Playing Smart

By Andy and Allison Dappen

Jack Nicklaus said that, among golfers with similar handicaps, winning was 90 percent mental. But how does brain power and mental fortitude affect a team sport like soccer, in which athleticism often dominates play? Can smarts compensate for, say, a lost step of speed?

The growing accomplishments of the UPS women’s soccer team would seem to side with the influence of intellect. Over the past five years, the team has been the winningest on campus. They have lost no more than one conference game per season since 2000, ruled the Northwest Conference for three consecutive years, and held a high national ranking for four years running. The highest mark of their achievement came last fall when they traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, to play Wheaton College (Illinois) for the NCAA Division III national championship.

Over the same five-year period, this most winning of teams has earned the Gwen and Phil Phibbs Scholarship Award four times. The scholarship award recognizes the team with the highest combined GPA out of the 23 sports at UPS.

Granted, the 2004 women’s soccer team was deep in talent, with the likes of senior Bridget Stolee, the Northwest Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year; junior Cortney Kjar, the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year; and junior Erin Williams, the goalie with the nation’s second-lowest ratio of goals allowed. Next came a team chemistry that the players claimed was part of their winning formula. And then there was five-time Coach of the Year Randy Hanson, whom the team credits for his inspirational leadership.

But Hanson himself maintained intelligence was, without a doubt, a big part of this team’s weaponry and that the Loggers encountered no team that matched their tactical play or their mental toughness. “When we played Wheaton for the national championship, our technical skills were equal but they had a higher level of athleticism than any team we had ever played. Person-for-person they outgunned us in speed and strength. Yet we were the more adaptable team, and we played better strategic soccer. We made better decisions with the ball, read the game better, thought ahead more clearly.”

The result? By the end of the game and after two overtimes, the score remained stuck at 1-1. UPS had outshot Wheaton and penned them in their end of the field for much of the latter part of the game. Said Hanson, “The momentum was ours, smart soccer definitely paid off for this team.”

Midfielder Tera Anderson, a junior, agreed. Anderson transferred to UPS from the University of Montana after playing a season of NCAA Division I soccer. “The girls are stronger and faster in Division I, but this team was more skilled in its tactical knowledge than any [Division I] team I played against.”

The one game of the season in which the Loggers played without their trademark intelligence came in early October and, ironically, fell immediately after the national coaches’ poll ranked UPS the top Division III team in the country. “We weren’t mentally ready for that,” says Tera Anderson. “It put us in a weird state of mind where we weren’t ourselves. We felt like we were walking around with targets on our backs.” The first game after receiving their Number 1 ranking, the Loggers lost to 24th ranked Whitworth College.

“That was a shocker,” remembers forward Cortney Kjar the team’s high scorer. “After that we couldn’t afford another loss. We wanted to win every game big.”

Kjar kicked in to help make that happen. Over the remainder of the season she broke the university’s 20-year-old single-season scoring record. Defensively, the team pulled its weight just as vigorously, shutting out most of its opponents. By early November the Loggers had clinched the conference championship. Two weeks later they dismantled Washington University 3-0 to win the sectional finals. And on November 27 the Loggers earned the right to play for the national championship after a decisive 3-0 victory over Messiah College.

Then came that double-overtime championship game. The protocol for settling such ties: A shoot-out in which each team takes five penalty kicks against their opposition. “Shooting penalty kicks to win a soccer game is like tossing free throws to win a basketball game,” says Coach Hanson. “A greater component of luck gets thrown into the mix.”

After each team had taken their five penalty kicks, Wheaton had scored 5, UPS 4—leaving UPS the number 2 team in the country by the slimmest of margins. “At the end of the day, someone had to go home a winner and someone a loser,” says All-American Bridget Stolee. “But everyone out on the field knew how easily it could have gone the other way.”

Although Randy Hanson will be moving on to new coaching challenges at a Manchester United training center, his philosophy is likely to guide the focus of future teams. In his recruitment letter posted on the university’s Web site, he states, “We are seeking Division I caliber student-athletes who are looking for a genuine educational experience—that is, one that emphasizes academics over athletics.” Then he really lays down the gauntlet with a vision for the future: “We are also seeking student-athletes who will share and be committed to our ultimate program goal of winning a national championship and having the highest team grade point average in the country—in the same year!”

Is that asking too much … or the impossible? “These girls have already proved that being top students and what that demands in time management, focus, breaking down tasks into parts … translates directly into being good athletes. Being the smartest team will help these girls become the best team.”