bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Needham Interview :: 11/11/09 :: Season Wrap Up

bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the season overall?
Michael Needham: The season overall was a lot of different things. It was exciting, it was emotional, it was fantastic. There's a lot of things about it. The biggest thing is I think we laid a great foundation for what this program will do in the future.

bc.net: Going back to the North Texas match when I spoke after the match you expressed that normally you looked forward to a day away from soccer after a match but after that match you couldn't wait to get back out on the practice field with the team. What was it that you saw at that time that made you feel differently?
MN: After the first three games I think our kids were down. Any time you lose three games in a row it's difficult but we had played and competed so well in those first three games and I knew that the stretch of the next seven to 10 games would be absolutely telling in what we would do for the year. I felt that we had played well enough to get a result or two so that was exciting because I knew we were on the edge of something good and I just wanted to get back to work and get them organized and make sure we were ready to go for the next week and ultimately we were.

bc.net: Over that next stretch of 13 games you went 9-3-1 and had a seven match unbeaten streak and didn't lose a match for almost a month which is a tough thing to do for an experienced program but for a first year program talk about that accomplishment.
MN: I think the key to the success in that part of our season was that was really a point where we really came together as a group and started playing not only for yourself but for each other. I think the kids did a great job of taking one game at a time. If you start thinking about streaks and start thinking about what you're doing then you're not going to be as successful. Really these kids all year did a good job of taking one game at a time. Whether you win a game or lose a game, think about it that night and then move on the next day and that's behind you. You can't do anything about the games that are behind you, just start thinking about the next one that's ahead of you. I thought we did a good job of that. We downplayed a lot the part of being a first year program. I don't think any of us talked about it until after the last game last Thursday. It was the first time I talked to them about how proud I was of what they did and how special of a year it was for them. It was let's get down to work and do our job.

We knew we were good enough. We knew we were going to be able to compete and we were going to be able to battle on a day in day out, week in week out basis, we knew we could do that. Confidence goes a long way and we built a lot of confidence in that period of a month which helped us going into conference. I think the biggest turning point in the season was winning that tournament down in Texas. Both those games were emotional and both those games were close. Had we not done so well down there I think it would have changed what we did in the beginning of the WAC schedule. That was a period of the year that we got hot and it was definitely good for us.

bc.net: The team played so many close matches during the season, you played in eight overtime matches and 13 matches decided by one goal or less and only had three losses by more than one goal.
MN: I think it bodes very well for us going into the future. I think we did a decent job of scheduling. We didn't want to schedule a group of teams that had the potential of getting ugly but at the same time we didn't want to schedule a group of teams that we would roll over. I think the schedule was good, it was about right for where we were. Those one goal games and those overtime games go absolutely miles when you're building a program and what we'll do in the future. To be able to win as many games in overtime as we did as a first year group was tremendous. It shows a lot of commitment on the players' part. It shows a lot of heart and determination and mental strength which is not something you really count on in a first year group. We were pretty mentally strong as the year went on.

bc.net: Let's talk about some of the matches you played through the season and what you thought their significance was and we'll start with the UTEP match. The first game of the season, you come out against an established program and you're able to take them to overtime.
MN: That was huge, huge accomplishment on our kids' part. Everything was stacked against them in that game. Coming off of two weeks in preseason, only playing two somewhat competitive games before that in two exhibition games against a Division II team and an NAIA team. I'd be lying to you if I said knew exactly what to expect. I didn't know what we'd bring to that. It was a great environment. Everybody was fired up. The players were fired up. Going into that game I we looked at it as a coaching staff as a game that would go in segments. So you look at the first 20 minutes being important then you look at getting into halftime being important, then the first 20 of the second half and then ultimately getting into 90 minutes. When we looked around at each other at 20 minutes we we're going, "We're doing alright, we're hanging in there." By the time we got to 90 minutes and looked up and it was 0-0 I think we all looked up and said, "I think we've arrived here. I think this is gonna be something that we can build on as we go forward."

bc.net: The Air Force match was the first match you guys won in overtime but it was also a match that you could have easily not won because they had come back from a two goal deficit to send it to overtime.
MN: Yeah, there were a lot of significant things about that game. One, it was our first Division I win, we had beaten CSU-Pueblo earlier in the weekend. It was an interesting game. We went up 2-0, Crystal scores a great goal and then Nina scores a hustle goal that was a great finish and we're up 2-0 and feeing pretty good. Then we give up a goal and then a second goal and you're looking at overtime. You're looking at your second game at altitude because you're playing at 7,000 feet again with young kids. To be able to get a goal, there's a lightning storm coming over the mountain, at any time they could have called the game. To score quickly in overtime like that was awesome. It was an amazing way to get our first Division I win, in a really tough environment, in a really tough situation giving up two goals in the second half and really having to reorganize going into overtime. That was kind of the story of our year as we went on is that we were pretty opportunistic. That was definitely a big game for us.

bc.net: The Boise State match, your first conference match and to come and beat Boise State, the eventual WAC Tournament champions and automatic NCAA qualifier, you win that one in overtime.
MN: That's a huge win for our program. FIrst conference win, first conference win at home, it was big. Those first two game, that game and Idaho, are the reason we got into the conference tournament. This year the WAC was extremely close. If we would have left things up to the last two weeks of the season I think it would have been a little more difficult. To get those three points early, especially with a young team, was very important to us and beating a really good team. Boise is good, they're a legit program. They gave us everything we could handle that night and we got a corner in overtime and Copey [Lauren Cope] scores a gritty goal that a lot of the times doesn't go in the back of the net. That was awesome. That was a great night for everybody, all the players and all the fans that were there. For us as a coaching staff it was a lot like the first three games of the year when we finally won one, it was like, "Whew, now the monkey's off our back and we can relax and do our job." To be able to do that in the first conference game was very important to us.

bc.net: Then that following Sunday you take on Idaho and get down 2-0 early and but get an amazing second half comeback with three goals in the second half.
MN: It is what it is. It was a game that we did not play particularly well in the first half. In the second half we were able to put them under a lot of pressure. To score three goals in a game is hard but to score three goals in a half and really in a matter of about 15 to 20 minutes was really pretty exceptional in what the kids did. They were disappointed at the end of the first half because they knew they hadn't played well. Us as a coaching staff, I'm looking at the assistants Steph and Courtney and saying, "Well this is the first Sunday conference game." When you get into conference and you get into any Division I games and you're playing Friday/Sunday, Sunday is incredibly demanding on the body in being an endurance sport, the ability to be able to come back in the second half was just, again, kind of a marker for what we were doing and it was an affirmation to the kids, we work hard during the week so that we can be solid on Sundays. We did a great job of withstanding their pressure in the first half and then bringing it and taking it to them in the second half.

bc.net: That following weekend you go on the road and beat Fresno State, a team that in the previous two seasons had only lost two matches, and you get a win in your first road conference match
MN: That's a tough environment there. I can't wait until they play in their new stadium, playing in the football stadium, they have a huge crown, it's a good crowd, it was definitely a tough environment. To be able to come out and score in the first 20 minutes really helped us. I think the thing in that game is we did some strange things. We scored in the first 20 minutes and then we kind of in amazement that we were up 1-0 against a very good Fresno State team and we went on our heels a little bit. But all credit to the kids, they didn't fold under that kind of pressure and Fresno put us under a ton of pressure in that game and we didn't fold and we ended up getting an insurance goal late on a penalty kick. On the road I couldn't ask for anything more from that game. That's a game before the year that you probably look and say this one's going to be pretty tough and it was tough. But to come out on the right side of it like we did was really cool.

bc.net: Your developed chemistry pretty quickly considering that they were really only on campus together for two weeks prior to when you started playing the regular season.
MN: When you talk about team chemistry and you talk about what's important, obviously chemistry is very important and coming together is very important but the one thing we talked about with the kids is that chemistry is one thing and good chemistry is great but the chemistry also can't be too good. Players have to hold each other accountable. I've been a part of teams in the last couple years that the chemistry was almost too good and players didn't hold each other accountable for anything. For their behavior, for their play and for all that stuff. I think our kids found a good mix. When they needed to they'd get into each other, when they needed to bond and be tight with each other they did. I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't talk about my assistant coaches' role in that. As a head coach your role changes quite a bit, you become more of a manager and someone that is very concerned with the soccer part of things. My assistants did an awesome job of getting this group to be as tight as they were. From posting notes in the locker room for the kids, putting quotes on the walls, putting up pictures, doing videos, all that kind of stuff that brings a team together. I couldn't have asked for more from my two assistants. They did a fantastic job.

bc.net: You had two seniors on the team, what kind of impact did those two have on team?
MN: Katie was the goal keeper, she's a person that everything kind of happens around. In women's soccer if you have a quality goal keeper you can compete and she was absolutely that person for us. She was pretty much a rock in the goal. When I look back on the year I don't think of too many soft goals that got past her. Those are the things that keep a team together. You can defend for your life but if your goal keeper gives up soft goals you lack belief in your goal keeper which changes the way you defend and Katie was tremendous in that. As far as being a senior and being a leader in the group, I think it's all new for everybody. None of these kids has played Division I soccer, except for Christianna. As far as "been there, done that" we didn't really have that type of leader. Katie was good because she was someone the players could look to on the field. Christianna was someone that had been at NMSU before, knew the campus, knew the people and was more of that friendly and personable person within the team and you need both of those types of people and I thought they both did a good job.

bc.net: This was your first season as a head coach, what were some things that surprised you about being a head coach?
MN: I think one of the biggest surprises for me was how emotionally invested you become in your program. As an assistant coach you're there to do a job and you're working hard, you're emotionally invested, don't get me wrong but as a head coach your name is on it, every decision you make is final. While they're not a surprise, when you're doing it they become pretty intense. That was definitely a surprise for me.

I think the biggest surprise for me was how well the kids came together that fast. I don't think anybody would have expected it, including myself. I think you expect to have a lot more problems. We didn't have a lot of the issues that can come up. We were able to squash a lot of those before they got started.

The other component of being emotionally involved is that the players probably saw a side of me that they won't in the next three, four, five, to ten years and that I was very emotionally involved in games. I think there were definitely times when I could have removed myself a little bit more and not gotten so involved but I think they responded to it so I think that's good. At the same time, if you look at all the factors of it, you have to be able to relax a little bit and not stress your kids out. I think maybe once or twice this year I kind of stressed our kids out and that's something I won't do in the future. It was a great learning experience for me. We'll be better for it, I'll be a better coach for it.

The other big surprise for me is how much this community supported this team. To be able to have a team that ranked in the Top 20 in the country in home attendance, in the first year. And to really feel the people at the games, people were into it. They weren't there just because it was a new program and they wanted to support us, they were there because they were starting to get to know our kids and they were excited about it and they were excited with how hard the kids worked and how much fun they had when they were playing. For me that was a huge surprise, that people would really embrace this team the way they did. The support that we had this year was amazing and I can't wait to build on it next year.

bc.net: Speaking of next year, you return just about everybody except for Katie Graul. What are some of the improvements you need to make for next season and who are some of the players you're really looking forward to getting into a full offseason of training and conditioning?
MN: The biggest thing we'll work on in the spring is getting to know each other even more, but not from a personal standpoint but from a soccer standpoint and starting to knock the ball around and really try to start imposing ourselves on other teams. That'll be important. To really start to put a system in place and really get the kids to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, both offensively and defensively, so that we don't put our goal keepers under as much pressure as we put Katie under.

In terms of the players I'm most looking forward to seeing develop in the spring, it's all of them. I had a conversation with a guy yesterday who started a program. He said halfway through next season you're going to have kids that are playing a huge role on your team whether it's starting or whether it's coming off the bench that were kids that you didn't know if they'd make it or not. I'm really excited for the spring just to watch these kids grow up a little bit and develop a little bit more maturity. Ultimately a big focus will be fitness and getting in the weight room and building an aerobic base for these kids. If you look at our season, we started out a little rough, then we went 9-3-1 and then we lost our last four. The reason that happens is you have young kids that have never been as fit as you need to be to compete at the end of the season. Really it's not a surprise that we lost some games at the end. We'll work hard in the remainder of the fall. We're going to train today, the kids will get in the weight room for the next two weeks going up into Thanksgiving and do a lot of teaching in there and get the kids to where they're comfortable so that when we come back in January we can just start really crushing it in the weight room and getting ourselves where we're a little more physically mature.

We could get pushed around every once in a while and you've got to be able to battle in this game. I thought we did a good job but I think with a year in the weight room and training we're going to be much better in the fall.

bc.net: It's got to be a pretty scary thought for the rest of the teams that you competed so well and you didn't have any offseason.
MN: We did some pretty amazing things this year. I think this year was exactly what this program needed. If you look at a program like Missouri-Kansas City, they went 1-16-1 and they're searching for positive things as they go forward in their program. There are so many positive things that came out of this year that some of these kids don't even know because they're too young. They'll get it by the time they're seniors. They'll say, "That first year we set the tone." And they did. We set the tone, I think we left room for improvement and I think we left a taste in these kids' mouth of what they can achieve. That's how you build a culture in a program. You've got to try to get everything as close to right as possible and I think we did that. Now it's a matter of not taking our foot off the gas and keeping these kids at it.

bc.net: What kind of impact does having this kind of season have on your recruiting efforts?
MN: I think, particularly in women's soccer, you're recruiting two and three years ahead. This season that we just had was absolutely huge for our 2011, 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes. Our 2010 class was pretty well set going into the season. We identified these kids, we got these kids on campus, we had them here for conference games, they got excited and ultimately we have kids committed to us. Our 2010 group, I'm really excited about them. Our 2011 group, so far we're doing very well in that group. Really in the next two or three months is gonna be the time when we really try to not only identify but lock down some of these 2011 and 2012 kids.

bc.net: Will you have more home games next season than you had this year?
MN: Yeah, right now it looks like we're going to have 11 regular season home games and an exhibition at home, so 12 games. Hopefully in our brand new stadium. We're looking at anywhere between 2000 and 3000 seats. If we can bring anywhere between 1500 and 2000 or maybe even 2200 fans, I don't think there will be any question that it's going to be a great environment for people to come play us and people will want to come play us and that's really important as we go forward.

Our schedule next year is pretty heavy on the home side and I'm excited about that. That was the other big factor this year that was difficult as we got towards the end of the year is that these kids traveled so much. That takes a lot out of you physically and also emotionally and just being tired. We played 12 or 13 games on the road. To be able to flip that in our favor next year is really big for us.