Note - This journal is being written by Jim Cella, the Concordia College Sports Information Director, who has the privilege to tag along with the Cobber women's soccer team and coaching staff as they make their way to the NCAA Regional Tournament in Eau Claire, Wis. The intent of this journal is to give readers an inside look as to what goes behind the scenes of an NCAA Division III athletic program. A different viewpoint than just the box scores and statistics as a group of athletes gets ready to compete on one of the most prestigious stages in all of college athletics - the NCAA Tournament.
The views written in this piece are entirely of the writer and not meant to harm or disrespect any of the athletes or school. It is merely an attempt to give the reader a greater understanding of what the coaches and athletes have to go through to get ready to perform at the highest level. I hope you enjoy the journal.
Previous Journal Entries: Thursday, November 8
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8
Players are heading back to the bus after a much-deserved full night’s rest. They straggled down to the continental breakfast provided by the hotel starting at 9 a.m. Most players looked like they had used the entire night catching up on their sleep. This time of the year is always the hardest on the student/athletes. They are in the middle of the first semester and usually are up against the routine of papers, labs and tests. Most days they will have class early in the morning, study and continue to go to class until the afternoon, head to the training room to get ready for practice and then head off for a training session for 1-2 hours beginning at 4:30 p.m. After practice they head to dinner and then off to the library or a quiet place to study. The whole routine is repeated day after day until the season is finally over. Surprisingly, most athletes to better in the classroom when they are in-season. Once the season is over, they suddenly find themselves with more free time and it is a lot easier to procrastinate when it comes to getting papers done or doing their daily reading. When they are playing during the season, they know they have to budget their time wisely and can’t afford to take extended breaks to just hang out.
Junior goalie Britt Reiersgord is one of the last to get breakfast. It is obvious that she just woke up. She has a hard time picking out her selection. The hotel has a very nice choice of different breakfast foods. This is a life-saver for the coach of a Division III program as they try to make ends meet with the small budgets they are given. Reiersgord grabs a muffin and heads to the bus. She has set every important school record for a goalie. For some strange reason she was left off of the all-conference list which came out the day before. She led the league in goals against average and helped her team win the regular season and playoff titles. It’s hard to comprehend how she didn’t get the all-conference nod but then when awards are voted on by coaches who see only one game a year, deserving players sometimes get overlooked and that is the case for Reiersgord. Her style of play also hinders her ability to get noticed. She is very good at picking off balls that are crossed into the goal area and usually heads the attack off at the pass before it gets to a critical situation. For a coach, this is exactly what makes a great goalie. They would rather have a goalie who rarely has to dive and makes a “wow” save. Unfortunately when it comes time to pick all-conference keepers, the ones who make those diving saves usually get picked because that is what sticks out in the opposing coaches’ head.
The bus is waiting to leave as head coach Dan Weiler gets on the bus. He is the last one to board and the team appears ready to take off for the two-hour drive to Eau Claire. Just before the bus pulls out, freshman Abby Habein discovers that she left her cell phone charger back in the room. She gets up and runs to get one of the “necessities” of today’s life and comes back to the bus, but not before the coaching staff gives her a little grief. It is official - another day with the team has begun.
An hour into the trip and the panic button is just about to be hit. As the bus rolls down Interstate 94, snow starts to appear on the ground. It starts to get thicker and thicker as we move farther into Wisconsin. This immediately catches the eye of Weiler, Stucke and the rest of the team as they remember the nightmare from last year.
In 2006, they were sent to Eau Claire for the first two rounds and on the Friday before the first game, the Eau Claire area was buried under a blanket of 10 inches of snow. The team finally got into Eau Claire, had to practice indoors and then had the games moved an hour down the road to River Falls, Wis. It was a huge administrative and logistical headache and Weiler would not like to have to relive that scene. Stucke quickly calls up the weather for the Eau Claire on his cell phone and he can see that there won’t be a measurable amount of snow falling in the area. An audible sigh can be heard from all the returning players.
Despite the optimistic weather report, signs of the upcoming winter season line the highway as cars are being pulled out of the ditch. One car has completely flipped over and is resting on its roof in the ditch on the other side of the road.
The final moments of the movie “The Holiday” are playing and at one time one of the actresses tells the cab driver to stop and turn around because she forgot something. On cue, Weiler turns to Abby Habein and says, “she must have forgotten her phone charger.”
One of the best characteristics a coach can possess is a sense of humor. Not only for others but also about himself. Weiler has this in “spades” as he is able to laugh at himself and others on the team. This helps to relieve the pressure the players will feel as they prepare for one of the biggest games of their lives.
The bus is on the outskirts of Eau Claire and to everyone’s relief snow is not in sight. The players are sitting in groups on the bus. Some sit with seatmates, others sit by themselves but are a part of a group in that area of the bus. A pair of freshmen that were rivals in high school but are now becoming close friends are seated together at the front of the bus. Susan Obermiller and Brittany Mayer are just one of the many groups of players that spend bus rides together. Most of the time the players sit in the same spots on the bus with the upperclassmen at the back of the bus and the “newbies”, as they are called, filling up seats at the front and in the middle.
Obermiller was a star player for Fargo North HS and Mayer was a standout at Bismarck Century HS. Before this year, they only knew of each other when their two teams would battle in the top games in North Dakota girls’ soccer. Now they are sitting side-by-side talking, laughing and carrying on like they had known each other since they were little. College athletics has a way of doing that. Players that were rivals in high school meet in college and up being friends for life, bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and play group partners when they start families of their own. That is one of the great things about college sports, they offer a chance to change one’s life by forming bonds with other people that would normally never get the chance.
The players are now starting to order lunch at the Quizno’s in Eau Claire. There is just a dusting of snow on the ground. Habien and fellow freshman Laura Frazier come into the restaurant with snow all over. They have officially begun winter by having the first snowball fight of the year. They are laughing and carrying on. Both players are from Billings, Mont. but went to rival high schools. Another set of lives united by college.
The good-natured ribbing has turned to freshman Beth Jacobs as the team waits for the food to arrive. Jacobs is accused of never being seen without a smile on her face. Assistant coach Matt Stucke offers that Beth has a smile on her face even when she is conditioning and does an impression of her running and smiling at the same time. Weiler prompts her to try and put on a sad face. She tries in vain but the best she can come up with is a small smile that doesn’t show any teeth. After a few more attempts, she gives up and flashes her pearly-white grin. As faults in life go, always having a smile on your face is at the bottom and Jacobs’ “light up the room” smile will serve her well as she goes on in life.
The team finishes eating as Stucke goes off on a walk to find directions to the hotel. He comes back with the directions and Weiler kids him that he earned his $9.20 paycheck for the day. Assistant coaches at the DIII level are the least paid, most overworked employees at any college. They usually have a full-time job outside of the college, have a family and get stuck with all the tedious jobs the head coach doesn’t have time to deal with. Stucke fits into this category perfectly. He works as a financial planner and has a wife and young daughter. He works hard during the day and then has to put up with Weiler once he gets to the field. Stucke is the perfect fit for Weiler’s high-energy, always on the go personality. He is laid back, can handle the times when head coaches need to “vent” on the assistant and not take it personally. In fact, as the bus pulls away from the restaurant, the two remark about Stucke’s ability to find directions with the comment “Amazing Race.” The two have talked about being a team on the TV show by the same name and seem to think they would be very successful. After pulling out 16 wins in 2007 after graduating six all-conference players from last season it would be hard to bet against the pair.
After checking into the hotel where the team will stay for the regional, the players are back on the bus heading to the field for their practice session. They will warm-up and stretch on a field a few blocks away from the game field and then get back on the bus and go to the field to put in their one-hour training session. In the NCAA Tournament, teams are allowed only one hour on the game field. The sessions are strictly enforced as far as time goes and other teams are not allowed anywhere in the area while the other team is practicing.
The players step onto the field dressed in sweat pants, sweatshirts and hats, gloves and headbands. It is a long way from the first days of the season when they had to battle the heat and humidity of August weather.
All the players have on Concordia practice gear except for Obermiller who is dressed like a Fargo High School misfit. She has on a Fargo South sweatshirt, Fargo North sweatpants and different color socks. She apparently forgot the little fact that the team would be practicing once they arrived. She gets teased from players and coaching staff alike. She takes it very well and starts to warm-up with the rest of the team. Her unflappable nature has helped her score 11 goals in her freshman season – second best on the team. She scored a goal in both the team’s conference playoff games and ultimately had the line of the championship game. Upon checking into the game in the middle of the second half after Concordia had just taken a 2-0 lead, she was asked if she was having fun. Most players when asked just smiled and said sure or had a faraway look in their eyes. Obermiller looked right back and said with extreme determination “I am now.” A perfect line from a player who is on a team that expects to win.
As the players begin stretching Weiler and Stucke play a game of who can hit the crossbar with the soccer ball. The two coaches are about 30 yards away from the goal so the chances are slim that either one will be successful. Both coaches come close. On one of the final attempts, Weiler goes to kick the ball and has his feet slide out from underneath him and falls flat on his back. The team erupts into laughter as Weiler lies on the ground on his back. He starts laughing as well and complains that he pulled a spleen. More laughter.
After stretching, the team gathers in a circle with feet touching to form one interlocking group. This is a routine at every practice. Weiler goes from comedian to coach and reminds the players why they are here and what there goals are. The team is not satisfied to just be in the tournament this year and the motto of “This Year We Keep Playing” is reinforced. He details what he wants to accomplish in the practice and then the group goes silent – the first time all day. The players have several moments of silence to reflect on what they need to accomplish in the practice. The silence is broken with a clapping rhythm and the team attitude goes from lighthearted to business-like in a flash. They now have the aura of a team that just one back-to-back regular season and playoff titles.
The team steps onto the practice field as their opponent in the first round, Carthage, is walking off the field. Not word is spoken as the teams pass, knowing full well that one team’s dreams will be dashed in less than 24 hours. It is a tough thing having your season ended so suddenly. But for now, both teams believe that they have what it takes to make it to the next round – only time will tell.
The one hour practice flies by quickly. They finish off the session by practicing penalty kicks. One of the most dramatic moments in any sport comes when the two teams are tied at the end of regulation and overtime and have to decide the game in penalty kicks. It is a tough time for the players as they can become the hero or the goat with one kick or save.
Weiler separates the top ten kickers into two teams of five and has them compete against each other. They take the kicks and then he asks anyone who wants to retake a kick to step up. A few players come forward looking for that one final affirmation that their shot is ready and they will feel confident if they are called upon.
During practice I stand at the end of the field and watch the team scrimmage. I am standing beside back-up goalie Ashley Liegakos as we watch the other goalie on the team Becky Shephers at the other end of the field. These two are good goalies but don’t get a lot of playing time in the games. They are a shining example of what being a “team” player is all about. Despite playing little, they are always at practice working hard, pushing their teammates to get better and never complain. It’s too bad fans only get to see the players that shine in the game. Those players get all the accolades and press while athletes like Liegakos and Shepherd go unnoticed. If there was any justice, they would be the ones that have stories written about and get put on the all-conference list. They are the true heroes of the team as they help the moral of the team by showing up to every practice and pushing everyone to get better.
I’ve always felt that star players can be replaced, but players that work hard in practice every day and never get to play in the game are few and far between. They are the players that sacrifice the good of themselves for the good of the team – a characteristic becoming increasingly rare in this day and age and a characteristic that Liegakos and Shepherd have a large amount of.
Practice is finally over and the team gets back on the bus. The worst part of being a coach has begun. Between now and the game, Weiler and his staff will not stop thinking about the upcoming game and trying to play every possible scenario in their heads. They have already begun the tactical torture by talking about the penalty kick lineup should the game get to that point. There is no clear-cut decision and it is left on Weiler’s shoulders to make the final decision – oh the joys of being the head coach!!
The team is now gathered in a meeting room in the hotel as they wait for dinner. The meal will be catered by the restaurant that is located in the building. The team is now joined by Concordia Athletic Director Dr. Larry Papenfuss and his son Luke. The two have made the trip for the playoffs. They went to the volleyball match on Thursday and are now in Eau Claire for the soccer game. Just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a department to put forth a successful team. Dr. Papenfuss has become one of the top AD’s in the conference as he helps all the Cobber teams get the most out of their program. He is extremely fair to all teams and, like his processor, Armin Pipho, can’t stand still while watching one of the Cobber teams play. He constantly moves around looking for a “lucky” spot that will help the team win. A former collegiate baseball player, he knows the need for a good superstition.
The meal is late in arriving so Weiler spurs on a game of charades. Players have to get up in front of the group and act out a movie, book, TV show or song. The person that gets the right answer then becomes the actor. The group is now back in their lighthearted move and the next 20 minutes are as funny as a professional comedians routine. Junior Megan Rice turns out to be the Queen of Charades as she dominates in getting the right answer. A couple of times she makes the right call just after the actor has given one hand gesture.
At one point Weiler asks the team how many have never played charades and several hands go up. Another case of the electrical age – more players acquainted with video games than with old-time party games.
Other highlights from the charade game come from senior Darcy Swagger and sophomore Vanessa Kowlaski. Swagger gives a hilarious demonstration of a look that describes the movie “Dumb and Dumber” and Kowalski draws laughter as she counts on her fingers how many words there are in a particular title.
Weiler ends the game by trying to act out “SpongeBob Squarepants.” End of story!
After dinner the team has a choice of either going to a concert at UW-Eau Claire or just hanging around the hotel. Weiler’s sister Brenda will be in concert at the college, an unbelievable coincidence. Most of the players have seen her live and are fans of the very talented sibling. About half elect to go to the concert.
The team will then meet in Weiler’s room at 9:30 p.m. to watch the game between Concordia and Carthage from last year.
Weiler, Stucke and Papenfuss head into the Games Committee meeting for the regional. It is a meeting to go over the procedure and itinerary for tomorrow’s games. In one of the more major decisions in the meeting it is decided that UW-Eau Claire will provide the warm-up tape for both games and that players on the bench must wear a practice vest to separate them from the bench personnel who are not in uniform. Who says getting to the national tournament is not all glamour.
The last players are filing out of Weiler’s room after watching the game tape. They are ready for the big day ahead. They are confident and ready for the game. It is a much different feeling from last year. Last year the team had a happy, “kid in a candy store” look as they prepared for the tournament game. Today you get the feeling that they are just getting ready for another game. It could be Hamline, St. Kates’ or Macalester.
The team is focused as they head off to their rooms.
Weiler is still awake as Stucke tries to nod off to sleep. Weiler is sitting at a desk staring at his computer going over game film. He represents the new age of coaches that download all games onto their laptops and can put together scouting tapes and highlight films at the drop of a hat. It is just another reason why he has quickly risen to the top of the profession. His attention to detail and knowledge of the game are second to none. He gives his team every chance to be successful. There will never be a game in which the players can say that our coach was outworked or didn’t prepare us as well. They will rarely, if ever, have a game in which the opposing coach out-coaches Weiler.
He is one of the top coaches in the conference and is fresh from receiving his second Coach of the Year award. It is a much-deserved award after he took a group of young players and molded them into a team that won the regular season and playoff championships. His passion for the game is evident to all those around and his drive to put the Cobber soccer programs on the national map is intense.
He is the perfect person to carry on the torch of Concordia soccer. It is with extreme pride that I get to see him coach the players on a daily basis. By the same token, the players are very blessed to have him as a coach and mentor. Eventually they will look back and realize what a gift they were given.
Today’s journal is done.
In the course of the next 48 hours their fate will unfold before them. Dreams will be alive or dashed away for another season.
Bring on the game.