Oct. 27, 2003
Tallahassee, FL - Protecting your home turf is important. Every team knows how hard it is to win on the road so playing well at home is vital to a team's success. Somebody might want to explain the concept of home to the 14th-ranked Florida State soccer team. When most people say 'home', they mean their own field. For the Tribe, home is a little broader term. For Florida State, home means the state of Florida, which has a turf that stretches 515 miles from Tallahassee to Miami.
Since 2000, Florida State has gone 22-2-0 against in-state competition and the only two losses have come at Gainesville to the Florida Gators. Over the last four seasons, FSU has a winning-record versus every state opponent they have played and has won both NCAA Tournament matches versus Florida schools. The Tribe has swept the state on two occasions (2000 and 2002) and never lost more than one game in state in any of the last four years.
The change started with the hiring of Patrick Baker in 1999. The former Penn head coach came to Tallahassee and made winning games in state a priority.
"Based on where this program was at when we took over, winning in state games was a big priority," said Baker. "We knew we were dead last in the ACC. We knew we were probably in the middle of the pack as far as the state goes."
The Seminoles were 9-8-0 all-time against in state opponents before Baker arrived and five of those wins came against North Florida, Stetson and West Florida, teams FSU doesn't even face anymore. Against the Tribe's main competition, Florida, UCF, South Florida, Jacksonville, FIU and Miami, the Seminoles were just 4-8-0 prior to 1999.
"When we came here we really wanted to get good enough where we could make it a Florida/Florida State type of situation so that would be the biggest game on the schedule," said Baker. "The top recruits would want to go to our school or their school. Slowly but surely we have made that the case."
Baker has made that the case but it didn't happen so slowly. In 1999 the Seminoles turned the corner by winning three straight matches versus Florida schools after a 0-2 start. The 3-2-0 record was a beginning point for his program's rebuilding efforts but the opening day, 5-1 loss to defending National Champion Florida still sticks with Baker over four years later.
"It was extremely tough," said Baker. "Our first game as a new staff was versus the defending National Champions, on TV and we promoted the heck out of it. We wanted people to see the new Florida State team. All they saw was us getting beat pretty soundly. We took away some positives though."
Whatever the Tribe took away from that game has worked ever since. After that 1999 loss, Florida State went on to beat the Gators twice in 2000, once to open the season and the second time in Gainesville to advance to the school's first ever Sweet 16. Since 2000, FSU has posted a 3-2-0 record against a Gator squad that had beaten the Tribe five straight times by a combined score of 20-1.
"A lot of people talk about the NCAA Tournament win at Florida as being the greatest win because it was at their place and there was so much at stake," said Baker. "The Gators had (Abby) Wambach and (Danielle) Murphy back after both missed the season-opener played in Tallahassee.
"I think that win against UF to open the 2000 season was the one I look back on as a turning point. For us to go down a goal, take the kick-off, not have them touch the ball and we tie it up. They then go up 2-1 and we take the kick-off, do something totally different than we did the first time but they once again don't touch the ball as we tie it again. That just doesn't happen twice in a game. I felt like we shocked Florida that night. We shocked the women's soccer world on a national level and we never looked back after that game. That is probably the one in state game we can look back on and point to as a huge turning point. Not only in a rivalry game, in the state of Florida or in the southeast but on a national level."
The two wins over Florida signaled an ascent for FSU under Baker that hasn't stopped yet. As amazing as the turnaround has been for FSU, few really consider the disadvantages Baker had going against him the minute he took the FSU job. It is hard enough rebuilding a program but doing it in the ACC is another huge challenge. Add to that the fact that just two hours down the road is another state school that has already won a National Championship and is vying for the same kids you need to build your program. That makes the job just that much tougher.
Baker did have some things going for him though. He credits the FSU administration for all the backing they gave the program in his first years. The state-of-the-art soccer complex, the brand new facilities all over campus and the commitment to winning were all in place for FSU.
"We felt based on facilities, resources and our complex, we are right up there with anybody," said Baker. "That is a credit to Florida State to put that backing there."
Baker's faith in Florida State and Florida State's faith in him started to pay off immediately. The team became a consistent fixture among the nation's top 25. They were going to NCAA Tournaments and they were beating the likes of Clemson, Florida, North Carolina, Texas A&M, Wake Forest and Maryland to just name a few.
"The University of Florida was always thought of as the best program in the state. As the years went by you saw Florida State get ranked, make the NCAA Tournament and then start beating Florida. Florida State started to become an option for those of us in the state," said U-19 National Team member and FSU freshman India Trotter. "Ultimately, Florida State became a better option for some of us."
"Seeing FSU start to win in state, influenced my decision to come here," said 2002 Florida Gatorade Player if the Year Teresa Rivera. "I wanted to go to one of the best teams in the region, the state and the country. The fact that FSU began to assert itself on a state and national stage did have an impact on my decision to come here."
In 2000, not only did FSU beat Florida twice but also Baker's Seminoles swept the state. The Tribe went 7-0 and outscored their in state foes 25-8 including back-to-back NCAA Tournament wins over Jacksonville and the Gators. Surprisingly, it was a turnaround keyed by two players from the state of Florida who came aboard before the success started.
Amber Tollefson and Summer Corum were two of the prized recruits that made up Baker's second recruiting class but the first class he had a full year to recruit. The group, named the 13th best class in the nation that year, came to FSU to build something as they bought into what Baker was doing in Tallahassee.
"I can't put my finger on why I came home from school one day and had to call coach Baker and commit to Florida State. It was the intangibles," said Tollefson. "Something was tugging at my heart leading me to FSU. I had total faith in the program and what coach Baker was doing here. I made the best decision when I decided to come to Florida State. The second I stepped on the campus and spoke to coach Baker, my heart was in Tallahassee right from the start."
"Despite the loss to Florida to start the 1999 season, we were still able to bring Amber Tollefson and Summer Corum to Tallahassee, " said Baker. "Amber, Summer and Nandi Pryce were the top three players in the state that year. For us to get two of those three and be close with Nandi before she went to UCLA was just awesome for us. It has just continued year in and year out from that point on. That class really helped us. It gave us an identity. The younger players throughout the state knew those players and everybody knew they had come to Florida State. Once they were successful, it became a very nice cycle for us."
The decisions by Tollefson and Corum to come to Tallahassee reverberated through the state and the effect is still being felt four years later.
"When I was a younger player I didn't know anything about Florida State soccer. All we ever heard about was UF and them winning the National Championship," said Rivera. "Once I went into the recruiting process, it made a big impact on me when Amber (Tollefson) committed to Florida State."
"Amber Tollefson was one of the reasons I committed to Florida State," said freshman Toby Ranck, who attended US National Team camp in 2001. "She is a great leader and a great person on and off the field."
Baker's plan to improve the team's performance in state in hopes of attracting more talent couldn't have worked out any better. In the last two years alone, Baker has landed player of the year Rivera and US U-19 National Team member Trotter on top of numerous other quality players from as far south as Miami to right here in Tallahassee.
"Growing up in Tallahassee, FSU soccer was not viewed as a school you wanted to play for," said Tallahassee native Marion Cagle. "If you were a halfway decent player, you went outside of Tallahassee. Ever since coach Baker came in the program and the talent level has increased dramatically. A lot of high school players now wanted to attend Florida State but weren't able to because of the talent coach Baker was bringing in. Witnessing the change in FSU soccer and the way the program is now perceived is amazing."
"Growing up in the state of Florida you can see how Florida State as a program has developed into one of the best in the country," said Jessica Bell, a Temple Terrace, FL native. "Now FSU is considered one of the best programs in the state if not the best program in the state. The level of player coming to Tallahassee is so different now. We are able to attract national team players and national pool players from Florida and all over the country."
Winning in the state has been a key to Baker's recruiting success. Going 22-2-0 means kids are seeing you win in Miami, in Tampa, in Orlando and even in Gainesville on one occasion. That success breeds a level of respect that high school players from Florida and across America now want to be a part of.
"You hope that the best kids in Florida who are looking to stay home consider Florida and Florida State as the two best programs," said Baker.
"Being successful in Florida has allowed us to go after the top players in the state, the south and across the country. Not only do we want to bring a majority of the best kids from Florida to FSU year in and year out but we also want to make sure we are successful in state. That is another thing I am most proud of with this group. We have been consistently good in state. Based on where we were to where we are now, it is remarkable that we went 22-2 since 2000. We are often the big game on a lot of people's schedules but the players have found a way to win."
Through it all, the first goal for Baker was to make a rivalry of the annual Florida State/Florida match and he has done just that. The Tribe holds a 3-2 edge in the series since 2000 and the games are now wonderfully competitive and a showcase for the state of Florida. The two biggest programs in the state play every year in front of huge crowds and throngs of recruits. The largest crowd in FSU history was for the 2001 meeting with the Gators and four of FSU's all-time top 10 crowds have come out when the Gators are in town. The same holds true for the Gators who have had three of their top five crowds come out to watch FSU and Florida play.
"When we go to Florida, they have one of their biggest crowds of the year. When Florida comes to Tallahassee, we have our biggest crowds," said Baker. "It is exciting things have gotten to that point. That is not to take away from any of the other strong programs in the state of Florida. This is a great state for talent, there are some very good coaches and we feel blessed to have had success against teams from this state."
Oddly enough, some of those recruits are even sitting on the other bench, as was the case with Rivera.
"I was actually on my recruiting trip to Florida in 2001 when they beat FSU. I was on the Gator bench but in my heart rooting for Florida State to win," said Rivera.
In 1999, it was hard to imagine the top recruit in Florida sitting on the Gator bench rooting for a Seminole win in Gainesville but that is the state of Florida State soccer today.