Jim Thomas' College Cup Blog
L.I.F.E: LOYALTY, INDUSTRY, FAITH, and EFFICIENCY: These are the four pillars of our program, our University, and the reason for my current state of melancholy. "We can do it." "Believe." "It doesn't matter what they say out there, it only matters what you think in here." (Insert heart pounding gesture here). Most of the time these are just words or attempts to get buy in from players during a half-time or pre-game speech. But there are teams that live it and commit wholeheartedly to the cause, as I and every member of our staff and squad did this season. And when the stars fail to align, as is their custom for all but one team a year, you are left with that empty feeling that lingers like the last guest at a wedding reception. So it's with laden mind and heavy heart that I sit in the stands of the NCAA Women's College Cup in Raleigh, N.C.
I have attended this event for the past three years to primarily recruit at the youth tournament. This year my perspective was slightly maligned as only a week prior our unbelievable group of women's soccer players from UW had reluctantly bowed out of the NCAA playoffs in overtime of the Elite Eight round against Boston College. Following a run of games that evoked an array of emotions I thought I would watch the College Cup tapped out, an empty soul. However, as the whistle for kick-off pierced the air offering momentary solace from the sub-zero game time temperature, a welcome fire began to burn as I thought: "One year from now, this will be our night!"
With renewed purpose I turned my attention to as many aspects of the moment as I could.
First, and most noticeable, was the lack of chemistry and passion in the crowd. The College Cup is played at a neutral site and run in conjunction with a huge youth tournament. With thousands of players having traveled thousands of miles to compete and enjoy the spectacle of the College Cup I couldn't help but hearken back to the perfect Beahan-baritone that lead our Spartan 300 of traveling supporters who wouldn't have need Thermopylae geography to pound these Irish and Cardinal supporters into submission.
Next, the TV cameras and pre-game production, extensive as it was, would offer a hurdle for these teams to overcome. Although Stanford and Notre Dame had advanced to previous College Cups and were used to the attention, there were subtleties that lead to some interesting dynamics.
For example, in the first semi-final Notre Dame played Ohio State, a College Cup newcomer and following what was a physical opening gambit, the first College Cup kink was inserted during the 22nd minute of play: a TV timeout! The real purpose is for advertising dollars, but it also offers respite for the weary, but more importantly refocus for the more capable team that was simply drowning in the moment. Following that TV timeout Notre Dame, although unable to score, looked like that beloved dog of yours when he comes inside after playing in the mud and rain, but as the Irish shook themselves from head-to-toe it wasn't dirt or water that fell from them but the weight of the cameras and the pressure of another shot at a national title that had evaded them so narrowly over the past few seasons.
I sat behind the Notre Dame bench the second half. It could have been their proximity but I like to think it was their energy that drew me to them. I couldn't look away. Starting players were amped up. Substitutes were full of encouragement, and one young lady in particular caught my eye. Bundled up so tightly she could have lasted an entire winter on the plains of the North Pole, she calmly walked across the field carrying the Gatorade bottles. Initially I thought she was a member of the training staff until I looked below her ankle length stadium coat and saw a pair of perfectly polished boots. Shocked that she was a player I quickly looked up to her face and it was then that I knew Notre Dame were about to do something special. Her countenance wasn't a Grudenesque scowl. It was a soft, understated smile that said "we have this". I'd seen that smile in weeks prior in a young forward of ours. So much was this the look of a champion that I would frequently seek that forward out just to hear her say "today is a great day".
Sure enough the Irish swept over the Buckeyes who dodge several bullets in the second half only to succumb to a goal by an unassuming freshman who had worked tirelessly to anchor the Irish midfield. She broke from the middle of the park and guided the ball delightfully into the top left corner past a forlorn but phenomenal Ohio State goalkeeper. A huge dog pile and general euphoria ensued! I found myself inserting the faces of myself and my colleagues into the melee like a Jib-Jab "Elf-It" video. How sweet that would be! It's Notre Dame Fighting Irish into the final and Stanford versus Boston College in the next semi-final.
I have to own up here a bit here. Having been a member of the staff that had just lost to BC I was constantly asked by other coaches how I thought the contest between Boston College and Stanford would be. Having answered it so many times I had my spiel down, and it basically amounted to Stanford domination. I went as far as to say the Cardinal would have it in hand by half time and would be able to rest their players for the final. Don't get me wrong, I was far from belittling BC. I certainly felt we were offered ample opportunity to beat the Eagles and maybe through purple and gold lenses I saw a game where we were the better of the two teams. However, it had nothing to do with that as to why I felt Stanford would dominate. Stanford had been knocking on the door of a National Title for three straight years, the past two seasons as an undefeated team. It was a draw between the two teams earlier in the season where even those in the B.C. camp described as a one-sided affair. It was also the slight lack of cohesion and desire on defense that B.C. displayed against us which would have to face what I believed to be the overall best attacking team in the country. Insert College Cup kink number two here: "IT'S THE COLLEGE CUP!" and I was wrong!
Throughout both the first and second half, although Stanford appeared the better of the two teams it was a disjointed slightly individual approach that the Cardinal chose. The slick, sharp passing for which they had become renowned was there but only in spurts and in less dangerous areas of the field than was their custom throughout the regular season. Even so during the second half of play it was Stanford stalwart, Cami Levin, who drove through the B.C. midfield in a mirror image to Mandy Laddish's strike for the Irish in the previous game and slotted it in the top right corner of the same goal.
From that point forth the game seemed to calm. When the final whistle blew Stanford had added a second goal in the waning minutes to set the stage for what all expected to be an epic final, and most would have picked it to be the year a PAC-10 team would win its second National Championship in women's soccer and Stanford University's 100th overall Championship. However, I just couldn't get that unassuming, wry smile from the bench of Notre Dame off my mind.
As in all pressure situations there is a tipping point to which the outcome is often attributed. Fatigue, injury, suspension, weather, referees, the list is endless. When the NCAA Women's College Cup final kicked off though the tipping point, which would ultimately undermine the eventual loser and pronounce the 2010 victor, sat dormant and motionless as it would remain throughout the game.
As most expected Stanford took hold of the game, possessing the ball and creating a tempo that suited their attacking approach. Notre Dame remained calm and composed forcing Stanford to play largely in their own half, neutralizing many of their highly touted threats. Before the initial TV timeout Stanford narrowly missed a scoring chance, grazing the woodwork. The Fighting Irish came right back and they too hit the crossbar. When the timeout came the two teams walked off the field with an odd suspension in the air that felt like Notre Dame, with that wry smile, had not only matched Stanford's attacking prowess but also had started to put a chink in the worst spot of any athlete's armor; in their self- belief.
The first half finished with the realization that Stanford was not the dominant force they had been portrayed as and that I believed them to be. Notre Dame attacked in numbers and with shots only to be narrowly denied. Stanford's play became uncomfortably individual with star forward Christen Press looking to win the National Championship all by herself.
During half time there was much conjecture about the whys and whats regarding Stanford's performance, but sitting there listening my gaze locked on the field and to the dashes that mark eleven yards from the corner flag. It was then that it hit me. The field was colossal in width, hitting close to the maximum allowed at eighty yards. Having played on some postage stamps in our post-season run the field looked like a small country in size. With only three players in the midfield, all noted for elements other than their ability to run and cover ground, the sheer size of the field had neutralized the defensive capabilities of the Stanford midfield. That sleeping third twist in the NCAA Finals tail had emerged and there was to be a humongous sting at the end of it; one that burns forever.
With eyes open to the issues facing Stanford my perspective of the second half differed drastically. I waited expectantly for the inevitable to happen while pleading for my friends in Cardinal to see reason and adjust their personnel and formation. Sadly neither happened and in the 63rd minute following a barrage of attackers that felt like Stanford's entire midfield remained in the comfort and warmth of the halftime locker room and had been replaced by a surprisingly effective post and crossbar (which managed to thwart at least three of the Irish's attacks) Adriana Leon ghosted in at the far post to smartly drive the ball into the roof of the net and the dagger into the hearts of the Cardinal.
From that point it truly affirmed to me the path our squad had taken across the 2010 season. As we watched Stanford stray further and further from their normally controlled, methodical style of play, the crowd fell somewhat silent, unsure of how to react as the cracks and frays in Stanford's team began to widen. The shining spot for Stanford being the all-world performance of freshman goalkeeper, Emily Oliver, who rose above that which was going on in front of her and played like a seasoned veteran.
How lost we can sometimes get on the paths we walk.
But as I look back at the path we have walked and ahead to the one we approach, I am thankful for the sacrifices of the players and staff who placed only one thing ahead of all else: not success but each other. With that as our GPS the directions lead solidly to growth, learning, and endless possibilities, maybe to Kennesaw, Georgia, the site of the 2011 Women's College Cup. With a little luck it will lead us to the opportunity to test our team against the pitfalls to which so many have succumb. 2011: Here come the Dawgs!
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