Interview: Dr. Jay Martin, Ohio wesleyan 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. Ryan Harmanis spoke with Dr. Jay Martin, his former coach, about changing Ohio Wesleyan’s style of play, the mental side of soccer, and how his team overcame adversity to reach the Final Four.
|Dr. Jay Martin - Ohio Wesleyan coach and winningest
men's college soccer coach ever.
OWU Men's Soccer
Ryan Harmanis: Jay, congratulations on another Final Four. How did you manage to get here? Three overtime games, two shootouts, crazy weather [in previous rounds]. What’s the secret?
Coach Dr. Jay Martin: We had that bad patch with Otterbein [L, 4-1], Capital [L, 2-1], tying Centre [1-1]. We work on the mental side of the game a lot, and I think the guys were just giving it lip service until that week. Then they figured out what we had to do; it took that slump to get us where we are now. Those teams beat us straight up, but it was a low point for the team. I think we became mentally steeled, and that helped us the past few weeks.
RH: Ohio Wesleyan has a tendency to play to the level of competition in the NCAA tournament. Getting through the first game is really tough, but your teams player better against better competition. What is it about playing great teams that brings out the best in Ohio Wesleyan?
Coach Martin: That’s a good question, and it’s one I’ve been trying to answer for 20 years. The fact of the matter is, to sell the concept to a team every year that we get everybody’s best game, it’s very difficult for them to understand. Before that last Kenyon game [in the Sweet 16], I didn’t say one word for three days, because I didn’t have to. I could tell the guys were ready to play. But you play other teams, and we just don’t believe we’re going to get everyone’s best game until it happens. Then you go, “Wait a minute, what just happened?” I think this team had something to prove in regards to the last two years—very disappointing NCAA efforts with teams that should have gone farther than they did. I think there are a number of factors; plus, we have good players, let’s not forget that.
RH: Speaking of that, based on the regular season this team didn’t appear as strong as recent teams. In 2009 you only gave up 2 goals all season, in 2010 you reached the Elite 8, and last year you went undefeated. How did this team reach the Final Four when the others fell short?
Coach Martin: It was too easy for the other teams, and it wasn’t easy for this team. They’ve had to fight for every single game. The teams the last couple of years, it was too easy. Having the expectation to step on the field and win is fantastic, we took care of the regular season, but we just thought the NCAA tournament was the same, and it’s not. Winning that first game is so important, and it’s all about attitude and expectation. Nothing came easy to the current team, they’ve had to work for everything, and over the last four months it’s been a good lesson for these guys.
RH: This team is very different from your 2011 title team, but one common denominator is a National Player of the Year candidate. Can you discuss the evolution of Colton Bloecher [18g, 4a], going from a cog on the 2011 team to the driving force on this year’s squad?
Coach Martin: If you look at all four teams [in the Final Four], they have a go-to guy, or they wouldn’t be there. That’s one thing that separates great teams from good teams. We had a go-to guy with Travis [Wall, 2011 National Player of the Year], now we have a go-to guy with Colton. Last year, Colton was a junior, and he was great, First Team All-American, but for all intensive purposes he was a role player. And in American colleges, we sit around and wait for seniors to do their thing. It’s how it is; I told Colton a million times last year that he had to step up, and he couldn’t because that’s just not how it is.
His progression has been absolutely fantastic, and I want to be clear that it had nothing to do with me. He’s worked extremely hard to get where he is now. He does things that non-soccer people can’t see, little sequences that people who know soccer say, “Oh wow, man, look at that.” His awareness of the field is second to none of players I’ve had here. He senses when people are closing him down and he knows what to do; it’s just incredible to watch. My only complaint is that sometimes he’s too unselfish; he gets into the 18 and I want him to shoot the ball, but that’s just not him. His evolution: he started in that 2011 title game but clearly he was a role player, secondary or tertiary, and his improvement has been slow but steady. Now he’s one of the best players in Division III in my opinion.
RH: On the subject of individual players, you’ve had a lot of younger guys step up the last few weeks. How much of an impact has that had, and is it part of the reason Ohio Wesleyan looks like it’s still improving dramatically game-to-game, even this late in the season?
Coach Martin: Let me start by saying that I underestimated the impact of losing eleven or twelve seniors, I really did. Partly because we still had good players, and also because we had a really good spring. I saw these guys making the transition from being a role player to being the guy in a position. When the games started that count, the transition was slower than I thought. I’m relying on Brian Schaefer [11g, 5a] and Evan Lee [4g, 3a] to go from being roles players, coming off the bench, to now win games for us. And the transition was painfully slow, but it was part of the evolutionary process of a team. Had I know then what I know now, I would have totally changed how we approached preseason and the early season. It is what it is.
Secondly, I did a poor job of coaching the first third of the season. For example, I couldn’t decide where to play Evan Lee, where it was best for the team. I couldn’t make a decision—one game in the back, the next up top—and finally we committed to playing him in the back. A lot of good things happened from that. Now Kyle Baum [4g, 4a] isn’t on the bench, he’s on the field, and he’s been a really, really good player for us. And then putting Evan and Drew at center back, that solidified things. Now, I know we still give up the occasional silly goal, but it’s a lot better than it was early in the season.
RH: Let’s talk about your system. Ohio Wesleyan has a very distinct style of play; can you explain the system and the reasoning behind it? Then, it seems like this year’s team plays a little differently from your teams of the past few years. What adjustments have you made?
Coach Martin: The Ohio Wesleyan system was the reason we made adjustments. We’re all a product of our own histories, and in my time living in Germany I became a fan and proponent of the German and Dutch model, building from the back, possession, up-back-and-through, and we’ve done that pretty much for 38 years. What I finally figured out is that everybody knows how we play. So teams crunch down on our forward line so we can’t play it into their feet, and so on, so we couldn’t play that style every game.
The new thing in Europe, with Guardiola [at Bayern Munich] and others, it’s called “verticality.” You play the ball forward, not direct, and there’s a difference. Direct means just dumping it into the box and chasing it; verticality means I’m driving the ball forward 25 yards to Colton, or even over the top once or twice, to loosen up the backs a little before we go to our normal style. We’ve actually practiced that, we almost have set plays when our outside backs carry the ball, they’re looking for space behind the backs, or another certain pass. I hate to describe it as direct, but this verticality concept of getting the ball forward quickly with a purpose is a response to how people have learned to play us.
RH: You are the most experienced coach at the Final Four, and this is Ohio Wesleyans tenth trip, although Bloecher was the only player who had a role in the 2011 final. How will your experience, and the expectation that this is the level of the program, help this weekend?
Coach Martin: Initially my thought was that this would put added pressure on this team. What has actually happened is that these guys have taken a huge sigh of relief, and said “Okay, the program is still good, we’re part of the legacy, we’re going to go forward and play as well as we possibly can.” There was a point—I remember it clearly—when we were struggling, when Evan Lee came in with some other guys really upset, and he basically said, “We have to change. If we don’t change we’re going to be known as one of the worst teams ever at Ohio Wesleyan.” That really struck me, because clearly they felt the pressure to live up to the legacy, so when we won [to advance to the Final Four], they were just ready to play right away. They’re excited, their contribution to the legacy is intact, they feel very good about it and they’re looking forward to this weekend.
RH: Tufts just played maybe the most impressive game by any team this season in taking out Messiah. What do you know about them, and how do you feel you match up?
Coach Martin: You suggested I have a lot of experience in these situations, and one thing that I’ve learned is that you don’t change. You gotta dance with who you brought, and any team that tries to change their game at this level, that’s the kiss of death. To be honest, we’ve watched the tape, but we’re not going to change. We’re going to do what we do best and see what happens. It’s hard, but what I’ve learned is you play the best you can and there’s an element of luck, so if you’re lucky you have a chance to win in the tournament.
RH: What’s the preparation been like with all the fanfare? Can you talk about the mental preparation that goes into getting ready for the Final Four?
Coach Martin: The preparation is a tightrope. We want to keep the guys playing at the same level they did against Kenyon and Christopher Newport, so we’ve been working real hard on the physical side. We have to prepare these guys to play 180 minutes of soccer in 24 hours, and that’s really, really hard. We’ve been right on that tightrope, holding our breath and trying to find a balance. Sure, there are obstacles, and that’s how it is, but I told the team the one thing they can expect is the unexpected. We’ve been trying all year to get them into a pregame routine, well you’re not going to be able to at the Final Four. So we’re just going with the flow, that’s our saying for this weekend. As corny as it sounds, the first NCAA weekend our saying was “No More Ifs.”
It took me 38 years to figure this thing out, but you have to work at experience, it doesn’t just happen by osmosis. The fact that all those guys last year played in the national championship game, everybody was going on about our experience. Well, we weren’t experienced, because we didn’t work at it. So now, every game, the guys have homework. They have to sit down and type up a one-page evaluation of the game for the team and themselves. They have to answer three questions: (1) what went right; (2) what went wrong; and (3) what we can do better next game. And I’m convinced it has helped us.
In one of Colton’s evaluations, after Kenyon beat us [2-1 in overtime] in the conference championship, Colton wrote, “If we play like we did in the last 20 minutes, we will not lose another game.” So our theme for the first weekend was “No More Ifs”; we were going to play like that the whole time. Then in the second weekend it was “We Can All Give More,” and our theme for this coming weekend is “Continue To Believe.” We’ve been working it, and it’s paying dividends. One of the things about coaching, you’ll never, ever know if anything you did helped the situation, or if anything you didn’t do hurt the situation. Did this homework help the guys? I am utterly convinced that it did, but I’ll never know.
We’ve been trying to teach these guys how to have experience. You know, our [youth soccer] culture, you play a club game and then you turn around and have another one within an hour and you’ve forgotten it. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s the culture’s fault. In reality, you have to sit down and really look at what happened, what you did or didn’t do well, what the team did well, and what you can do to get better. And I think the guys as a team recognized that and bought into it, and that’s the experience, but I’ll never know.
RH: Last, if you had to pick one thing Ohio Wesleyan needs to do this weekend to win a third national championship, what would it be?
Coach Martin: Defend restarts; I don’t have to even think about it. If you look at the last month, the championship game against Kenyon, two corner kicks. If you look at what we gave up against Penn State-Behrend, two restarts. The goals we’ve given up in the past month, most of them, except the Christopher Newport ones, are restarts. And that’s mental, it’s inexcusable, and it just can’t happen. So I’d say defend restarts.
You know, early in my career, and even now, when we lose, my first thought is, “How did I screw this up? What did I do wrong?” Now that’s personal, and it helps me get better, but it comes to a point where you just have to ask, have we done everything we can? I think we have. Are we healthy? I think we are. And so what’s going to happen is going to happen. That sounds stupid, but adversity helped this team grow up, so we’re ready for Friday.
Ohio Wesleyan (17-4-4) takes on Tufts (14-2-4) in the second NCAA Men’s Semifinal at 1:30 PM (CST) on Friday, December 5th.