Last summer, while celebrating 100 years of athletics at St. Thomas, I took an in-depth look at the history of the men’s soccer program. The all-conference honorees, the individual and team records, the conference championships in 1977, ’78, ’85, ’87, ’91 and ’95, and the winning series records against all 10 MIAC conference schools created a sense of pride.
My pride was enhanced when the 100-Year -Anniversary Committee compiled great historical moments in the athletic program’s rich history and highlighted national championships that exemplified the overall success of Tommie athletics. As I reflected on these accomplishments, I could not help but realize the pressure indirectly placed upon the men’s soccer program. As my assistants, Youssef Darbaki and Brad Wildman, helped me prepare for the 2003 season, our pride in our university propelled us to plan harder. We did not want to be the team that failed to meet expectations while the spotlight was shining brightly. Would we have what it takes?
In 1997, our program suffered its first losing season and the beginning of a four-year awakening period. Times had changed in our conference, and an increased emphasis on recruiting, full-time coaches and program development had exposed our shortcomings in those areas. Coach Denzil Lue, a longtime friend, mentor and coach of mine, was working full time off campus and struggled to find adequate time to recruit aggressively and develop the many components of the program.
In 2002, I was awarded the interim head coaching position, thanks to the friendship of Lue and the support of Steve Fritz, athletic director, and JoAnn Andregg, associate director. With an excited group of players, aggressive recruiting and engaged alumni, we began to develop the program. These efforts resulted in our best record since 1995 (we went 10-4-3 in 2002) and a newfound optimism.
It appeared this momentum left us well prepared for the next season. However, as my father always tells me, “Sports are a funny thing. You just never know.” Here’s what happened in 2003.
Mike Heitzman, our junior captain, walks into my office with a depressed and almost ashamed look on his face. After rehabilitating his right knee all off-season, last week he tore the ACL in his left knee in a game in which he should not have been playing. Senior captains Matt Raplinger and Kyle Hale followed that day with, “I can’t believe it.” Mike is our vocal and emotional team leader. How are we going to replace him?
As I approach the breezeway at 6:45 a.m., the scared faces of the freshmen mask their sleepless night. Even the returnees look unsure about the future awaiting them. We have only 12 returning players and 39 new faces competing for 25 roster positions.
Our first day begins with conditioning and speed testing. As is the case in most years, two players find themselves staring at last night’s dinner alongside the track inside O’Shaughnessy Stadium. Others complain of cramping or old summer injuries suddenly returning. The weeding-out process has begun.
Today is the last day of tryouts and judgment day for the remaining 40 players. After a week of exhaustive running, ritualistic overs-and-unders, and me screaming, “It’s a sprint not a jog,” 15 players are about to be told it was for nothing. Sports psychologists would say that giving 100 percent is most important. Try telling that to an 18-to-21-year-old who just gave everything he could twice a day for an entire week, and will spend the next week alone in his room waiting for classes to begin.
This is the worst time of year for me. It takes two sleepless nights to get over the cutting of a freshman that I got to know personally through the recruiting process, or the cutting of a senior who could not improve enough to warrant the taking of a position from an underclassman. Do not get me wrong; college is the time and place to learn these realities, but I do not feel any better as the teacher.
In addition, my 10-month-old son, Dylan, refuses to sleep through the night; my dissertation chair, Dr. Bob Brown, says “We need to get you out of here by December;” my wife, Sarah, reminds me of the boxes that need unpacking from our move last week; and my job in Campus Life needs 40-plus hours a week.
The day starts at 9 a.m. with preparation for our annual alumni game and momentous 100-Year-Celebration Event. Over 200 people attend and our varsity team defeats our alumni 3-1. Many new faces attend this year as Steve Fritz, Greg Hendricks and Ted Riverso give a presentation on the 100-Year-Celebration and discuss the re-engaging of alumni. It’s a great day!
We do not play exceptionally well in our season opener on Saturday, but some young players get quality playing time. Today is extremely hot, and as the heat index climbs so does my blood pressure. It is only the second game of the season and we lose 2-3 to Carroll College. On top of several injuries and dehydration, we lack enthusiasm, leadership and pride. I tell the team after the game that they do not deserve to wear the St. Thomas uniform and I should scour the residence halls to find 25 replacements. Players are to let me know at practice on Tuesday if they want to finish the season as Tommies.
As I reflect on my comments, I realize my words might have been unfair and harsh. I also realize, however, that I need to make it clear to this new team that mediocrity is not accepted here.
Two losses in Colorado teach us a great deal about playing at the next level and about our dire need for team leadership. With 25 players crowded into a motel room, we have our first heart-to-heart meeting. Several players discuss their shortcomings and promise to improve. Others offer to take on a greater responsibility in leading. Despite the losses, things seem to be coming together. A 3-1 conference-opening win against Carleton reinforces this.
Tonight is Macalester, the powerhouse of MIAC soccer, with their international student profile. The guys fight hard under the lights of Macalester stadium, but we fall 0-1. Although the disappointment is evident, I see a confident look on their faces for the first time this season.
The 45-minute bus ride home from St. Olaf seems like an eternity. A controversial goal, an early red card in the second half by a player struggling to control his emotions, and several defensive mistakes result in a 1-3 defeat. On the ride home I make a difficult decision to bench that player for three games. The confidence gained from Macalester is gone.
It rains for 90 minutes during our game today at St. John’s, bringing back horrible memories of our rain-soaked overtime loss in 2001. This year is different as the team steps up its game and plays with passion and fire. Matt Raplinger scores two goals, including the game winner in the final two minutes of play, to give us a 2-1 victory. The electricity on the bus is amazing because this is the first year of conference playoffs. We felt like we were back in the race again.
Today the 90-minute cold rain hovers over St. Thomas as we host Gustavus. They come into this game as the hottest team in the conference and I do not feel prepared. Despite an eight game winning streak, I am not entirely satisfied with our play. We still suffer from immaturity, personality conflicts, not enough leadership, and the lack of a confident starting lineup.
My feeling about the game proves correct as Gustavus jumps all over us early en route to a 3-0 win. After the game I do some deep soul searching. Did I give my best coaching to this team? As I reflect, I realize my efforts are spread thin over 40 hours in Campus Life, 10 hours writing a dissertation, 30 hours coaching, plus caring for my family. The balance in my life is not healthy. Even writing this diary is cut short, as I need to prepare for the defense of my dissertation at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
The message going into our last game is to have fun. The seniors, Orin Kipp, Joe Roedler, Kyle Hale and Matt Raplinger, are introduced for the final time. We need help from Concordia or Carleton in order for us to make the conference playoffs.
We do not play particularly well today but manage a 1-0 win over Bethel to finish 7-3 in conference and 12-6 overall for our strongest finish in eight years. Immediately after the game we receive word that St. John’s defeated Concordia 2-1. With no word on the Carleton vs. St. Olaf game, we leave the field assuming the worst and plan for a final team meeting on Monday.
During dinner I tell my family that I feel I let the team down and we have let the athletic program down. Could we have done more? Within minutes of our returning home, Brad Wildman calls and in a shaky voice says, “Carleton did it.” Minutes after that, Mike Heitzman calls and says, “Coach, we’re in.” Every coach would rather control his or her own destiny, but the feeling of making playoffs even this way is no less sweet.
After two days of strong practices and a refocused coaching effort, the day has come. The temperature is 20 degrees with a strong wind from the north blowing across Macalester Stadium at 7:30 p.m. The guys look confident and want desperately to make the issues we encountered all season go away with this one victory. We put our best foot forward, but cannot get past the conference champions.
I shook hands with each player as he comes off the field and congratulate everyone on a well-fought effort. I exchange hugs with Matt Raplinger and Kyle Hale as their eyes well up with tears. The realization of never again putting on the Tommie uniform hits them; they will be greatly missed.
Today is an emotionally strange day for me. I want to mourn our loss and prepare a sophisticated message for our final team meeting, but life’s responsibilities don’t give me the time. At the evening meeting, after the players vote for team awards and fill out internal coaching evaluations, I speak off the cuff. I apologize for not being able to communicate one-to-one with many of them or not finding adequate playing opportunities for others. I admit I also struggled to develop a core group of premier players to lead the team.
Despite making playoffs, developing many young players and regaining respect in the conference, the team feels unsatisfied. Some players are unhappy with coaching decisions and coaches are frustrated with some players not playing to their potential. The team had what it took this season to improve upon years past, but did not have what it took to satisfy the needs of the program. The planning is under way for next year and the expectations are already building.
So the question is asked again, will we have what it takes?
Aaron Macke ’97, ’99 M.B.A., ’03 Ed.D., is men’s soccer coach and coordinator of student involvement and retention in Campus Life.