The typical Division I women’s college soccer season lasts from about the first week of August until the first week of November. At least half of all of the teams in the country finish their season when they lose in the first round of their conference tournament. One of those teams used to be mine.
August through October. Three months. It sounds brief, insignificant. Three months doesn’t sound long. It’s one fourth of a year. But three months for a soccer season is enough time to make or break a team. It starts with preseason. Training is at least three times a day, for about two weeks. The days feel eternal, but when it’s over it feels like a blink. Preseason consists of extremely sore legs and tired minds. But it’s when a team starts to come together. This year, during preseason, I felt something different than the two years before. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet. I didn’t know what made it different.
When preseason ends, games start. After the first few, it becomes apparent who might start consistently, who might get more playing time. Sometimes, a hierarchy starts to form. People start to feel as though they’re less significant to the team. Some may start to give up – slow down at practice, become less motivated. Mid season, they may even start to tune out. Not this year though, not on my team. No one felt insignificant. Everyone on the team was strong. Everyone made a positive impact when they were on the field. And I was starting to figure out what made us different.
The last few weeks of regular season consist of conference games. These games bring higher stake, more pressure. Some teams, at this point, feel tired. They want it to be over. They’re counting down they days until they no longer have to wake up for early training, or stay in every night of the weekend. Other teams thrive. They turn on a new switch – the switch that wins games. The switch isn’t anything physical. It’s not something anyone can coach. It’s in each and every player on the team. It’s all or nothing. It can’t be had by some and not by others and still work. And this year, that was part of what was different.
The conference tournament comes last. Some teams don’t even make it this far, but if they do, it’s another switch to flip. Legs can get tired, minds can get even worse. If just one person on any given team hasn’t turned that switch on, there won’t be success. That used to be my team. But we didn’t know that yet.
It was time for the conference tournament. The seniors on our team had never made it past the quarterfinal round, so it’d been at least three years since the team had done it. This year, we did. When we beat the team that had won the conference and made it to the NCAA tournament the previous four years to move onto the semi-finals, that’s when we knew what was different. We were different. Every single one of us had that switch turned on. We had what no other team in our conference did: the intangibles. We had created an atmosphere I’d never been around before. We created an atmosphere where our teammates screaming from the bench is what won us games. We created an atmosphere that everyone wanted to be around. We wanted training. We wanted another game. We created an atmosphere that was so centered on team, on family, that with one person missing, we wouldn’t have worked. This atmosphere was unbeatable.
Losing a championship game in a penalty kick shootout is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking because it doesn’t represent which team fought harder, or which team had more heart. Because if it did, we would have won.
Paper says we lost that game. Paper says our season’s over, and the other team moves on. I say we won. We won because of what we have on our team. We won because of what we did this year, and who we did it with. We won because those teams, the 50% of those teams that are out in the first round of their respective tournaments, the ones who give up mid season, who get tired, or bored, one of them used to be mine. We won because we are no longer one of those teams. We won because this team, my team, will never be ones of those teams again.