Ducks Soccer: Victory starts out of the country and off the field

Up until now there has been a dark cloud hanging over the Oregon Ducks Womens Soccer program, and it hasn’t been the typical winter/spring rain cloud either. This has been much darker and nastier than the usual Eugene Cumulo-Nimbus that casts its consistent drizzle on the rain-soaked bowl in which Eugene rests.

The previous seasons were filled with sub-par finishes, and last season the Ducks won only three matches, with six losses.

Mired in mediocrity amidst a very difficult Pac-12, I was wondering if it was time for a personnel shake-up at Oregon, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. After all when a team under-performs in any sport, traditionally it’s the ones in charge that fall on the blade taking one for the team. But in reality the best thing that a team can do with feelings and suspicions like that is to bond together, closer, and prove the critics wrong…and they did.

If you didn’t know, Oregon finished up their spring season in May. The team that won only three matches last season went 6-2-1 this spring. How’s that for a turn around?

What’s more impressive, a couple of those victories came outside of the United States. Soccer is a sport still grabbing hold in this nation, but in nearly every other country it is far and away THE sport, a global obsession. Take college football, the NFL, major league baseball, and the NBA and combine them all into one; that’s the impact soccer has on an international scale.

It made sense then that if the team was going to get better, repetition against stiff competition was the ideal way to overcome the shortcomings exposed in the 2011 season. Spring soccer is much like spring football, a time for athletes to hone their skills and scrimmage often, preparing for the fall season to come.

The Ducks started off the spring slate by traveling to Costa Rica for a week. In addition to their scheduled matches, the players got an opportunity to work on numerous team building exercises. Some of those activities included taking a ziplining tour, dance competitions in a Costa Rican disco hall, and traveling to hot springs. The UO team was also exposed to culturally-diverse food and customs on their trip, an opportunity to get outside their comfort zones and gain a larger view of how the world functions.

Trips like these are what can turn a team around. For the past few seasons chemistry and team cohesion appeared to be the most prominent ingredient missing from this team, it showed in their play and their record as a result of the play.

With the soccer team’s trip to Costa Rica, Coach Tara Erickson took a play from the old Ernie Kent playbook. The 2005-2006 basketball team had a bad season, that’s all there is to it. They finished 15-18 and finished in seventh place in the Pac-10 Conference. It seemed impossible that a team with stars like Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston, Maarty Leunen and Bryce Taylor could have such a poor season, but it happened. By season’s end, what little chemistry the team had left could only been seen with a microscope.

Fast forward to the fall of 2006. After a shockingly poor campaign from a year ago, Coach Kent had to do SOMETHING to right the ship that was rapidly sinking. So, Coach Kent booked a pre-season trip…to Costa Rica.

The soccer team: More than just athletes.

When the Ducks returned to Eugene, Kent was asked what the point of the trip was. Kent said that it was a trip so that the team could bond and participate in team building exercises. It was targeted so that new, irrelevant (at the time), young freshmen like Jovan Catron and Tajuan Porter could learn and bond with the elder players.

As a result of the new-found harmony, the 2006-2007 Ducks basketball team went from 15-18 and seventh place, to 29-8 and finished third in the Pac-10. The Ducks went on to play in the NCAA Tournament where the newly found unity carried them past the first round over Miami of Ohio. The Ducks played Winthrop in the second round and won 75-61. They went on and defeated UNLV 76-72 in the Regional Semis. The Ducks would lose to the eventual NCAA Champion Florida Gators in the Regional Final. It was not a bad loss because Florida had current NBA players like Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Marreese Speights, and won only after nearly half of Oregon’s roster had fouled out of the game, the benefit of quick whistles on one end of the floor kept silent for much of the game when the Ducks had the ball on the other end. The Gators were outplayed that day by Oregon, a team that at the year’s start appeared to going nowhere fast.

That success was mimicked again under Coach Dana Altman, who credited the European tour he took the team on before last season as a key factor in Oregon’s basketball success this past year, overachieving to finish high in the Pac-12 standings and earn a spot in the NIT tournament, despite numerous players leaving the program. Maybe team unity and bonding plays a far greater role than who is the more talented team.

If anything is learned from UO’s frequent flier miles, it’s that Costa Rica loves Oregon athletes, and that a trip to Costa Rica can potentially work wonders for the 2012-2013 soccer program. With the six-win spring season, it’s already started. With the addition of new assistant coach Paul Karver and the help of assistant coach Mac Wilson, it was a good opportunity for the team to start over and learn from one another, putting the past in the past.

So far, mission accomplished.

Oregon was led this spring by All-Pac-12 performers Bri Pugh and Scout Libke. Pugh led all scorers with seven goals, while Libke recorded three.  In addition to the 10 goals notched by the duo of Pugh and Libke, eight other Ducks combined to tally 11 goals, giving the Ducks a total of 21 scores. Like international travel worked to unify the basketball team, so too is the trip to Costa Rica paying dividends. After coming back to the U.S., Oregon was equally successful, earning a 2-1 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis, avenging the 1-1 tie in this past season’s Civil War.

Though the Ducks are no longer in Costa Rica and their spring season officially over, Coach Erickson and the other members of the coaching staff are doing all they can to keep the team humble and motivated, and for the second time in the early soccer season, it is all happening off and away from the soccer fields in Eugene.

On May 11 the soccer program, along with other athletic programs, teamed up with the Boys and Girls Club of Emerald Valley to host the inaugural “O Heroes ‘O’lympics event.”The soccer team (along with athletes from other Duck teams) joined BGC members and community leaders, formed teams, and participated in events that encouraged the use of both intellectual and athletic abilities. The afternoon consisted of events that included a sign language competition, ping-pong matches, dance-offs, inflatable obstacle course challenges, puzzle contests and various sport-related skill games. O Heroes and BGC representatives from the winning ‘O’lympic teams got the rare opportunity to pie both the O Heroes program director Judy Sheldon and the BGC director, Adam Vozzola, upon their victory.

It is uncertain whether or not the effects of the Costa Rica team bonding had anything to do with the Ducks success in their spring season, but if we learned anything from the Ducks basketball team, it’s that a team building trip to Costa Rica can make the difference between a good season and a bad season. Perhaps if the international lessons learned are truly taken to heart, even a great, overachieving season to come.

Since the end of last year, the soccer coaching staff has been committed to getting back to basics and keeping the team focused. With spring season over, it looks like the coaches and the team have stuck to that message, going from the depths of failure to realization that it takes the whole team to win, now implementing that philosophy into game play.

The 3-6-2 team from a year ago seems to have cleared their first and biggest hurdle of a new season; playing like a cohesive unit. It will be fascinating to see how Oregon handles their second hurdle, the layoff between now and August 19th when they open their fall schedule at home against Alabama-Birmingham.

Can they hold that chemistry and motivation without playing for the next three months?

It’s spring in Oregon, the clouds have parted and that extra dark, angry storm cloud that has settled over the soccer program at Oregon is moving on and sunshine is breaking through. Oregon programs that are down don’t stay down for long, especially not in the wake of what has clearly been the most successful year for the Oregon athletic program in school history.

With the bad weather beginning to depart, the sun and the Ducks soccer program are beginning to peak at the right time.

Ducks Soccer: Athletes and Leaders

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