So what does it take to get on a roll at the end of a season?
The baseball team wasn't hitting on all cylinders during the early going. They had some key injuries, and shifted players into different spots. We shuffled chairs, Coach Mike Gaski says, and hoped it wasn't on the Titanic.
But one day in March, he recalls, as weather was warming up, they were doing their super-Spartan drills to hone fundamentals and teamwork.
The team collectively had an epiphany that afternoon, he says. Holy smokes! We can do this.
And they got on a roll.
During their last 16 games, they won 15, finishing only one game out of first place.
They saw they could score in lots of ways from second and third, Gaski explains. Tagging up, balk, passed ball, base hit, suicide squeeze ... They started all happening.
They trusted each other. They trusted what the coaches were teaching. They'd worked hard on fundamentals. And they believed.
Gaski was named SoCon coach of the year. Trevor Edwards was first team All-SoCon, as was pitcher Warren Slack. Pitcher Brandon Browne was named All-Freshman. The team finished the regular season ranked 16th nationally among mid-major programs.
During that stretch, Gaski says, if the score was close in the seventh inning, they believed they'd find a way to win. The one game that they lost shocked the players.
It was hard work and positive thinking.
Men's soccer went on a nine game unbeaten streak at the end of last year to claim a share of the SoCon regular season title and win the SoCon tournament.
To win the championship, you need to be lucky, says Coach Justin Maullin. For example, as the regular season drew to a close, they needed several scenarios to occur for them to be the top seed. One was that Appalachian State had to tie College of Charleston, he explains. A win by either win would ruin their chance. Appalachian State was down by two with minutes to go, but tied it.
You need luck, he says. But hard work brings luck.
During the streak, he didn't do anything differently. Just like always, every player got a ranking at their regeneration session the morning after the game. They would have 30 minutes of reviewing film, then they'd go out and do their training. At the film analysis, each player got a multi-page analysis of their team's play and their individual play, which is rated on a 1-10 scale.
I always knew we had a good team, he explains. We beat some very good teams early in the season. William & Mary was as high as No. 3 in the RPI ratings, he recalls. Charlotte was 21st in the country. Navy was the last undefeated team in the country. They defeated each of them in the early season. But they lost to Elon in double OT in the early SoCon season. Then, they got on a roll.
Maullin was named SoCon coach of the year. Hakan Ilhan and Kris Byrd earned first-team All-SoCon honors.
He says fans this year can expect attack-minded soccer within a defensive framework, with a group of players that play together.
Last year, they were picked sixth preseason. This year, as defending champion, I don't think we'll sneak up on anybody.
Steve Nugent came aboard in February. You may have seen him and his family bonding with the players at UNCG baseball games and other events. He brings two decades of coaching experience, most recently as assistant coach at Georgia, as he prepares for his first head coaching season.
After the fourth straight year as SoCon regular season champion, Coach Eddie Radwanski accepted an offer in December to be head coach at Clemson. Nugent joined in February. He spoke to UNCG Magazine this summer about his coaching style and influences, what he told the players in those first meetings, and the upcoming season.
When he knew he wanted a career in coaching I think, when I was growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to do was coach and teach. That was my plan. It was my plan I think at like 14 or 15 years old. Didn't want to be a banker. Didn't want to go to Wall Street. Didn't want to be a fireman. I wanted to be a coach and a teacher.
An influential coach There was a coach that I had, his name was Gary Harris, when I was a teenager … at the Boys and Girls club at North Lauderdale, Florida, and he was our PE director. He was more than just a coach. He was a mentor. He was an incredible example of a great father, good family man, very nurturing personality. … [At our boys' club] he was managing a lot of different personalities and energy levels and things like that. But he really instilled in me a lot of the qualities that I have today and I think the most important quality is that you have to love what you do.
From traffic-cop-style coach to a life coach I got to meet some really cool people in soccer at an early age who mentored me. The first name that comes to mind is Jim Blankenship. He is the head women's soccer coach at Florida Gulf Coast University down in Fort Myers. And in 1990, I was just this loud, obnoxious, in-your-face 19 year old that wanted to coach soccer really bad. And he was the leader of our local club. He was the head women's soccer coach at Lynn University, winning national championships, and I wanted to be like him. And he brought me in. He really opened up the gate, if you will, to allow me to develop as a coach, develop my own sort of style and there were times where he had to reel me in, you know, because I was very much a traffic-cop-type coach when I first started. You know, Run here! Do this! Be this! up and down the sideline. But I think the one thing he was, was patient with me. And he brought me along. And if I didn't have that in the beginning, as a coach, if I didn't have that environment, I don't know if I'd be doing what I'm doing today.
On first few days at UNCG, after succeeding Coach Eddie Radwanski I had an advantage. You know, Eddie and I had been friends for 15 years. I knew a lot of the players that were recruited to come here. On the road recruiting, Eddie and I would stay together an awful lot. He would stay at my home down in South Florida when he would come down to recruit, so I had very intimate knowledge of what was happening here from a soccer perspective. I also knew how things operated. You know, we were friends. We talked about what we did in our professional lives. So I had a bit of an advantage, in the sense that I had an idea for structure. You still have to learn who the personalities are, and you still have to get to know them. The most important piece of that isn't so much what you are finding out in that Q&A [the first meeting with players], it's what they are finding out about you. And what your philosophy is going to be, and how you are going to handle certain situations, and what your expectations are as a coach. I think, you know, my goal my number one goal was to take that pressure away from the players. I didn't want them to fear the unknown. So what I do, and again every coach is different, but for me it was really important to lay the foundation about who I was. So, we didn't talk a lot about soccer in those individual meetings. We talked a lot about who you are, and why you love it here, and why you came here, and tell me something special about a teammate that you have. … It was more about them and us figuring out who we are. And I think that has a lot to do with my philosophy as a coach. I very much coach the person first. You know, I've been accused of being more of a life coach than a soccer coach sometimes. And I'm okay with that, I really am.
On a non-conference schedule that includes soccer powers Tennessee, Georgia, Carolina and Duke And Wake and Virginia Tech, and by the way East Carolina and George Mason. I think we have arguably one of the toughest schedules in the country. Conference is always going to be difficult. Especially in our conference because we know that there is an automatic bid for the champion for the conference to go (to the NCAA). … Our girls very much want to defend the Southern Conference [title]. That's very important to them. You know, out-of-conference is important, but that Southern Conference title is incredibly important to our players.
On engagement with local community We really value the interaction within the community from a soccer perspective. We think that the youth game is a critical component to the success of any college team. I will just take my experience at Georgia: Our interaction with the local clubs, with the surrounding clubs within a 30-40 mile radius of the University of Georgia, bringing them in to the game day sort of idea. They come and they do tours. They play on the field and things like that. That's an important element to the success of any program. I think that we have reached out to the local clubs to do clinics, to be a part of their staff. We are going to start a program in the local elementary schools it's a reading program. … We are going to get involved in Habitat for Humanity. … And The Give N Go Project [in Haiti] is something that's very special to me because it was started by a former player that I coached from the time she was about nine. [See Rob Daniels' story on Athletics web site.] And that's something that we are going to be involved with as a team too, indirectly. In collecting equipment that we can pass on to Amber, so that she can get it to the people who need it.
The team's mantra I can tell you that we have a mantra here with our team and it's called Make 'em hate it. I actually stole that from a former coaching friend of mine, Dan. And when we start a game, our goal for 90 minutes is to make them hate it. And we are going to do everything we can within playing good soccer too at the same time. We are not going to be a bunch of bullies … You know, we are going to play good soccer. We are going to keep the ball on the floor. We are going to play to our strengths. We are going to make sure that we defend efficiently.
On the prospects for the team's players this fall I have my hopes, but I tell you what I told the players when they left here almost a month ago: everyone has a clean slate. Here are the expectations for the preseason. There are no starters. Every one of you has a fair chance to compete. And we tell that not only to the players that are here, but we tell that to every recruit that comes on this campus, that you'll get no promises from us as a coaching staff other than the fact that you will have a chance to compete. And if you are physically and mentally prepared, then you will have a better chance to see time on the field. … And our expectations are very high for every player. Not ten or twelve or fifteen, but our expectations are high for every player for this.
Honoring past players I'm excited about the alumni coming back. I'm excited about honoring them, and that being a big part of the season too … At the home games this year we are going to bring back an alumnus from years past. We are going to try to go deep. We are trying late '80s early '90s … and Brandy Gagliano, you're out there, so I know you will be getting a phone call. She is actually a club coach up in Tennessee, coaching at a very high level, that played here in the early '90s. So we really want to get people back into it.
Wearing an X on your backs We have a tough schedule. Incredibly difficult out-of-conference schedule. Incredibly difficult conference schedule, defending our title. The X on our back is as big as anybody's in our conference. So it's important that the players prepare knowing that. And I think we're going to see some special things in the fall.