The bandwagon makes a stop at WLI Field

Last spring my youngest niece began playing soccer in a local league.  I went to a few of her games (after all, I am the sports dork in the family).

The games were for the most part conducted in a congenial atmosphere, with families watching their charges at play.  Her team was, to be honest, not the most skilled of squads.  This wasn’t exactly surprising, as they were all first-graders, and most of them were new to the game.

The basic plan of attack went like this:  if the ball rolled in the general vicinity of a player, that player would attempt to kick it, hopefully in the right direction.  There was no guarantee that significant contact with the ball would be made.

A goal-scoring opportunity would occur if a player managed to kick the ball hard enough to get it close to the other team’s net; then there would be a meeting at the ball of a number of players on each team, and if the right kick happened at the right time, and the keeper wasn’t up to the task, then a goal might be scored.

Well, maybe the squad was a little better than that.  The girls did practice every week, and were instructed in the fundamentals.  During the games, the team’s coach would organize his troops.  “Stay in position!  Stay in position!” he would yell, somewhat mournfully.  Staying in position (or perhaps just staying focused) was seemingly a hard thing for them to do.

I watched the team play three times.  It won once and lost twice.  One of the teams it played had much better players and won 4-0.  Clearly that outfit had brought in ringers. The other two opponents were more on their level; the girls lost 2-1 to one team, and beat the other one 2-0.  During the spring season, they were basically a .500 outfit.

After the summer break, the team started play again for the fall campaign.  I didn’t realize there was a fall season, so I wasn’t prepared for the telephone call I got a few weeks ago from my brother.  First he told me that the team had played two games already; then the conversation went something like this:

Him:  “They won 8-0 last night.”

Me:  “8-0?  Did the other team have more than two players?”

Him:  “Yeah, they just…well, I can’t explain it.  But…our team is real good now.”

Me:  “Did they get some ringers like that other team did?”

Him:  “No, it’s the same girls as in the spring.  It’s just they got good all of a sudden.”

Me:  “What was the score in the other game they played?”

Him:  “10-0.”

Me:  “Did she score?”

Him (and I could see him grinning, even over the telephone):  “She scored a goal in the last game.”

They later won a game in which they scored twelve goals, and apparently there is now talk that they are too good for their league and might have to move up an age level, which seems a little unfair to me, kind of like asking Oregon to play in the NFC West (although maybe that’s not such a stretch, come to think of it).

I was thinking about my niece’s team as I contemplated the rise of another soccer team, that of my alma mater, which has made an even more improbable leap.  I wondered if comparing the two outfits might be instructive, but I thought better of it. Maybe someone could have seen the improvement in my niece’s team coming, but there is no way anyone was expecting the season The Citadel has had in soccer.  No one, that is, except perhaps head coach Bob Winch:

[Question] Did you see this coming?

“Yeah, a little bit. Last year, we were successful defensively and we always had a chance in our games. This year, we’ve been able to score some goals and that’s helped us win some games.”

Let’s go over some stats…

Through early October of 2008, The Citadel’s women’s soccer team had an alltime record in Southern Conference play of 0-74-2.  No, that’s not a typo.  On October 10 of that year, the squad finally won a game in the league, beating Georgia Southern 2-1. The Bulldogs would drop their final six SoCon games that year and finish 1-10 in the conference.

That was two years ago.  Last season The Citadel finished with a record of 2-7-2 in SoCon play, beating GSU again (the program’s first league road victory) and also knocking off Chattanooga.  The two ties were both scoreless matches played over the same weekend in games at Appalachian State and at Western Carolina.

The team’s noticeable improvement in competitiveness garnered Winch the league’s coach of the year award.  It’s not often a COY award is given to someone whose team had a winning percentage of just 27% in league play, but it’s not often a coach doubles his program’s alltime conference win total in one season, either.

This season, of course, has gone beyond that, and then some.  The Citadel won 7 of its 11 conference games, including first-ever wins over Wofford, Davidson, Elon, Appalachian State, and Western Carolina.  In league action, The Bulldogs were 4-2 on the road and 3-2 at WLI Field (in the regular season).

I don’t know if you can give Winch another coach of the year award for that.  Coach of the century, maybe.

When I was researching the league-only SoCon stats for women’s soccer, I was struck by how The Citadel had managed to finish third in the league despite not leading, or even being that close to leading, any significant statistical category.  There are twelve teams in the conference.  The Bulldogs’s rank in official statistical categories is as follows:

Goals – 6th

Assists – 9th

Shots – 7th

Goals allowed – 10th

Saves – 5th

Shutouts – 10th (tie)

Fouls – 5th (tie)

Corner kicks – 6th

Offsides – 11th

Yellow Cards – 5th

You could argue, I suppose, that The Citadel being 11th in offsides calls against is a good thing, although it could also suggest a lack of aggression and/or possession. At any rate, it would appear to be a statistic that has no bearing on a team’s win-loss record, at least in the SoCon.

The Citadel is only in the top 4 in one statistical category (besides wins, of course). The Bulldogs finished in first place in the league…in red cards.

There were two red cards shown in conference play this season, and they were both given to Bulldog players. (In addition, Bob Winch, given a red card in the league tournament game against Furman on Sunday, was apparently the first and only coach to be dismissed from any SoCon game this season.)

The red card stat surprised me.  It would be hard to conclude the Bulldogs are a particularly rough outfit, either statistically (a middle-of-the-pack team in fouls and yellow cards) or from watching them play.

Of course, the fact we’re just talking about two cards, and thus two situations, indicates a small sample size, and possibly a fluke.  Further investigation was required.

I first viewed the videotape for the second of the two red cards, given to Shanna Couch during the Samford match, easily the team’s worst performance of the season (losing at home 7-0).  At the 63-minute mark, the Bulldog keeper came out of the goal during a Samford mini-breakaway.  Samford wound up with a shot on goal that would have gone in, except Crouch palmed it away on the goal line.

That was a problem, since Crouch wasn’t the keeper, and she thus got a straight red. Honesty compels me to admit it was deserved.  Sorry, Shanna.

The other red card was given to defender (and erstwhile diarist) Leah Hawkins during the Chattanooga match.  Hawkins had picked up a yellow card at the 60-minute mark for an overly aggressive tackle.  At the 83-minute mark, with The Citadel leading 2-0, she collided with a UTC player while going for the ball, received a second yellow, and was sent off.

When the collision happened, the UTC coach immediately began yelling for the yellow card, which wasn’t the first time he had complained about various calls or non-calls during the game.  (He was rather vocal.)  I don’t think I would have booked Hawkins if I had been the official — it was clearly neither a “professional” foul nor a dangerous play — but maybe the referee decided to throw the Mocs coach a bone.

Tangent:  in all fairness to the UTC coach, he was probably stressed out by that point with his team’s play and with an injury that occurred to one of his players in the first half.  Shortly after a rather innocuous clash with a Bulldog player, a Moc midfielder dropped to the ground, right on the sideline next to the UTC bench, and began shrieking in apparent pain.  She continued to cry out for several minutes while receiving attention from a Moc trainer.

I have no idea how she had been hurt, or the specifics of the injury, and I suspect I don’t really want to know.  She was eventually able to leave the field of play, more or less under her own power.

While that was going on the two teams retreated to the center of the pitch, with each holding an impromptu meeting, seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the sideline.  I got the impression the Moc players were talking about how nice the weather was and how lousy the bus trip back to Chattanooga was going to be, while the Bulldogs were comparing notes on an SMI and discussing how their uniforms were so much better than the football team’s duds.

My conclusion is that the two red cards do not necessarily indicate a leaguewide conspiracy.  However, I am certain that fans of the Bulldogs will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the school’s players are fairly treated.

Red cards aside, how have the Bulldogs managed an upper-echelon league finish while not placing that highly in the conference statistics?  How does a team go 7-4 while being outscored 20-15?  The Citadel’s goals for/goals against number of -5 is equal to that of Appalachian State and Western Carolina, two teams that didn’t even make the SoCon tournament, yet the Bulldogs won enough games to host a tourney match.

Well, it helps to limit most of your poor play to just a couple of matches.  As mentioned above, The Citadel lost 7-0 to Samford.  It also lost two 3-0 games, to league regular season champion UNC-Greensboro and to Furman.

In the other eight regular-season SoCon games it played, though, The Citadel allowed only seven goals.  It won seven of those eight contests.

In six of those seven wins (and in a loss to the College of Charleston), The Citadel allowed one goal.  The Bulldogs recorded just one shutout, the aforementioned game against Chattanooga, but won five games by a 2-1 scoreline and another 3-1.

That is the type of defense that can keep a team in the game.  It’s also the kind of defense that The Citadel played last season, as Winch mentioned in that quote from the link.  In fact, last year the Bulldogs only allowed 14 goals in 11 SoCon matches. The problem was that The Citadel only scored five goals in those matches.

The Bulldogs have been able to put a bulge in the auld onion bag this year on a number of occasions, though (as I channel Tommy Smyth, and if you’re still reading this I know you’re groaning).  It is the main difference between last year and this year, and what has propelled the program to unprecedented heights.  This season the Bulldogs have scored fifteen goals in league play, which while not an overwhelming amount has been just enough.

The Citadel scored two goals in six of its conference wins, and three in the other victory.  Give up one, get two — that has been the basic formula, and it has worked.

There are just two seniors on this year’s team, Nicole Martinoli (one of five Floridians on the roster) and Dominic Snyder (one of five players hailing from outside the United States).  Martinoli stated earlier this season that:

“The program has grown tremendously, and it’s not just because of this year’s team.  It’s because of all the effort of the girls on past teams.”

She’s right, of course, and I am sure there are a lot of very proud former players hanging on every kick of this year’s team.  Some of the best kicking going on, though, is coming from the boots of some precocious freshmen.

The core of the defense-minded players is primarily made up of upperclassmen like Hawkins, Couch, Hannah Warne, and Angela Foyt, plus the goalkeeping duo of Whitney Nave and Laura Serafino, but the offensive punch has come mostly from first-year players like Mariana Garcia, Nicole Levermann, Jillian Meyer, and Vanessa Aponte.  The freshmen have combined to score 13 of The Citadel’s 15 goals in SoCon play (Martinoli, repping the old guard, has the other two) and have all but one of the assists in league games (Lexington High School alum Miranda Johnson has the other).

What do they bring to the table?  Well, in the opinion of this non-expert, collectively the freshmen have a nice combination of pace and skill.  All of them have good speed, and not just mighty mites like Garcia, Taylor Viana, and Ruth Leiva.  The 5’10” Levermann can pick ‘em up and put ‘em down, too, when she gets going, and when she does she’s hard to stop.

Garcia and Levermann have nine of the fifteen SoCon goals.  The opener against Davidson was fairly typical.  Garcia ran two Wildcat defenders ragged as she led them on a merry chase to the corner flag.  She started to move away from the flag and down the sideline, and then passed the ball to Johnson at the top right corner of the 18-yard box.

Johnson quickly dinked a pass to Levermann, who slipped between two defenders six yards from goal and almost casually flicked the ball past the keeper with her left foot.  She would finish the afternoon with a hat trick.

Another impressive thing about the Bulldogs is that they have accomplished all this despite losing one of their best players, junior Amy Loughran, after just ten games. Loughran had already scored five goals this season (after an eight-goal outburst last year that included game-winners against Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern) when she broke two bones in her leg against Appalachian State.

When I wrote about the soccer team last year, one of the things that concerned me was the small roster size.  Last season, there were no freshmen on the team, which struck me as unusual, and not optimal.  (One freshman who was supposed to be on the squad last year but was injured prior to enrolling at The Citadel, goalkeeper Cassie Palmacci, is on the team this season.)

This year the Bulldogs have eighteen players on their roster, four more than last season, which perhaps makes the loss of Loughran a little more manageable, although still not easy.

One thing I worried about was how the team would finish the season.  After clinching a tourney home game with its seventh league victory, The Citadel lost its last two games, 3-0 to Furman and 1-0 at the College of Charleston.  I was afraid that the outstanding campaign would end with a bit of a whimper, which wouldn’t have been the first time that happened to a team from The Citadel having an unexpectedly great year (examples include the 1989 and 2009 basketball teams, just to name two).

That made the tournament opener (the first conference tournament game in the program’s history) more important, in my view.  Making the storyline even more interesting was the opponent, Furman, which had just beaten the Bulldogs at WLI the week before and which had never lost to The Citadel.

For a while, it looked like that streak might continue.  The two teams traded goals in regulation, with the Bulldogs missing a great chance to go up 2-0, only to see the Paladins equalize only two minutes later.  Then it went to overtime and a “golden goal” scenario, where the first team to score would immediately win the game.

The first OT was scoreless.  The two teams were to play up to ten more minutes in a second overtime; if the score remained 1-1 after that, then penalty kicks would decide things.  Nobody wants to see a match go to PKs, and fortunately for The Citadel, this one didn’t.

A Furman defender was called for handball, which I thought happened in the box (which would have given The Citadel a penalty kick to win the game).  However, a free kick was the call, just outside the box.  The Paladins set up their wall, but Aponte curled a kick around the right side of it, past the diving keeper, and into the bottom of the net for the game-winner.

I have noticed that most of the Bulldogs’ goal celebrations are a bit muted (perhaps it’s a league or NCAA rule), but this one was certainly not.  It was spontaneous and wild.  The good feelings lasted for quite a while after the game; at one point, long after the match’s end, Jaslene Thiara momentarily stopped hugging Levermann long enough to wag a “We’re Number 1!” finger to the camera, whooping it up in style.

That might be the team’s last chance to relish a big win this year, and if it is, that would be understandable.  Progressing much further in the league tournament will be a tall order.  On Friday in the SoCon semifinals, The Citadel will face Samford, which handed the Bulldogs that 7-0 shellacking at WLI referenced earlier in this post, and waiting on the other side of the bracket is UNC-Greensboro, which is currently ranked in the Top 25 and has won twelve straight games.  (The Spartans beat The Citadel 3-0 in Greensboro in the regular season.)

The odds aren’t really in the Bulldogs’ favor.  On the other hand, Samford needed penalty kicks to get past Davidson in the first round of the league tourney, and UNCG struggled before finally outlasting Wofford, 1-0, in its tourney opener.  Now all four teams left will move to a neutral site in Cullowhee (the fourth school remaining, Elon, won at the College of Charleston on Sunday).  Maybe there will be a surprise champion, preferably one with a military bent.

I hope this is the start of a long, successful run for the women’s soccer program.  I think it would be fun to tell my niece that if she were good enough, maybe someday she could go to The Citadel and play soccer on the hallowed grounds of WLI Field, following the great champions of the past.  If that happened, she would immediately become the most successful athlete in the history of her family, which admittedly would be faint praise (her eldest uncle in particular being one of the least athletic individuals to ever spend four years at the military college).

It has to be very difficult for a women’s team sport to compete and win at the Division I level at The Citadel.  As of this September there were 142 women in the corps of cadets.  Eighteen of them are playing soccer.  That’s almost 13% of the total number of female cadets.  The comparison between other schools is jarring.  Georgia Southern has over 9,000 female students; Appalachian State, almost 8,000.  Those are just a couple of schools in the Southern Conference.

Technically, though, The Citadel is also competing in Division I with schools like Ohio State, UCLA, and Texas.  Think about the enormous difference in total resources, both human and otherwise, between The Citadel and those universities when competing in NCAA athletics.  (That’s true for the men’s teams as well, of course; it’s just the difference when comparing the women’s sports is exponentially greater.)

Then you have the military component, which is, to say the least, of some consequence…

Another concern I have, which may or may not be material, is the support (of the non-financial variety) the program gets from the alumni.  I’m not talking about people being unaware of the program or simply ignoring it; that goes with the territory of being a “non-revenue” sport at a school where most graduates are not born-and-bred sports fans anyway, and if they are their interest is often exclusively devoted to football, basketball, and/or baseball.

I wonder a little, though, about how it being a women’s sport plays in Peoria (or Pelion).  I think it goes without saying that a significant percentage of alums are still uncomfortable with the idea of women attending The Citadel.  Some of them are going to be less than crazy about casting their lot with a women’s team (and soccer still has a “foreign” connotation for some, although I think that notion is beginning to disappear).

My personal opinion, which is possibly a touch cynical, is that most alumni will gladly jump on any bandwagon provided by The Citadel, whenever one becomes available. If you’ve got a winner, you’ve got a lot of friends.  That makes Bob Winch a popular fellow these days, other than with Southern Conference officials.

Good luck to the team on Friday.

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