Interview: Iain Byrne, Oneonta St. head coach
D3soccer.com had the opportunity to interview the coaches of the four men’s teams that have advanced to the Final Four in Kansas City this weekend. Iain Byrne, head coach at Oneonta State, spoke with Ryan Harmanis about the Red Dragons’ program, season, and success.
|Iain Bryne - 12-year head coach of Oneonta St., the
lone remaining undefeated team
SUNY Oneonta Athletics
Ryan Harmanis: Coach Byrne, congratulations on reaching another Final Four. First, can you discuss the last few games? You had that great comeback against Franklin & Marshall, then you really played a complete game against Brandeis. What was the key to those matches?
Coach Iain Byrne: We could have been three up [against F&M in the Sweet 16] after twenty minutes. We had breakaways and good chances, but the field was kind of icy. It was difficult to get your balance, but I thought we were the better team on the day.
Then [against Brandeis in the Elite 8] the field kind of melted and softened up. The field against F&M was very hard and icy, so it was tough to get your balance and strike the ball. It just impacted the guys’ finishing ability and made it difficult. The second day, you could dig into the ground a bit, and it was just easier to shoot and score goals. I wouldn’t say necessarily easier to score, but just to play.
RH: You are coaching the only undefeated team left in the country. Does that have any effect on your players? Or is it irrelevant now because for it’s win or go home for everyone, and the stakes are the same?
Coach Byrne: Yea, I think once you get to the knockout stages it becomes irrelevant, because you know it’s one game at a time: you lose and the season’s over. We’ll look back at the end of the year and say “Hey, that was a great run,” but right now we’re just focusing on the weekend.
RH: Oneonta State had never participated in the Division III NCAA tournament before 2011, and now you’ve reached your second Final Four in four seasons. How were you able to get your program over the hump and to this point? And what will be the key going forward?
Coach Byrne: We felt that in 2010 we should have made the tournament; we were a good team that year. I think the disappointment from 2010 is what carried over to 2011, and we actually recognized that we were a good side and we had a lot of confidence going into that 2011 season. Once you have success, Oneonta is a great college town, the academics are fantastic, the cost is really reasonable as a state school, and our soccer facilities can compare to any Division I program in the country. So once the recruits come up and they see you’re having success, it’s a fantastic college, and then they look at the soccer setup, it sells itself. So you just keep going with the recruiting and the production line.
RH: It seems like this year’s team is much different from the 2011 Final Four team. That team scored goals for fun, whereas this team seems to be very solid defensively. Can you discuss some differences between the 2011 squad and your current team?
Coach Byrne: You’re answering the questions for me, but yes, there’s more balance in this team. We spoke about, at the beginning of the year, for once focusing on clean sheets. Where before we were always about attacking and scoring more goals, we spoke about a balance this year, and we’ve definitely got that. The back four have been together for a little while now, and that always helps, the chemistry there at the back. And the midfield has done a good job helping out, screening the back four. I think all the way around the difference is that this team has a defensive component.
RH: And it’s definitely shown, as your defense has only given up two goals in its last 830 minutes of play. Can you talk a little about team defending? Obviously the back four has been great, and Vincent Pellegrino [in goal] saves 90% of the shots he faces, but how much of an emphasis do you put on your attacking players to also contribute defensively?
Coach Byrne: We defend from the front. We tell the forwards that if you want good service from the back, you need to help them by defending from the front. It all falls into your team shape. You try to defend and attack as a team, and I think you work on the training ground to get the positioning right. I think the biggest key is that this team really gets along and likes each other; it’s the closest group we’ve had. And that spills over into when you’re out on the field, and you need to do the hard, dirty work, the running and defending. Everybody is chipping in and doing their share.
RH: You’ve described your team as possession oriented, with an emphasis on pace and technique. How do you find the right mix of possession and attacking play? In the NCAA tournament you often see teams that play that way unable to break tight defenses down. Do you have a Plan B, or is it more just trusting in the system to work?
Coach Byrne: We stick with what we do—our style of play and our players—we don’t really have that direct component to our game. We show signs of it at times, but our focus is on passing the ball, keeping possession, and attacking in numbers. It’s very similar to Wheaton from what I hear. They’re great attacking, going forward, and they try to build the game up and create chances. We like attacking players and playing on the ground, playing the game the way we believe it’s supposed to be played.
RH: On the topic of attacking players, you start two productive juniors (Jake Sutherland and Dylan Williams, 19g, 10a combined), but you bring your leading scorer in freshman Cory Santangelo on as a substitute. How is that dynamic between the forwards? Has Cory just embraced his “super-sub” role, and how much of a luxury is it to get that kind of production from your bench?
Coach Byrne: Cory has actually started quite a lot of games for us this year. We were just kind of rotating starts, but once you hit the tournament it sticks. He [Cory] could start tomorrow and be just as effective as Hans [Purtell, 8g, 4a], or Dylan or Jake, they’re really interchangeable. They’re all very unselfish—it’s actually a little strange. This team likes to share the praise; nobody is in it for themselves. If passing is a better option, then they’ll do that rather than trying to shoot and get the glory.
They’re all quite modest and humble, which is nice, and Cory fits right into that role. He’s a tremendous young player, and he’s all set to have a great career here if he can keep this going. His mindset is scoring goals, he enjoys it, that’s the one part of the game he enjoys the most. Whereas the others, maybe they enjoy building the attack as much as scoring, scoring goals is kind of his focus.
RH: Looking more toward the Final Four, your last road game was on October 21st, so it will have been over six weeks since you played a game away from home. How are you preparing your players to get back into a travel routine instead of the comfortable home environment?
Coach Byrne: We do have a routine, but it kind of changes at the Final Four because you have other commitments. Obviously you’re flying, so you’re not busing to an area you’ve been before. It’s all going to be a little new to us, but we’re trying to keep it as routine as possible, to turn it into just another away trip. We do double-headers in conference, so we’re prepared for that part of it, but we’ll just use the normal routine when we’re on the road as much as possible.
RH: You’re facing a red-hot Wheaton team that plays physical and fast. What do you see as Wheaton’s biggest team strength, and how do you think the game will play out?
Coach Byrne: I think it’s going to be similar to us and Brandeis, two teams that like to get the ball on the ground and attack and pass, and it should be great to watch. They sound very scary, from the couple coaches I’ve spoken to. It looks like arguably our best game. I’m being told they’re as good as Messiah, and that says it all, doesn’t it?
We’re just going to go and try to play our normal game, and our goal is always to try to outplay the other team. If we’re good enough this weekend, then hopefully we’ll do that and win. If not, then it sounds like Wheaton is arguably the best team left.
RH: In 2011, your team took an early lead in the semifinal against Calvin before eventually fading [and losing 4-2]. Did you learn anything from that experience that will help this weekend?
Coach Byrne: The most difficult part of that 2011 weekend was that we played the fourth semifinal at 7:30 at night, and we’d played day games the entire month before that. So trying to kill that day, and waiting around, we were just never comfortable going into the game. It had no bearing on the result, but we’re just happy that we’re playing the first game at 11:00 on Friday, because we can stick to our normal routine. We’re up, breakfast, and then we go and play.
Just as coaches, we were there, and we have four or five players left over from the team that were there. We have an idea of what to expect this time and how we’re going to approach it. We’re excited to be back and hopefully we can go one step better this time.
RH: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight, players or people who have contributed to your team’s success?
Coach Byrne: We’ve been lucky at home. We’ve had some great, boisterous crowds behind us; the town and the students have got behind the team and been great. We’ll have some traveling fans, but we’ve had crowds in the thousands, and that’s something we’re going to miss when we’re down there.
RH: Finally, if you had to pick one thing your team needs to do well this weekend to be successful, what would it be?
Coach Byrne: I think it would be to have a good Midwestern barbecue at a top Kansas City steakhouse the night before the game. Really, we’re just going to need our best game to have a chance. We need to bring our best performance of the season, and if we can do that, then we’ll have a shot.
Oneonta State (21-0-2) takes on Wheaton (Ill.) (21-3-0) in the first NCAA Men’s Semifinal at 11:00 AM (CST) on Friday, December 5th