For the first time ever Sunday, the Michigan Tech women's soccer team got to celebrate Senior Day, marking the fourth year since the program's inception, and as good a time as any to reflect on the miracle head coach Michelle Jacob and her players have pulled.
Because to put it baldly, a college soccer team in Houghton, Mich. has no business being this good.
Like, none. At all.
College athletics are unique among the sports landscape in that the formula for winning has as much (and often more) to do with what the coach does off the field* as he or she does on it.
*Court, rink, whatever hardcourt composite tennis is played on. You get it.
In high school sports, you coach what talent you have on hand, adaptability proving the key virtue. In professional sports - with the kind-of-ish exception of baseball and European soccer - leagues have done as much as they can to ensure parity, leveling the playing field with salary caps and revenue sharing. A coach/general manager's efficiency with resources determines the success of an organization in the pros.
But in college, there are a host of factors almost completely outside a coach's ability to teach a sport that can enhance or restrict the ability to put a winner out on the field.
Obviously recruiting is the big one - and represents a whole separate and mysterious skill set apart from coaching - but even recruiting is impacted by 100 small details. Location, facilities, athletic budget, academic prestige, program history, talent base, and countless more factors weigh on the ledger before a coach even starts evaluating talent and talking tactics. And this is before you get to a coach's responsibilities fund raising and publicity aptitude.*
*It is often said that coaches have to wear many different hats, but I think that metaphor doesn't reach properly. It's more like they are stage actors, capable of busting out a disparate facial expression or tone for whatever the situation demands. This comparison makes a lot more sense if you talk with Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke on a daily basis.
It is for these reasons that Jacob and her players success has proven so compelling and unlikely.
Think about it. There is no varsity soccer in the Copper Country. It snows here - [heaves massive sigh] - in October. The soccer program is a mere four years old. The recruiting base (Wisconsin or the Lower Peninsula) is at a minimum, four hours drive away.
How in the name of Pele and Messi did the Huskies share the GLIAC title in their third year of existence? How have they continued to win this year (10-4-1) despite multiple key injuries and incorporating a wealth of freshmen, and have all but locked up a home quarterfinal game and registered as the only team in the nation to score on No. 1 Grand Valley all year?
If you were to talk with Jacob, she would put it all on her team's work ethic. She would wax poetic about how the ladies have bought in, and the work they do in the offseason and how they practice like they play.
And that's certainly true.
Half the battle in coaching is to get your players to play hard, and anyone familiar with Tech's pressing and tiring 4-3-3 system can certainly attest to the team's collective motor.
But a word needs to be said on Jacob's behalf, and since she certainly won't do it herself, allow me.
Jacob comes from a new brand of coaches* who treats her players as partners, not subordinates.
*The anti-Greg Schiano. And anything that is anti-Greg Schiano can only be a good thing.
She is certainly not above yelling or demanding on occasion, but to watch her coach is to see someone teach and explain and encourage.
What seems impossible - like building a winning soccer program in Houghton, Mich. - makes more sense when you see the way her players interact together.
With one win or tie in their last two games, the Huskies will lock up a GLIAC quarterfinal home game, giving the seniors one last chance to play at home next Tuesday. It has been a remarkable four-year run for the program's inaugural class.
I'm glad I got to see it.
Last week I incorrectly claimed that the Michigan Tech hockey program and head coach Mel Pearson broke a "fistful of NCAA rules" when the school published a release quoting Pearson for criticizing the officials after a non-conference game with Notre Dame. While it is against the WCHA Code of Conduct to publicly criticize officials in conference games, there is no NCAA violation for criticizing officials in non-conference games. I regret the error.