gluten is basically the plate of my existence. PB and Js go on bread. Cheese goes on crackers. Dip goes on pretzels. There’s gluten in everything that holds my foods together. I find it’s more a matter of utility than of taste. Regardless, this was going to be the first road weekend where I couldn’t gobble up dinner rolls like Pac Man or dive head first into one of our many pasta meals. The way I saw it, everyone else had two games this weekend; I had three.
On Friday mornings of our travel weekends, we find a room in the hotel and give a scouting report of our opponent. We’ll talk about the key points to the match and show our players some video of the team we’re about to face. This particular hotel didn’t have a meeting room available for us, but they offered us the breakfast area once the serving time had passed. This is no big deal, and it’s not the first time we’ve had to hook up a laptop to the lobby television. However, we’ve never actually had other hotel guests stay in the room once we gathered. But this time there was an elderly couple, probably in their mid-seventies, that quietly occupied a table in the back corner as we got down to work. So there I am at the front of the room, talking about the strengths of the Missouri team, when the man begins to amble around to exit the room. Then from out of nowhere, he stops, turns to me and asks, “Coach, do you choose your players on beauty?” And then he stood there waiting for an answer. Ummm… Yeah, there’s no right way to answer to that. Just think it over for a minute and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Talk about your awkward pauses. Anyway, it was a funny distraction that left me looking like a deer in headlights, much to the delight of our players.
As for the game… Wow did we come out on fire! We started off as well as we have all season and had the run of the park for the first 25 minutes. But as you well know, all of that means nothing if you can’t stick the ball in the net, and that was the piece of the puzzle we just couldn’t seem to find. When you’re dominating a good team, you know that you’d better also produce some goals because the tide won’t forever stay in your favor. Eventually Mizzou was going to settle in and take back some of the game. We’d prefer if they had to do that with a goal or two already in our bank. The soccer gods don’t look kindly upon teams that refuse their charity. They have a habit of making you pay for leaving goals on the table. Thankfully, I think they were a little preoccupied with some other matters on Friday night.
As anticipated, Mizzou started taking back some of the momentum in the latter stages of the half. We didn’t break their spirit when we had the chance; now we were in for a battle. Despite our early monopoly of territory, the two best chances of the half fell to Mizzou. At this point I feel obliged to mention an interesting little sidebar to this match. On the night before the game, we received an email from Mizzou’s Event Management office informing us that it was their ROTC night, and as part of the promotion, they planned on firing off a cannon “after each Mizzou goal.” Huh? Well, apparently Woody doesn’t like the sound of cannon fire. Woody hadn’t been very busy this year, but on Friday night she made two spectacular first half saves from close range to get us into the intermission level at 0-0. One of those saves was absolutely absurd as I swear she materialized from thin air to protect a wide open goal.
Here’s the thing… every coach I know hates promotions like that if for no other reason than superstition. Coaches don’t create these promotions; we begrudgingly tolerate them. But there is nothing that will draw the ire of the soccer gods more than a dance-on-your-grave promotion and we all know that. We know that the gods demand quiet nobility and detest even a hint of strut. They exist to keep us humble. When we color too far outside of the lines, they make their presence known. The cannon idea didn’t come from the Mizzou soccer staff, but that wasn’t going to stop us from framing it a little differently when we mentioned it to our team. And in all fairness, Mizzou hadn’t been shutout in 20 games. Someone surely saw it as a pretty safe bet. After all, that’s quite an impressive streak. (At this point I highly recommend you read the blog entry from Sept. 17 called Elephants for further instruction on how to end a perfectly good streak.)
I wasn’t in the Mizzou locker room at the half and I haven’t spoken to anybody who was, but my guess is that some paint came off the walls because they came out for the second half just absolutely possessed. It was nothing like the way they had started the match. Now they had some fire in their bellies. There would be no more run of the park for us. It was time to grind. In the 60th minute, with Mizzou pressing, Summer hit a long clearance into Garcia. Garcia’s flick-on header was flawless and put the ball directly into the path of Marion Crowder who was already sprinting at full stride down the left wing. Crowder turned the corner behind the Tiger’s defense and slipped her shot past the charging goalkeeper to give us a 1-0 lead.
Honestly, I wasn’t so sure we were going to be able to make that goal stand up. The goal did nothing to temper Mizzou’s fevered pace and we were absorbing more pressure than we’d seen all year. They continued to charge at us in wave after wave after wave. Thankfully, our defense, which by the end included pretty much everyone, stood strong and limited the Tigers to one more chance… One more. EXCELLENT. Chance. A Mizzou attacker danced into the penalty box with the ball at her feet and a chance to equalize. When the ball came off her foot, I thought she’d done exactly that. But Woody charged out, dove and got big enough to deflect the shot away from danger. It was her third, highlight-reel save of the game, and each one of them was more difficult than any other save she’s had to make this season.
We held on for a 1-0 win. It wasn’t pretty, but we weren’t complaining. When you’re on the road, you take what you can get. We’d put three points in our account against a very good team and that was reason enough to celebrate. I believe that for a team to have a great season, the goalkeeper has to win one game for you. On Friday night, Woody did exactly that. It was a fitting way to punctuate the SEC Defensive Player of the Week award she’d claimed five days earlier. Woody had kept the cannons quiet as the soccer gods terminated another majestic streak. I’m tellin’ ya, you don’t want to mess with those suckers.
As we boarded our charter plane for Lexington on Saturday morning, I felt a little bit empty. Normally on the morning after a win I’m downright jolly, but not this time. There was something in Columbia I had anticipated doing as soon as Mizzou made its move to the SEC. Somewhere in Jefferson County, a man named Ryan Ferguson is in jail for the murder of the sports editor at the Columbia Tribune. It is a murder he did not commit. It is a murder he could not possibly have committed. If the case was tried again today, there would be literally no physical or forensic evidence to tie him to the crime (there wasn’t any the first time around either), and there would be no eyewitness testimony linking him to the crime. This is indisputable public knowledge. But to reverse Ryan’s conviction on appeal would be detrimental to the reputations of people who put him there. So in jail he sits, robbed of the single-greatest gift our society offers – his freedom.
I first saw Ryan’s story a few years back on Dateline. It angered me then as it still does today. I’m angry at the detective who took the ‘confession’ of Chuck Erickson (and by ‘took the confession’ I mean fed him the details of a crime that Erickson clearly had no idea about whatsoever). I’m angry at the prosecutor who, among other notable indiscretions, coerced two ‘witnesses’ into giving false testimony. But most of all, I find it absolutely maddening that there is a perfectly correctable situation that the powers-that-be are unwilling to correct despite an avalanche of evidence that says they got it wrong the first time around. And I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to do more to fix it. I’m disappointed in all of us who sit by idly when one of our citizens is detained by corruption inside the system because it is diametrically opposed to the very foundation of this country’s ideals. How did we let this happen? Many great men and women gave their lives specifically to create a place where things like this wouldn’t happen. How can we square with that? And how do we continue to let this type of injustice go unchallenged? Don’t we realize that if it can happen to one man, it can happen to any man? How close to home does it have to hit before we say it’s time to stand up? These are the things for which we should be firing cannons!
Ryan's story should scare the heck out of all of us! So for almost two years I’d been waiting for this trip to Columbia. I’d planned on swinging by the prison to say hi to this guy, just to let him know that there was one more person outside those walls who believed in his innocence. I never made it over there. There was too much film to watch and edit. There was a soccer game to prepare for. So I did nothing. Not one, single thing. We won the game 1-0. Ryan’s been in jail for ten years. Sometimes I just don’t get it. Thank you for reading. If you liked this entry, I hope you’ll visit www.freeryanferguson.com to learn Ryan's story and make a donation to his defense fund. You can see the media coverage of his story by CLICKING HERE.
UPDATE: Ryan Ferguson's conviction was overturned and he walked out of prison a free man on Nov. 12, 2013.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
The ‘Cocks had a stellar start to their season, rattling off seven wins and one draw in non-conference play, a run that included a marquee win over Duke, a 0-0 tie with Boston College, seven shutouts and a single goal conceded. That put them at #8 in Soccer America’s national rankings. Let’s just say they’ve been doing alright for themselves.
The earth’s at its point on the axis where an unhealthy portion of my week is spent watching videos of our upcoming opponents, and nothing was going to come between me and the DVD player as the SEC opener approached. It’s been my experience that video isn’t very kind to anyone. I’ve had weeks of being thoroughly unimpressed with an opponent on video only to have them step onto the field and demolish my opinion. When a team actually looks good on video, well, then you know you’re in for a battle. And believe me, USC looked darned good on video.
I was worried all the way up to Thursday afternoon, but after training that afternoon, I was immeasurably calmer. We had done a good scout and we had done a good job of preparing our team for the match. I thought we had a puncher’s chance of being the first real blemish on USC’s record.
On Friday morning I backed out of my driveway and made it about ten yards up the street before realizing that I was driving on a flat tire. And by ‘flat’ I mean entirely devoid of air. This didn’t seem to be a very good game-day omen. There’s a lot of new home construction in our subdivision and I’m convinced that someone on the contractor’s crew is in charge of tossing nails into the road. I have to drive right through the thick of the construction every time I leave or enter the neighborhood. I already have enough reasons to hate my vehicle, but back in March I begrudgingly sprung for four new tires (because nothing boosts the spirit like spending money on a car you despise). In the past six months, three of those tires have gone flat thanks to rogue nails. I literally hadn’t had a flat tire since the 1980s, and now I’ve had 3 different tires go flat in six months. Are you kidding me? I was hoping my morning calamity fell into the category of one of those reverse-fortune superstitions, like the good luck you’re supposed to get when a bird dumps on your head.
A half hour before kick-off there had to be a thousand fans already in the stadium, and a whole lot of them were wearing Georgia red. There was a crazy cool energy in the air and I was thinking, These people are in for a treat.
Regardless of the enthusiasm that would be fueling us, whenever you play South Carolina, goals will be hard to come by. Scoring on them is sort of an Indiana Jones adventure. It’s difficult enough to get past their wall of defenders, but if you’re fortunate enough to get that far, well, that’s where your road turns steeply uphill. Their keeper is among the best in the business. She doesn’t give up soft goals. Heck, she barely gives up any goals. To paraphrase Herb Brooks speaking about the Russian hockey goaltender, “When you score against this kid, you should get to keep the ball.” We told our players to be choosy about their shot selection because there’s no point in hitting and hoping against a goalkeeper like this. All you’ll end up doing is donating the ball back to South Carolina. I was hoping we’d get a couple of solid chances and be efficient with at least one of them. What I didn’t expect…
Seven minutes into the match, Maddy Barker shouldered a defender off the ball, then darted down to the endline and whipped in a low cross that skipped across the face of the goal to the waiting foot of Marion Crowder. Crowder side-footed a soft volley that, from where we sat, seemed to crawl across the goal-line. Just that quickly, we had taken a lead on a team that hadn’t been scored on in three games.
25 minutes later we doubled our lead when Caroline Waters out-dueled a trio of Gamecoack defenders inside the 18, then laid an inviting pass back to Laura Eddy. Eddy hit an absolute screamer from 25 yards that sailed shin-high just inside the far post. Let me tell you that when a ball that travels that far, that close to the ground, it’s leaving a vapor trail in its wake. It was reminiscent of Steven Gerrard’s strike in the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham. It was Eddy’s first goal since 2010 and her celebration said so much. If you want to see what pure, unbridled jubilation looks like, check out the HIGHLIGHT PACKAGE.
Beth’s parents are visiting us this weekend and it was the first soccer game either of them had ever seen. Beth’s mom was really impressed by Eddy’s goal and I had to warn her that they don’t all look like that one. It was one of the best I’ve seen in 23 years of coaching, and Beth’s mom got to see it on her first time out. That’s like winning the lottery the first time you buy a ticket.
Eddy’s goal blew the proverbial roof off the stadium and put the Gamecocks into seriously uncharted waters for 2013. They’d only conceded one goal in seven games; now we had scored twice in 32 minutes and had a stranglehold on the match.
It’s an amazing job I get to have, and I’ve been doing it for quite a while. I’ve seen a lot of games and when I look back, my recall is scattered. I may or may not remember the result or the score of a game from ten years ago. I may or may not remember a darn thing really. But occasionally a game will provide a moment that I will remember vividly for decades. This match gave me two of those moments. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget Crowder’s mad dash to find Maddy Barker for setting up the first goal. And I’m sure I’ll never forget Eddy’s amazing strike and the celebration that followed. These are the things that make for what we in the business call a great night. These are the moments that stay with me long after a player has graduated.
We made that two-goal lead stand up for the next 58 minutes to record our first SEC win of 2013. It was a heckuva game, a heckuva battle. South Carolina is big and strong and athletic and every one of those players is a grinder. They worked their tails off. And oh yeah, they also happen to be very good soccer players and believe me, they’ll be right in the thick of things come November.
I saw a tweet after the game from one of college soccer’s self-proclaimed ‘experts’ that blamed the result on South Carolina’s “leaky defense” and “woeful finishing,” and I found myself wondering if there was any way this person actually watched the match. To hold a ‘leaky defense’ accountable for Eddy’s goal is like holding a scorched forest accountable for the lightning strike. Believe me, there is nothing leaky about USC’s defense, and there are eight other teams that will attest to that. And to say that their finishing was woeful is an epic mischaracterization of what actually transpired.
First of all, when you categorize a game by saying that a team would have done better if not for its poor finishing, you’re saying that there were chances created that you would expect a player to stick in the net, and that the failure to finish those chances was solely the responsibility of the shooter. You're saying that the team missed some sitters. That’s not what happened Friday night. It’s not even close to an accurate representation of what actually took place.
I watched the game twice, once in real time, and then again on DVD. South Carolina had a lot of the ball. So did we. They took over territorially in the final 15 minutes, as teams playing with a sense of desperation are wont to do. But there was nothing woeful about South Carolina’s finishing. To be honest, they just didn’t have any great chances. They didn’t have any great looks at the goal. The closest they came to scoring was on a shot from about 30 yards that Woody saved and held. Let me tell you, that wasn’t a great chance to score. That’s not something you can blame on poor finishing. If that ball goes in, you congratulate the shooter for scoring a fantastic goal.
South Carolina’s shot total was 17, but that’s a pretty inflated figure as their shot selection was quite liberal. When you’re taking shots from 25 yards and not scoring, that’s not something I would label as poor finishing. To look at the total number of shots and automatically assume that poor finishing was to blame, well, that’s misguided at best and irresponsible at worst. Anyone who disagrees either didn’t see the game or needs to watch it again. Heck, maybe I’m wrong. Go ahead and take a look and show me USC’s great chance to score. Show me a single, missed sitter. Show me where finishing let them down, because I just haven’t seen it.
The game only featured one clear cut chance to score, and that turned into Crowder’s goal. Eddy’s strike wasn’t a great chance. It was quite the opposite, which is why it became a helluva goal. If that ball doesn’t go in, no one is blaming her for not finishing. And to be fair, the best save made by either keeper came in the final ten seconds when Maddy Barker’s strike from 22-yards was kept out with a diving save. And again, Maddy didn’t miss because of poor finishing. She turned a half-chance into an excellent strike that happened to be met by a better save.
To say South Carolina’s finishing was ‘woeful’ is an insult to their attackers and to our defenders and I’m pretty sure that 2500 witnesses would back me up on that. What actually occurred was a great game where two teams played with lots of intensity and we won 2-0. And of course it’s worth mentioning that Kevin Copp finished a respectable second in the half-time taco-eating contest. KC, 2014 is gonna be YOUR year, buddy! Oh believe!
After the game I went home and sat in solitude out on my deck until 2:30 A.M., basking in the afterglow of a strong performance and a signature win. As the skipper Steve Holeman said, “I can’t sleep after a loss; can’t sleep after a win.” Truer words have never been spoken.
It doesn’t get any easier for us next weekend as the Dawgs go on the road to square off with Missouri and Kentucky. The SEC gauntlet is in full swing. Buckle up, because we’re in for a wild ride.
If you enjoyed this entry, I hope you’ll consider buying my book, Soccer iQ. Just click on the link below. Thanks!
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Well isn’t that just fabulous? You ran all that way while I was fighting two puppies for space under the comforter. Aren’t you quite the hero?
Whatever happened to the concept of the humble warrior? What happened to quietly putting your head down and grinding it out? I wish I had the power to create some type of parallel universe where these people had to be Facebook friends with a list of All-Stars that I handpicked. I imagine a world where, when Bill posts that he just completed day 72 of his triathlon training, he’d be bombarded by comments like:
Jonas Salk: Nice work, Bill! Just cured Polio.
George Washington: Defeated the British at Trenton today. Merry Christmas!
Ernest Rutherford: Finally split the atom! Took a really thin knife. LOL!
Alvin York: I captured 132 German soldiers today.
Marie Curie: Won another Nobel Prize.
Neil Armstrong: Walked on the moon, y’all.
Yeah… how about them apples? That’ll put your Crossfit session into perspective. How do your quads feel now?
Yeah, yeah. Of course I’m jealous! And bitter! Yes, I’m jealous and bitter. I used to exercise, too. I think I still remember how. I know I remember doing something that made me thirsty. Surely I still have the instructions tucked away in one of these file folders. One of these days I’ll rally. One of these days I’ll get my heart rate above 6 and then whooo boy, look out! And you can bet that I’ll do it my way. There won’t be any daily calls for fanfare. I won’t post my resting heart rate or my VO2 max or a picture of my recovery shake. I’ll just put my head down and grind it out and the only way you’ll ever know is if you see me in person. Or if you happen to drive by my billboard on Hwy 316. Or you attend my parade.
The Dawgs had another strong weekend, bumping off Long Beach State by a 1-0 score on Friday night and then following up with a 5-1 over the College of Charleston on Sunday.
LBSU is a strong team that happened to catch us on the wrong night. We played pretty darn well, but to be fair, I’m sure a transcontinental plane ride didn’t do our guests any favors. Regardless, we played some of our best soccer of the year and there wasn’t much the 49ers could do about that. We dominated territorially much more than I think any of us anticipated, but getting on the scoreboard sure took some doin’.
We had outshot the visitors 9-3 in the first half, but were deadlocked 0-0 at the intermission. The second half shot tally finished at 13-1 in our favor, but it wasn’t until the 80th minute that we finally scored. Kara Smith took a throw-in from Nikki Hill and did some great work along the LBSU endline before sliding a pass back to Marion Crowder. Crowder’s first time finish slipped just inside the far post to give us the game’s only goal. It was a solid performance from the Dawgs. Not flawless, but solid. We moved the ball well and were better about our shot selection and we defended with intensity. We’ve gotten a little bit better each time out, and that’s what I find most encouraging.
Sunday’s tilt against Charleston was a little more… uhm… strange. For starters we finally managed to score in the first half, twice no less, and they were two beauties. Crowder finished off both chances clinically, but the build-up of passes to each goal was really something to see. How can I explain it? Well, just imagine a bunch of one-touch passes in the final third culminating with Crowder bursting behind the defense with the ball at her feet and then depositing it into the net. That’s a pretty good description of both goals.
We looked pretty comfortable heading into the final minutes of the half, but then, well, that’s where it all went pear-shaped. Let me begin by saying that Sunday completely debunked any notion of my potential psychic powers. How do I know this? Before the game I congratulated Tanner on the goal she was going to score. Talk about your all-time backfires.
Tanner came on as a late first-half sub. 43 seconds later she was ejected from the game. Yep. And yes, it takes about twice that long to listen to the national anthem.
Suddenly we had a real problem on our hands and our two-goal cushion had ballooned in value. At half-time we figured that the Cougars would throw more bodies forward and take some risks. They had no choice. They had a 45-minute window to unload both barrels, and that’s exactly what they did.
Thankfully we were athletic enough to capitalize on some of the new match-ups and Crowder netted her third and fourth goals of the match in the first fifteen minutes, then Bella Hartley got her first of the season to extend our lead to 5-0. Bella scored four of our prettiest goals of 2012 and it was awesome to see her reopen her account for 2013.
With the result in hand, there was still one other issue hanging in the balance. The elephant in the room we’d all been trying to ignore was the shutout streak that had been stitched together since Texas. We’d won six on the trot without conceding a goal and those are things best left unspoken, unless you’re part of our broadcast team (I’m looking at you, Kevin Copp). Despite my elevated stress levels and pleas for silence, Kevin and his soon-to-be Mrs. Kevin, Soccer SID Kate Burkholder, have been bellowing about the streak since Greensboro. And we all know you can’t taunt the gods and expect to get away with it for very long. I tried explaining this to them… that you don’t sit next to the starting pitcher before the eigth inning and say, “Hey, what a great perfect game you’re throwing!” But they scoffed. They scoffed and announced and wrote and tweeted streak, streak, streak. Now, can you guess how this story ends?
With just over 12 minutes to play, Charleston was awarded a penalty kick, which was actually more agonizing than a run-of-play goal, because we actually had a good minute to think about the streak ending instead of having someone just rip off the band-aid. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The kid took the kick; the streak was over.
Honestly, I applaud the official. She gave a player a straight red in the first half and then whistled a penalty against the same team later in the game. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, she was right both times. But being right is the easy part. Having the courage to actually make those decisions is a lot more difficult and uncommon than you might imagine. I was impressed with her fearlessness to apply the rules as they were intended. Honestly, I’d be happy if we had her in the center for a few more games.
As for the streak… it ended at 652 minutes and change. Not a bad month’s work. A few people have told me it’s a blessing in disguise. Hard to believe that right now, but I sure hope they’re right. I’ll trade a win for a shutout any day… just as long as we, you know, win.
SEC play opens this Friday as we welcome the very talented Gamecocks of South Carolina to town. They’re ranked 8th in the country in the Soccer America poll and have been absolutely on fire! Should be one heckuva game. Hope you can make it, and make it loud!
If you enjoyed this entry I hope you’ll consider buying my book, Soccer iQ. Just click on the icon below. Thanks!
Happy, Happy, Happy
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Congrats to Coach Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs for their AMAZING performance and convincing win over South Carolina!
I am delighted that the Philadelphia Eagles have pushed back their annual collapse until at least Week 2 of the NFL season by running up and down on the Redskins Monday night. Chip Kelly is suddenly the most popular man in the City of Brotherly Love. At least until next Sunday.
And how about a big WOO-HOO for the U.S. Men’s National Team on its qualification for next summer’s World Cup Finals in Brazil, a passage made even sweeter by the 2-0 victory over our neighbor and CONCACAF rival, Mexico!
As for the soccer-playing Georgia Bulldogs…
On Friday night we squared off with the Dolphins of Jacksonville University. I know I’ve said this before, but I absolutely love our Friday night home games! I love seeing the team march onto the pitch in their all black kits. The atmosphere is electric! 2,000 fans file in to watch us play a game of soccer. It’s completely amazing!
We always have a U-9 or U-10 girls team with us during the announcement of the starting line-ups. Each girl accompanies a Bulldog out to the center circle when her name is called, and let me tell you, it is a BIG deal to those little girls. A night with the Georgia Bulldogs is the currency of fandom around here. Almost all of these girls show up with their faces painted in some form or fashion. Some just have the Georgia ‘G’ painted on a cheek, while others are a little more emphatic about their fanaticism and will have the name and # of their favorite Bulldog painted across their foreheads. Let’s face it; these kids are invested!
Despite her injury last spring, Meghan Gibbons remains a fan favorite with these girls, and one of them had decorated her face with ‘Meghan’ and ‘#4’ . So as the young girls are milling about before the game, waiting for our players to make their way out of the locker room, I said to this young girl, “You like Meghan, huh?”
Then this nine year-old looks at me with total conviction and self-assuredness and a touch of sass, then proudly proclaims, “Yes I do.” Then she matter-of-factly announces, “She’s going to be my babysitter.” I was cracking up.
JU is a very solid team with lots of good-sized athletes and an uncommon system that we haven’t encountered in quite some time. They play very well within that system and that caused us our fair share of frustration. Additionally, they’ve got a couple of very dangerous forwards up top that had me on edge all night long.
We were pretty dominant territorially and probably held 70% of the possession, but we couldn’t quite find the final piece that actually puts the ball into the net. Andie Fontanetta created our best chance of the first half by doing what she does best, flying in on a tackle that sprung the ball from the foot of the Jacksonville center back and into the path of Bria Washington. Bria dribbled her way to the top of the 18 but got a little too far under the ball with her shot and it sailed just over the crossbar. Garcia came closest in the second half, hitting the post with one effort and the crossbar with another.
For all the possession we enjoyed, I never once felt safe. Every time the Dolphins crossed midfield I thought they were going to score. Thankfully our defenders did a bang up job of extinguishing any real threats before they actually became real threats, and we went into the overtime knotted at 0-0.
Nothing much seemed to be doing in the first overtime and I figured we were probably headed for a second overtime session and quite possibly a 0-0 tie. In a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary sequence, we were awarded a throw-in deep down our attacking right side. I looked at the scoreboard clock and saw there was exactly one minute left in the period. I remember thinking, very nonchalantly, maybe there’s enough time for us to get one good chance.
Jacksonville managed to clear the ball to about the bottom of the center circle, but Torri Allen quickly dispossessed the Dolphin forward and the ball went straight back into the corner where the throw-in had originated. After a little bit of pinball between the teams, Marion Crowder played a square pass from the sideline to the corner of the eighteen and into the feet of Gabby Seiler. Seiler spun toward the middle of the field and then launched a left-footed bender that curled beautifully beyond the goalkeeper and into the back post. From our seat on the bench we had the perfect vantage point to track the flight of the ball and I gotta tell you, it was pretty darn cool. It was Gabby’s first collegiate goal and although it won’t be her last, it’s one I’m sure she’ll remember for many, many years. Not only did it produce the victory, it also clinched Steve's 200th win as a college coach. Not bad for your first goal, eh?
Incidentally, before the game I told Gabby she was going to score. I didn’t say that to anyone else. Just Gabby. That makes me 3 for 3 this year. Don’t believe me, eh? Well this time, I’ve got proof.
As a feature for our website, I was mic’d up for the game. You can CLICK HERE to take a listen and witness for yourself my psychic gift in action. I’m pretty sure that the man behind the project, Kevin Copp, has already been guaranteed an Emmy for his editing work.
This was a split weekend for us which means that on Saturday morning, we piled onto a bus and made tracks for Greensboro, NC for a Sunday match-up with our old friends Nooj, Harv and their UNC-G Spartans. We got off the bus at UNCG and went directly into a light training session, then back to our hotel to watch the first half of the football team’s game with South Carolina. Our planning was spectacular, as we made the entire trip from the hotel to our dinner restaurant during the halftime break and then picked up where we left off. We enjoyed a delicious dinner while watching the Dawgs put together a fantastic performance that included a game-ending, eight-minute drive to close out the Gamecocks. It was a long, slow, exclamation point and a joy to watch.
On Sunday morning we had a late breakfast then gave the team our scouting report of the Spartans and before we knew it, it was back on the bus to UNCG to get our game on. The coaches were a little concerned that between Friday night’s overtime match and the Saturday travel, we might have some heavy legs on a hot Sunday afternoon. And we did. Don’t get me wrong; we played well. As a matter of fact, it was probably our best all-around performance so far, but by the end, we had some girls running around on spaghetti legs, and no one’s legs were more rubbery than those of Maddy Barker. By the game’s end, Maddy was completely gassed, and to be fair, she sure earned it. Thankfully, her goal in the 58th minute was all we would need for a second straight 1-0 win.
To celebrate our weekend sweep, we surprised the team with a pit stop at the Cold Stone in Greenville, SC. Coincidentally, it was in Greenville where our bus began experiencing mechanical issues. So as we pulled into Cold Stone, a new bus was already en route to come get us. A short time later, we were moving stuff from one bus to the other and then back on our way. And in case you were wondering, no one gets too upset about switching busses when the replacement bus looks like this:
In the words of Phil Robertson: Happy, Happy, Happy.
The Game Ball
Monday, September 2, 2013
Apparently this marriage of science and music is a double-edged sword, as my kid is now addicted to the most annoying song ever recorded in the history of recording devices. Don’t believe me? Think you’re a tough guy? Okay, here’s a challenge: Click the link and listen to the Element Song five times in succession. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now, tell me that isn’t the answer to water-boarding. I have a whole new vision of what hell is and it’s me sitting in a small, windowless room listening to that song over and over and over again, which incidentally, is what Izzy made me do the other night.
There I was, kicked back on the deck, listening to a little Jimmy Buffett, occasionally paying attention to the meat on the grill, when Izzy decided to visit me and play the Element Song about nine times in a row. Honest to God I love my kid more than life itself, but to preserve my sanity and her physical well-being, I had to banish her from the deck. Let me just say that this is an issue that will certainly be addressed on parent-teacher conference day.
It was home opener weekend for the Dawgs as we got to christen the Turner Soccer Stadium for the 2013 season with a Friday night tilt against the Mercer Bears. We didn’t square off with Mercer in 2012, but our matches against them in 2010 and 2011 were a pretty good microcosm of the competitive immaturity that plagued our side. We’ve had a bad habit of making our effort match the profile of the opponent. If we were playing a high-profile school, we’d give a high-profile effort. If our opponent’s university wasn’t such a prolific brand, well, our effort reflected that. And it drove our coaching staff bonkers.
In the ’10 and ’11 matches with Mercer, we went into halftime feeling like we had been outworked for no other reason than the complacency of facing an opponent that was something less than a big name. We’d warn our players that they’d better be ready to go because it was the game of the year for Mercer, and then we’d take the field and get the snot knocked out of us for 45 minutes. Then we’d have to have some type of halftime come-to-Jesus to wake our players, and then we’d scramble like crazy to salvage the result. These are the things that take years off our lives.
We ended up winning both of those games, both in overtime. In 2010 we trailed 2-0 at the break before tying the game in the final three minutes to force the extra period. In 2011 we went to the intermission level at 1-1 before eventually winning 2-1 on a golden goal. This year we were hoping that we could assert ourselves much earlier. And praise be, we did.
I’m always going to be among our biggest critics, because let’s face it, that’s who coaches are, but to be fair, we came out of the gate on fire Friday night. We showed an urgency to eliminate a threat, and we went right after the Bears. Finally.
During the pre-game warm-up I walked up to Garcia and said, “Congratulations on your goal tonight.” Then I meandered over to Crowder and said the same thing. The girls both laughed, but I think there’s something to planting a seed of success in an athlete’s brain right before the competition. When either of those girls got her chance to score, I wanted that goal to be a foregone conclusion. Wouldn’t ya know…
Marion Crowder got us on the board in the 27th minute as she received a ball on the left wing and then darted to the inside and through the heart of the Mercer defense before depositing her shot just inside the post. It was Crowder’s first goal of her collegiate career and I’m pretty sure there will be a few more behind it.
If there was a negative to our performance, it was that we didn’t maintain our level of execution in the latter stages of the half. Mercer began to steal back the momentum and nearly equalized about 10 minutes later from a corner, but Torri Allen did an excellent Kristine Lilly impersonation to head the ball out of harm’s way.
We started the second half the way we started the first and took the game by the scruff. Gabby Seiler caused the opponent all types of fits on Friday, and five minutes into the second stanza, one of her forays into the Mercer penalty box earned us a penalty kick which Nicole Locandro fired home to double our lead.
Eighteen minutes later, Maddy Barker’s corner kick was greeted by the authoritative header of Rachael Garcia to stretch our lead to three and bolster my street credit as a prophet.
A few days before the game, Maddy had mentioned to Coach Holeman that she and Garcia had connected on quite a few of those set pieces when they were high school teammates. When they were subbed off a few minutes after the goal, Maddy told me the same story. I told her I already knew because Rachael had passed me a note in home room. Tee-Hee.
With the three-goal lead we did a good job of closing the door on the Mercer attack and felt good about securing a hard-fought 3-0 win.
In college soccer, with the Friday / Sunday schedule, you’ll hear a lot of talk about ‘Sunday teams.’ You see, a lot of physical and emotional energy gets invested into the Friday night matches. You haven’t had a game in five days; you’re under the lights; the air is cooler and the crowds are bigger and all in all, there are a lot of extrinsic factors that contribute to an energized performance. On Sunday afternoons… notsomuch.
On Sunday afternoons your still feeling some of the physical effects of the Friday match; plus it’s hotter and the crowds are smaller and the energy level often pales to the Friday night game. It’s a quick turnaround and the teams that can consistently rise, emotionally, to the Sunday contests are what we call ‘Sunday teams.’ Sunday teams grind. And Sunday teams win.
After the Mercer match, Steve challenged the players to show that we could be a Sunday team. We knew we’d be facing a very good Furman side and we didn’t need to help their cause by showing up flat. We needed to regroup and re-elevate and reproduce our Friday night urgency. We needed to make the game important for no other reason than that’s what great teams do.
Sunday started out bright and sunny and otherwise normal, but a sudden and strange confluence of events grabbed hold of the afternoon.
Before we stepped onto the field, we were warned of thunderstorms in the area that were headed our way. Weather being what it is, you’ve got no choice but to go about your business until it actually reveals itself. Which it eventually did.
Shortly after we began our warm-up, the thunder bumpers began rolling in from the west and the sky started to turn a nasty shade of gray. The storm was still some miles away, so we went ahead as we normally would. Half the group went with Robin to hit some shots; the other half came with me to do some possession. A minute later, I noticed members of our training staff sprinting past our possession grid to the corner of the field under our scoreboard. I could see a man there lying on the ground just outside the fence. Dr. Ron Elliott was already on the scene administering care. Something bad was happening.
At this time I’d like to introduce you to Wayne. Before yesterday I didn’t know his last name, I only knew that he is older, probably retired, and that he is Georgia Soccer’s biggest fan. He was there on the first day of preseason in 2010 and on that day, when I walked out to the field with the team, I was surprised by this stranger addressing me by name and wishing me luck. I thanked him and went on my way without ever giving it a second thought. I didn’t really plan on seeing him again, and I couldn’t have possibly been more wrong about that.
As it turns out, Wayne is actually a regular at all of our home games and many of our practices. It is not uncommon for him to be standing outside of the office when we take the field for practice. He clips out the articles from the local newspapers when the girls are mentioned. If a player is mentioned, she gets one of the clippings. He knows every player by name and he even shows up to our spring practices. On game days, Wayne is there an hour before kick-off.
Wayne has never asked us for a thing. Not once. Not a hat or a t-shirt; not even an orange slice. He supports the team without condition. Whether we are winning or losing, Wayne will be right there rooting for us.
On game days, Wayne stands at the fence just behind our bench at the base of Holeman Hill. That was one more reason for me to suspect that it was the top of Wayne’s head that I was seeing from 40 yards away. As it turns out, it was. Wayne was down.
Now we’re starting to hear some low rumbles of thunder; word has gotten around to the girls that it is Wayne on the ground; the sports medicine staff is running to and fro with water bottles and med kits; a team of EMTs is wheeling a stretcher across the field; some of the girls are in tears and oh yeah, there’s a game we’re supposed to be playing sometime soon.
Moments later we’re called off the field. It hasn’t started raining yet, but there’s been lightning reported six miles away, so we’ve got to make tracks back inside the soccer complex. Ten minutes later the EMTs are wheeling Wayne past the office window and into the ambulance parked just outside. I want to say something before they whisk him away, but the ambulance doors shut just as I arrive. I jump up on the back bumper and wave. Wayne smiles and gives me a thumbs up.
The start time gets pushed back by two full hours. Just before we take the field for the second time, we call the girls together to talk about the adjustments they’ll need to make on the wet field. Then we decide that the best thing we could possibly do on that Sunday is to win the game, sign the game ball and give it to Wayne. For all intents and purposes, that’s when the game was won. Right then we were a Sunday team.
We came out of the locker room inspired (which was excellent news for the thousand or so fans that stuck around through the long delay). When the whistle blew to start the game, that’s exactly how we played. We created some very good chances right off the bat, but it was Maddy Barker who got us on the board in the 21st minute. Maddy got hold of the ball on the left wing and angled her dribble at the heart of the goal before pushing the ball wide of the outside defender and sliding a low shot just inside the far post. It was Maddy’s first of the year, but not her last of the day.
We kept pressing but Furman stood tough and we were unable to extend our lead before the half. Ten minutes into the second half, Maddy won a tackle at the top of Furman’s penalty box and then curled a left footer past a diving goalkeeper to cap off the day’s scoring.
As much as we would’ve liked a more convincing score-line, there was no doubting the effort the girls put forth and the amount of chances that were created. Furman is a quality side and picked to win its conference. We weren’t perfect, but we put on a very good performance. We showed what a Sunday team is supposed to look like. I think our biggest fan would have been pleased.
After the game the players all signed the game ball, and a couple of them drove by the hospital to present it to Wayne. He said he would cherish it forever.
Let’s hope that forever is a long, long time.
If you liked this blog, I hope you'll consider buying my book, Soccer iQ. Just click on the link below to get started.