My Final Four Thoughts for the 2015 Season
With D3Soccer.com releasing its 2015 Men’s and Women’s All-America Teams, it seemed like the perfect time to close the season and the first run of Ryan’s Ruminations with some final thoughts.
(1) Congratulations to Amherst—Well Deserved. Let me put into perspective what Amherst was able to accomplish in 2015. Playing for a top-level program is a blast, but it comes with its own kind of pressure. You can’t take days off, because you get every team’s best shot. You know that you’ll be judged not just on this season but by comparison to great teams from years past. Now take that pressure, and double it, because your program has never won a national championship despite being the dominant team in the best conference in the country. You’ve had to watch other teams from your conference—teams you beat year in, year out in the regular season—win titles, and even rob you of the chance to do so. Add in the fact you’re loaded with talent and everyone is saying that this has to be your year. Then you have to try to win in the Final Four.
Now maybe I’m exaggerating this a bit, but in light of that I was just happy for the Lord Jeffs program. I spoke with Amherst head coach Justin Serpone beforehand, and I saw the reaction of the players and (especially) the alumni after the final, and it was easy to appreciate how much it meant and how much they’ve all invested in the program. For them to be able to get over the hump, to handle all of that pressure and come out the other end, that’s special. One of the best things about the great programs in Division III soccer is that you’re part of a family. So to see the alumni—the guys that came so close in 2012 and 2013 that Coach Serpone dedicated the NCAA tournament run to—be able to celebrate that championship with the 2015 Lord Jeffs makes you appreciate sports. Congratulations.
The sad part, the other side of the coin, is that three programs in a similar position fell just short. I could just as easily write the previous paragraph about Loras, who took one more step towards a much-deserved title by getting a first win at the Final Four. I could write it about Oneonta State, who (in my opinion) outplayed the national champions for long stretches and somehow went out despite not conceding a goal for the entire NCAA Tournament. And I could write it about Calvin, a program that’s reached three Final Fours in seven years without a title. But even though those teams are disappointed, I’m sure, I hope it only adds to their motivation, and that it makes it even sweeter for those teams and alumni when they finally win a championship.
(2) Cheers to a Great NCAA Tournament. n terms of pure competitiveness, the 2015 NCAA Tournament was about as good as they come. Once we hit the Elite Eight, every game was decided by one goal or penalties. There were no blowouts, no instances where you felt a team was robbed by luck (or the referee), and we got to watch entertaining games with great players and contrasting styles. Every round saw great games: Tufts outlasting Salisbury 2-1 in the first round; Calvin storming back to take out OWU in Round Two; Kenyon’s last-minute win over Tufts in the Sweet Sixteen; overtime winners for Amherst, Loras, and Oneonta State in the Elite Eight. And despite some of my reservations about the Final Four (which I’ll detail below), all three games were hotly contested and enthralling in their own way. So while I lamented the lack of a dominant team for much of the 2015 season, and dubbed it the season of parity, the best teams rose to the top, and we watched a fantastic NCAA tournament filled with evenly matched games. Here’s to another one in 2016.
(3) The Playing Style Debate Rages On. One thing 2015 proved is that you can win a national championship playing direct soccer. Loras and Amherst rarely build from the back, and both teams were devastatingly effective in the NCAA tournament. I’ll admit, however, that I’m not the biggest fan of the playing style that was on display in the national championship, and I chuckled when someone labeled it an “elite game of kickball.” Now, take what I have to say here with a grain of salt—every player and coach in Kansas City went farther in the NCAA tournament than I ever did—but the Final Four was not for the soccer purists out there. Don’t get me wrong, I thought all three games were hugely entertaining. Yet what frustrated me was not the kickball, but the times when Amherst and Loras did string a few passes together. Because when they chose to play on the floor, both teams were more than capable of doing so. And in my opinion, it’s one thing for teams that are unable to pass the ball to hoof it up field, but quite another for teams with obvious talent to insist on launching ball after aimless ball forward.
To their credit, the coaches of both teams were quite open about their philosophy. You play to your strengths (size and athleticism for Amherst, plus depth for Loras), limit mistakes in the back, and rely on your playmakers to win games. There is something to be said for that strategy, and everyone knows all too well how one defensive error can end your season. But I thought Amherst’s best stretches, especially when they were struggling against Oneonta, were when they changed things up and used that incredible athleticism and speed on the ground for a short stretch. Similarly, Loras was most impressive when they were able to use the high press to win the ball back and then either quick strike with a pass or combination or keep the ball. Having said all that, both teams have forged an identity and play to it, with great success. And one thing that I will concede is that playing direct lowers the probability of being upset in the early rounds.
The good news? My opinion means little, and if anything this season only encourages more debate about the best way to approach the Division III game. For the purists, you can take solace in the fact that most champions (Messiah, Tufts, Ohio Wesleyan) and runners up (Wheaton (Ill.), Ohio Northern, Calvin) in recent memory play on the floor. For others—and in particular Amherst and Loras fans—you can point to this season and say that the proof is in the pudding. That’s where Messiah’s dominant run was unique, because they combined the aesthetically pleasing, pass-and-move attacking play that purists love with the ability to play direct and win games like Amherst and Loras when necessary. I don’t think there’s necessarily a wrong answer here. As Coach Rothert of Loras rightfully pointed out, for 99% of players this is the end of true competitive soccer, so whatever system puts your team in the best position to win is (by definition) the best system.
(4) Thank You, and Looking Forward to 2016. I’d like to close with a nod towards next year and some words of thanks. First, my brief discussion of playing style is hopefully the precursor to a deeper look at tactics next season. Soccer is such an intricate game, and one of my main goals for next season is to discuss some of those intricacies and hopefully point out some things that you’ll be able to see when you go watch a game.
More importantly, I’d like to thank my editor, Christan Shirk, as well as Jim Matson, for the incredible work they do running D3Soccer.com. They have families and much greater responsibilities in life than I do, yet they still manage to contribute and operate this site at a top-notch level. The work they do behind the scenes is nothing short of amazing.
Finally, thank you to those of you who read this column. It represents the rambling thoughts of someone who put a lot of time and effort into the Division III game but was lucky enough to get much more out of it. I enjoy writing, I love soccer, and I appreciate the opportunity to get to do both in a way that (I hope) reflects well on the Division III soccer community and the players and coaches that make it worthwhile. Until next year.
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.