"Yes, I thought it was going to be a difficult year due to the timing of Coach McGuire leaving. But I think we made as quick and as smooth of a transition as we could. Overall, I'm very, very pleased with the way the season has worked out. If you had asked me in August if I would have been pleased with the record that we have and the way that we have played, I would have jumped at the chance of having a 9-8-3 record at this stage. I think it has been a real positive for everybody."
Being a first-year head coach at MSU, how does it feel to get into the SEC Tournament?
"I am delighted for the girls. They have worked hard all year. They have been very, very consistent in their performances on a day-to-day basis and in games. They deserve the opportunity to go there. I take great joy out of seeing people reach their full potential. I don't take a tremendous amount of joy of wins and losses. I know that may sound strange, but I much more enjoy seeing the girls reach their potential, which they have done this year."
You face Vanderbilt your first game in the tournament. Are you going to prepare for them the same way you did the first time when you lost to them?
"No, I think we will be a little more defensive-minded. The first time we played them we played a 4-4-2. We gave them an extra player in the midfield. I felt like we could handle that. And we did for a period of time, then we lost a goal at a crucial time and we had to switch the system to get back in the game. When we play them on Thursday, we will match up. I think they'll play a 4-5-1 and I think we will play a 4-5-1. Then, we will see how things work out. I will definitely approach it in a slightly different way."
This year's seniors were freshmen when MSU went to the SEC Tournament for the first time. Since this is the second time that they have gone, are they helping the younger players prepare for the tournament?
"Definitely. We are very fortunate to have 6 very good seniors who understand what it takes to compete in the SEC and understands what it takes on a daily basis to compete. So, hopefully, they have shown the way to the young girls how to approach things. One of the biggest things I felt like I had to do was change the culture of training, change what we do on a day-to-day basis."
What are you referring to when you say you needed to change the culture of training?
"In the past, we broke training down to the defensive unit, the field unit and the strikers. My style of coaching is I have everybody on the field working together. Everything is done as a team. And the beginning can be messy. It takes time. It is difficult to control a whole squad of players at the same time. But when you get everybody on the same page and used to that style, you start to reap the benefits of it."
Your team really appeared to gel very quickly. Do you think having such good senior leadership played a significant part?
"Yeah, I think that was a big part of it. I have always said that the success of the program this year was going to be based on how quickly the girls were going to be willing to make change. And, all credit to them, they accepted that things were going to be different and embraced it. If they had decided not to do that, it would have been a long, hard year."
You earned a lot of big points this year at home and on the road. With the way the point system is set up, you can earn points even with a tie.
"It is three points for a win, one point for a tie and nothing for a loss. When you are on the road and you can earn any points, that is big. And I think we did a good job all year of picking up points when other teams were earning nothing from their games. We were always grabbing a point here or there. On the road, we did extremely well, particularly on Sundays. We were producing wins away from home in difficult places to get wins. That goes back to the character of the girls."
Emily Meyers won the SEC Defensive Player of the Week this week. That was a great honor for her.
"It was a great, great achievement for Emily. We converted Emily to a goal keeper last spring. For her to win that award was tremendous. She is thrilled about it. It goes back to her character for her to step up and do that. It is almost impossible for someone that late in life to change positions like that."
What are the chances that your team will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever?
"We have an opportunity. I'm new at this but I've talked to a few people who are in the know. They feel that we definitely have an opportunity with our strength of schedule. I think if we best Vanderbilt and go to the final four of the SEC Tournament, I think we will be in a great position to get a bid. If we struggle and don't get the win, I still think there is a slight window of opportunity for us."
You have six seniors, but you also have some very talented freshmen. Do you feel next year will be a rebuilding year or are you going to just reload?
"I think there will be a degree of rebuilding. There is no doubt about that. When you lose six players of the quality that we are going to lose, no matter how good the freshmen are, they are not going to be seasoned. They aren't going to have some of the things that seniors bring to the table. We have small junior and sophomore classes, so it's going to be a lot of freshmen."
Even though it will be mostly sophomores next year, they are a very talented group.
"The freshmen class this year is excellent. It is a good class. They all have things that they can bring to the table. There is only one or two that haven't played on a regular basis. Jessica Davis has been outstanding. (Stephanie) Dallas has done well in goals at times. Kevyn Shelledy, Jennifer Turpin and Brandi Parker have been outstanding. The two big surprises for me, two that I think have been incredible, have been Amy Beckwith and Danielle Smith. I wasn't sure if they would be able to contribute at all, but they have been very, very valuable players."
What are the qualities you look for in a soccer player?
"They have to be technically strong, so that they can handle the ball under pressure. You also have to look at their strength, athleticism and speed. Also, another big factor is their attitude and how they approach adversity."
What advice would you give to young players if they want to play on the next level, whether it be high school or college?
"One of the major problems in America with the youth is they don't get exposed to watching top class soccer. When I grew up in Scotland, we watched professional soccer players play twice a week. You then go out and try to emulate what you see. They don't really have that in the States yet. There is more and more access to it. It's coming. FoxSports does a great job of putting games on. So, I would say the biggest thing they can do is expose themselves to the highest level of soccer that they can, whether that be Division-I collegiate or the local junior college or even watching it on television. That is very, very important for kids' development. We see it more and more with the kids that we are recruiting right now. The ones who are real passionate about it and are the better players follow the European Leagues. We are going to get more involved here in the spring. My coaching staff, myself and the girls are going to get out among the little kids in Starkville and teach them the fundamentals."
Have you ever thought about putting together something like Rick's Rowdies or Fanning's Fanatics?
"I would encourage anyone to come out and support us in that way. The way we have done it is to try and get the youth organization involved. They have a cookout before the game and get the kids out, trying to make it a family atmosphere. We would love to have any kind of support from anybody. It makes a big difference."
Speaking of support, you had a great crowd at the Ole Miss game last Friday night. That had to help the girls.
"It was fantastic and very exciting to see. Anybody that is a competitor wants to play in front of a big crowd."
Mississippi State will return to action on Thursday evening when the fifth-seeded Bulldogs take on fourth-seeded Vanderbilt (6-6-5) in the opening round of the 2004 SEC Soccer Championship in Auburn, Ala. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Auburn Soccer Complex and tickets for the event can be purchased by calling the SEC Ticket Office at (800) 282-1957. The game can also be followed via a live stats link at the official MSU athletic site, MStateAthletics.com.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com (http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com), the source for Mississippi State sports on TheInsiders.com sports network on the internet. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.