Even higher heights for Tech soccer/Michael Bleach
Two weeks ago I took this space to deliver some much-needed praise for the job coach Michelle Jacob and the Michigan Tech women’s soccer team had performed, transforming from program inception to GLIAC conference champion in a mere three years.
It looks liked I timed the run wrong.
The soccer team broke new barriers once again Monday night, earning its first berth in the NCAA Tournament, drawing the sixth and final seed in the Midwest region and a date with Wisconsin-Parkside.
“I’m fan-freaking-tastic,” Jacob said Monday night. “The team just went crazy when our name popped up.”
It is another accolade for Jacob and the Huskies in a rise that can only be described as meteoric.
Lest you think the NCAA hands out postseason spots like the dentist mails out reminders after Halloween, bear in mind that the men’s basketball team just spent eight seasons in between NCAA appearances until last year’s run. The volleyball team is on a four-year drought and the hockey team is looking to snap a 33-season streak.
Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is – to borrow Jacob’s word – really freaking hard.
In fact, Jacob, as optimistic and buoyant a coach as you will find, hedged her answer when I asked if she thought four years ago it would be possible to go from creation to NCAA Tournament in just four years?
“Do you ever think it will happen? You hope, but you don’t know until it does,” Jacob said.
So how did it happen?
Two weeks ago I examined the difficulties of building a winning soccer program in Houghton, Mich. – fairly extreme given the location, lack of local varsity soccer and, you know, October snowfalls.
I put that query to Jacob.
What did she say to the first ever recruiting class to earn a commitment? How did she convince a recruit that a program with (literally) zero history was a better choice than say, Wisconsin-Parkside?
“I just told them that our vision is to play for a national championship,” Jacob said. “That is what we are willing to work for. If you want to work too, than come to Tech, and let’s do that work together.”
The results were immediate.
In its first season, Tech won seven of 17 games, an outstanding mark considering the team was nearly solely freshmen.
The early victories made recruiting easier, paving the way for obvious talents like Lexi Herrewig, Jacqueline Mielke and Emily Morin to consider the Huskies where a dismal first couple of seasons may have sabotaged future recruiting efforts.
“(Assistant coach) Chuck (Coan) and I aren’t real patient people,” Jacob said with a laugh. “So we wanted to work as hard as we could to (win) as soon as possible. I give a lot of credit to our (now) seniors winning seven games the first year. That gave us the courage and determination to say ‘we can do this.’ If we lost all our games first season, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
The step from seven-win seasons the first two years to conference champs, then NCAA qualifiers the next two, comes down to an aggressive tactical decision
Jacob made, forgoing the Route 1, direct, long-ball style of attacking in favor of a more intricate 4-3-3 system.
If you are not a soccer follower, allow me a moment to explain.
In a game with such few goals that requires a high degree of technical skill and buildup to even have a chance on net, the temptation to play conservatively is as high as it gets. Defending with nine or 10 players behind the ball – parking the bus, to use the idiom – may not look pretty, but it can salvage draws or nick a ‘W’ here or there with much less effort.
Jacob displayed the boldness that marks superior coaches, however, and eschewed that strategy completely by her third season.
Only Grand Valley – undefeated and the No. 1 team in the nation – can match Tech in the GLIAC in terms of aggressiveness both pressing the ball and throwing players forward to try and score.
It sounds obvious on newsprint, but the decision to play for the win each and every time is not one many soccer coaches are comfortable with.
“I would tell you that most of our players are very humble. I don’t think a lot of them even realize how good they can be,” Jacob said. “Our job is to bring that out of them.”
The Huskies fell to Parkside 5-1 in the second game of this season, presenting a tough challenge in the first round Friday.
Win or lose, the season has been a remarkable success for Tech.
But at this point, who’s counting them out?