Dean's Coach's Corner Blog
Dec. 19, 2007
For my final blog entry of the '07 season, I wanted to submit a 'year in review' which captures some of my thoughts and reflections on this very unique season.
For me the '07 season was about coming together, remaining focused upon the resources at our disposal and a lot of players, both young and old, stepping up and playing well when their team needed it the most. It sure made for some special memories and for that I am truly grateful.
Heading into the 2007 pre-season, we knew that we were facing a tougher schedule than we had last year. Away games at Gonzaga, New Mexico, Creighton, playing SMU in Albuquerque, and of course the rugged Pac-10 schedule would always be a challenge. We also faced some very aggressive scheduling in that we had to cope with five games in a 10 day period in the early part of our season.
Knowing all this we made a plan and headed into pre-season with high hopes. We managed to use the pre-season time well as we hit the ground running by winning our opening tournament in Portland and then posting upset wins over New Mexico and SMU. The big wins in Albuquerque unfortunately also had a big cost to our team as we lost our starting GK, Rylan Hawkins, to a very serious season-ending facial injury. It was truly a great lift for everyone during our NCAA tournament training period to have Rylan back out with the team at practice even in a limited capacity. It certainly served as further proof to me personally that prayers are indeed answered!
I would like to once again recognize the incredible professionalism and dedication of our athletic trainer, Melissa Beausoleil, for the amazing care and attention she was able to provide Rylan on that difficult trip. Another great example of the true quality we have in our 'team behind the team' here at UW. Having already lost two starters from the '06 team - JoJo Katz last spring and Steve Mohn over the summer - we now had to cope with the added loss of Rylan Hawkins so the 'team theme' if you will for the `07 season of pulling together despite the loss of key personnel, was becoming an unfortunate but true reality!
Earlier I mentioned that one of the keys to our success this season was a number of players, both young and old, stepping up and playing at a high level when we needed it most. Without a doubt, the season's most dramatic debut was Stephen Fung being called into action after Rylan's injury in the New Mexico game.
Faced with more than 30 mins. remaining in the game while trying to manage a 1-0 lead away from home against a ranked team who is chasing the game, it was already stressful enough. Now we were faced with calling upon our backup GK, who had yet to actually play in a varsity game for us, to enter such a key game with much at stake under very difficult circumstances.
Not only did Stephen do exceptionally well in his debut by preserving the shut-out victory over New Mexico, he topped off that impressive performance with a second consecutive shut-out victory over highly ranked SMU. No question Stephen's performances in Albuquerque that weekend would provide an inspiration to all of us and we came back from that trip with a good measure of confidence starting to develop in our team.
We ended up with an impressive 4-1 record for our 5 games in 10 days 'endurance test' and the team was indeed starting to show some impressive and consistent form. As we have learned so well from past seasons, however, more tough games were still ahead of us and the month of October would not only bring the beginning of fall classes but also the start of the always challenging Pac-10 play. Still, heading into Pac-10 play we boasted a 5-2-1 record and we were feeling good about our chances to make a run at the conference title.
As it turned out, the first half of Pac-10 play would prove to be yet another huge challenge for our team as not only would we find winning results difficult to come by, we would only have a single win to show from our first 5 conference games. Besides this poor league start we would also permanently lose the services of our senior team co-captain and current leading scorer, Kevin Forrest.
It sure seemed liked like 'forces' beyond anyone's control were conspiring against us and that these 'forces' were determined to test the spirit and belief of this team to the very end! If we were looking for reasons why to explain the prospects of a mediocre year, we had them in 'spades' and it was impossible for the coaching staff to truly predict how many of our players would react to yet another bout of adversity and keep the faith in our team that despite our setbacks, we could still control our destiny and realize a successful season.
As we headed into the second half of our Pac-10 schedule with a 6-5-2 record, the team practically faced certain elimination from any hope of reaching the NCAA tournament if we slipped up and lost any more games. We were for the most part faced with 'must win' situations (or at the very least, not losses) for the last four weeks of the season. While it may not have been the most desirable position to be in, it did seem to force us to draw upon all of our resources and it seemed we were able to tap into our early season success in that just when everyone was ready to count us out, we would win another big game.
It's been said that 'nothing succeeds like success' and our team started to show consistency and resolve just when we needed it most. I mentioned those key player performances earlier and senior forward Ely Allen needs to be recognized here. When Kevin Forrest went down in early October, it seemed that Ely took the challenge upon himself to fill the void by playing at a level higher than anything he has done in the past.
It was 'his time' to emerge when our team needed him the most. It was 'his time' to be recognized by the other Pac-10 coaches for the great player that he truly is. For the entire coaching staff it was sheer delight to see Ely raise his game to the 'elite level' and to be recognized for his efforts by winning the 2007 Co Pac-10 Player of the Year Award! A stunning accomplishment for Ely to remember a very unique and special senior year.
Despite all the odds going against us, it was a great feeling to see this team realize its goal of reaching the NCAA tournament. Seth commented to me how excited the players reacted to their selection to the NCAA tournament. They had reached a meaningful team goal despite much adversity and they never counted themselves out. Not only a great sports story but something all of us can take with us as we face the daily challenges that life has in store for us.
More importantly for us coaches, the players were not only excited but also appeared energized (both physically and most importantly psychologically) which we believe is the key for reaching the later rounds of the tournament. They seemed determined to make something out of themselves despite it looking nearly impossible just four weeks earlier. This marks two consecutive post-seasons where we as coaches felt our team still had plenty of gas left in the tank which is needed for a long run in the NCAA tournament. Progress is being made!
In many ways coaching a team like this one, especially in the last month of the season, touches upon the true essence of why I think many coaches are hooked on this profession. Its being part of that special 'intangible' where combined efforts, teamwork and sheer will produce a performance 'whole' or end product that exceeded the sum of the parts. It's a very unique and special team synergy and it leaves you with an incredible high that anything is possible. If you could produce it, bottle it and sell it on the open market, you could surely rewrite the record books for Bill Gate's financial portfolio!
The 2007 NCAA tournament would produce some more incredible moments as we drew regional rival Portland at home to get us started. A big home crowd on a cold November night would produce a great atmosphere and some hot action on the pitch as a close, nerve jangling 1-0 win seemed a fitting for conclusion for a great night of NCAA playoff soccer.
The second round game down in Santa Barbara would see our 'special season' come to an end as we could not find the elusive goal we needed to bring us back to level the match. Playing the defending Champions away from home before the largest crowd we had seen all season made for another electric atmosphere and a great experience for our young team.
After gathering ourselves at half time, we produced a second half performance that would make any coach proud. We played tactically smart, we were skillful in our plan and most importantly we showed conviction that we could come back and win the match. We did in fact dominate much of the second half and forced the action down to last minute of the game with the home team hanging on desperately awaiting the final whistle. Not winners on the night maybe but we played with courage and a sprit that did everyone connected with this team proud.
The final whistle in Santa Barbara brought to close a season I won't soon forget. Looking back now at the many highs and lows seems like a journey the team had to take to truly find itself. While I could have done without the recall of the terrible season ending injuries to men I really care about, the last month of the season was very unique and unlike any other in my time at UW.
It was a great ride with a group of players who seemed determined to make the best of anything that could stand in their way. A determination to see the season conclude with a success story. A determination to uphold the great tradition of the many successful UW seasons we have enjoyed in the past. A proud moment for a team that kept belief in themselves right to end. A season no one wanted to see come to end!
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