Part Two Of `1-4 To The Final Four': The Turning Point
Dec. 5, 2003
Commentary by Elliott Finebloom
FSU Sports Information
Cary, NC - For a team that hadn't been ranked in a single national poll until 2000, starting off 2003 as a consensus Top 15 squad is pretty heady stuff. Being picked to finish second in the ACC is pretty remarkable but starting the season 1-4 was unthinkable. Even with great teams like Penn State, Southern Cal, Florida and Kansas on the schedule within the first three weeks, the Seminole soccer team never saw 1-4 in their future.
At the start of 2003, FSU was coming off their second trip to the Sweet 16 in three years. They brought in the most highly touted recruiting class in school history and head coach Patrick Baker was coaching a team in which every player had been recruited after he had been in place for a full year. These were his kids and this was going to be the Seminoles year.
"I am excited and very optimistic about what this season could have in store for us," said Baker in August. "On paper we have one of our best teams ever here at Florida State."
The team was easily the best ever assembled in Tallahassee but things couldn't have gotten off to a more ominous start. For the first time since 1998, a team came into Tallahassee and beat the Seminoles at home on a Friday night. That had never happened in Baker's tenure and some of the best in the game tried. North Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and a dozen others had tried and failed. That loss was followed by another just two days later to Penn State. Both games were 2-1 and both teams ended up making the 2003 NCAA Tournament where Penn State advanced to the Elite Eight.
It was the first time since Baker's first season that his team got out of the gate to a 0-2 start. It was also just the fourth time in the last three years a Baker-led Seminole team had ever dropped back-to-back games. The last time it happened against non-conference foes was at the start of the 2001 season when FSU lost to Portland and Santa Clara in a weekend. Both teams went on to the College Cup that season.
"It is hard losing the first two games of the season. We aren't used to that," said junior Katie Beal after the Penn State loss. "We are all disappointed but we know we got better today. We're getting better each time. There are still things we need to work on. We need to find a way to shut out teams defensively and get a few more goals on the board as an offense."
Things didn't get an easier the next week as FSU had to travel to Gainesville to face a team that they had never beaten in the regular season at Percy Beard Stadium. The Gators, just two years removed from the College Cup, missed out on the NCAA's in 2002 but had already pulled off upset wins over Penn State and Southern Cal. They were rising in the same polls that Florida State had just plummeted out of.
Much like the first two games of the season, the Seminoles created chances, played very well at times but once again failed to get the result. The Gators, unranked just a week before, were up to No. 7 in the nation and the Tribe had fallen to their third straight ranked team. A season that was filled with promise was suddenly headed to a crossroads.
A win in Jacksonville got the Tribe headed in the right direction and they thought a trip to Lawrence, KS to face the Jayhawks and San Diego State may be the perfect time to focus and get the season back on track. Two wins at the KUStore.com Blue and Crimson Invitational would put FSU at 3-3 and that would be the first step in just trying to get back to where the team started just over two weeks prior.
Kansas had different plans and showed that night why they would eventually end up in the Sweet 16 and play UCLA within a goal. The Jayhawks, behind Hermann Award semifinalist Caroline Smith, handed Baker and the Seminoles their most lopsided defeat since falling 5-1 to North Carolina.
"We lost to Southern Cal and Penn State opening weekend," said Baker. "We went to Gainesville and lost to Florida. We beat Jacksonville away and then went to Kansas and thought that was the weekend we would get back to .500. We lost to a very well coached and talented Kansas team."
For a program that had taken only huge leaps forward every year since Baker took over, the team was facing adversity like it had never seen before. They were on the road, waiting to play San Diego State Sunday and wondering what happened to a season that just mere days before seemed to hold so much promise.
"When we started off 1-4, we weren't playing bad teams," said Beal. "Both Penn State and Florida were in this year's Elite Eight. We weren't playing badly either. We were struggling a little bit in getting comfortable."
"That night there was a lot of talk about the team letting down the seniors at that point but we were looking at ourselves and wondering what we were doing wrong," said senior co-captain Amber Tollefson. "Women usually look at themselves as the problem first and (Kristin) Boyce and I did that. We were searching for answers. We just couldn't put out finger on it."
In an attempt to put his finger on the problem, Baker met with each class individually that night. His first meeting was with his only two seniors. Although behind closed doors, he later recounted that the conversation began with two words, "I'm sorry".
"I will never forget the Friday night after the Kansas game and it was raining and just nasty weather," said Baker. "I pulled Amber (Tollefson) and Kristin (Boyce) into the room and said I was so sorry. We were in the Sweet 16 last year and felt we competed well against UConn. They managed to score a goal that we couldn't. This year we have a top 10 recruiting class in. We have three freshmen that are U-19 National team-caliber. We were supposed to be tearing it up and we weren't."
Next it was the junior class' turn. That group was the most-touted recruiting class in Florida State history before the 2003 rookies one upped them. This group had only ever been to the Sweet 16 and ACC Championship final, so 1-4 was as foreign to them as it was to everybody else.
The sophomores followed and then it was the freshmen who met with Baker. This group hadn't been on campus a month and were probably the most unsure of what was happening. They all came to Florida State for so many different reasons but being a part of a winning program was high on that list. They didn't really know their teammates that well at that point and were searching like everybody else.
"The most difficult part, other than the losses, was having to look at the freshman's faces after we hit 1-4 and explain to them it is not like this. It will get better," said Alli Ferreri. "I felt some of the disappointment laid on my shoulders. They didn't understand what it was like to win as a team. Their first experience at Florida State was having to deal with failure."
"I knew we were a lot better than our record. It was kind of scary," said freshman Rachel McDowell." I had never been on a team that was ever 1-4. I felt bad because our freshman class was supposed to be so good and this team had never got off to a start like that under coach Baker. We felt like we should have apologized."
"I brought our junior class in and told them that we got to do more. I was frustrated. I mentioned to our sophomores that last year was great but we needed to play hard and start to gain results this year. Then I brought in our freshmen and said this was uncharacteristic," said Baker. "Florida State is a nationally ranked program and our goal is to win a national championship. There were certain things that happened that night though that really encouraged me."
No matter how many players you have returning and how much you try to keep constant; every team is different from one year to the next. Baker was still trying to learn about the 2003 Seminoles at that point. Yes they were facing adversity but how would they respond to it. He didn't have to wait long for his answer.
"Jez (Ratliff) and Camie (Bybee) waited until the freshmen class left my room and said they would do whatever I asked them to do to turn this thing around," said Baker. "They said whatever it was on or off the field to just let them know.
"Some of our freshmen wrote me notes on the hotel stationary asking me not to give up on them as a player. They told me they could play better and to stick with them. There were three or four things like that that occurred that day. Regardless of whether or not we turned things around, I knew we had a great group of young ladies."
As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, Baker's uneasiness about what type of team he had might have subsided but the weather didn't. Kansas officials were talking about moving Florida State's out of conference meeting versus San Diego State to the Astroturfed football stadium and using cones to line the field. There was even talk about canceling the game. A game that many Seminole players now look back on as the turning point of the season.
"We tried to stay positive and have faith we would get going," said Bybee. "We knew we would turn things around, we just didn't know when. After the Kansas game, it started. Things started to click for us."
Boy did they ever click. Not only did FSU play the Aztecs but they blasted a squad that allowed an average of 1.4 goals per game in 2003, 6-1. Then they got home and beat rival Miami even worse. In the first 27:00 of the UM game, Florida State had scored six times and in less than 120 minutes, they had more than doubled their goal production from their previous five games.
"That Sunday morning we beat San Diego State 6-1 then came home and absolutely crushed Miami 7-1 in a rivalry game," recalled Baker while sitting at the podium of the College Cup Thursday. "You can just tell we were starting to gain our confidence."
That confidence manifested itself in a five-game winning streak that included victories over ranked teams Ole Miss and Maryland. The win streak tied the longest in school history and suddenly put FSU at 6-4 and 1-0 in the ACC with No. 4 Virginia up next in Charlottesville.
As if this team hadn't faced and begun to overcome enough adversity already, they were hit with another huge dose in Virginia. The Seminoles had never beaten Virginia in 10 tries (0-9-1) but led 2-1 with just over five minutes to go. The Cavaliers tied the game with five minutes left and scored the game-winner with just 27 seconds on the clock.
The devastating loss, heartbreaking in itself, was even more disheartening when put it into context of the series. It was the team's seventh straight one-goal loss to UVa and in six of FSU's 10 losses to Virginia, the Cavs have either tied or won the game with less than 10:00 on the clock and on four occasions the goal came with under two minutes remaining in the match.
With just seven games left in the regular season, the hole FSU had already climbed out of once was now back in the picture. Of Florida State's remaining games, five were against ranked teams, five were against teams that went on to make the 2003 NCAA Tournament and one was in Chapel Hill versus No. 1 North Carolina.
To ensure at least a chance of going to the NCAA Tournament, FSU had to win four of those seven games. In that case they would at least finish above .500 even if they were knocked out in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Seminoles went unbeaten in the first six (5-0-1) without allowing a single goal and then lost 1-0 to undefeated UNC on Halloween night. Once again this team showed what they were made of.
"One of the biggest things is that we not only got back to .500, we got well above .500 by playing the toughest women's soccer conference in the nation, which is no easy task," said Baker. "Four of those conference games were on the road in very difficult venues. As I reflect back on the season, that is what made me so proud."
"This team has so much heart. I find it hard to believe a lot of teams who have started 1-4 could accomplish what this group has accomplished," said junior Marion Cagle. "That is such a great credit to every person associated with this program."
It was a lesson for young and old on the FSU roster. Every class learned something about their teammates through the rough start and adverse moments but probably none more than the freshmen.
"I guess I didn't realize at that point that it wasn't where you started but it was where you ended up so I was a little worried," said Julia Schnugg. "It was a new chapter in my life and here we are 1-4 and I was na?ve. I didn't know that I should have had confidence in the coach, the team and the staff right from the start even when things got tough.
"I learned this team is so tight and there is no adversity we can't face together. This is truly a team. That got us through the hard times."
It is hard for people to talk about teams being close and not having people snicker because it is such a clich?. This Florida State team is talented. They are close but they also had chemistry and that is the element that every successful team searches for. Coaches try to produce it through bonding activities like camp outs and team-building clinics but it can't be bottled or sold. It has to be there and then a coach can foster it but if it isn't there, it never will be.
"The first day of preseason I looked around and saw how much talent we had but you can have a lot of talent and no team chemistry," said Tollefson. "They are totally separate things. I didn't know how this team would be. Once the team chemistry clicked in, it was magic."
"This is such a great group. Last week in Gainesville we were broken up into five tables and I looked around and three of the five tables were rolling on the floor with laughter," recalled Baker.
Even more amazing is that a week later you will probably see the same scene again but this time nobody will be sitting next to the same person they were sitting next to the week before. Starter or non-starter, senior or freshman, there is no division on this Seminoles team. They like each other and they have fun.
"They know when to have fun," said Baker. "We have a lot of personalities on this team. They also know when to turn it on and when it is time to get serious and get after it they do.
"I have described this team as being borderline silly and I think that helped us after a 1-4 start. I don't think anyone of us wanted a slow start but that mentality helped us make it through."
The Seminoles didn't just make it through, they have obviously flourished. Since that night in Lawrence, KS, they are 16-3-1 and they are now playing after 293 teams' seasons have ended. They don't mind that they have almost twice as many losses as UCLA, North Carolina and Connecticut combined. Because they know where they finish up is probably a product of where they started.
"We were working so hard and not getting results at the start of the year," said Bybee. "It took everything within us as individuals and then we came together as a team. If we hadn't started the way we did, who knows if that would have ever happened."
"Sitting at 1-4, the College Cup seemed so far away on one level but on another I really still felt we would be OK," said Tollefson. "It was a little disheartening but I had this feeling inside that we could get here. Everyone on this team has played like champions this year and I am going to tell them that at our meeting before the game. They have fought every second and found ways to win. After that slow start, it was even sweeter to get here."
Even sweeter for the man that brought them all to the College Cup. In a career that was started when he coached players that were barely younger than he was, Baker has had many great moments and great groups of players. It is hard to imagine a better coaching job by anyone in the country this year. Putting together this group was amazing enough but guiding them through the storm and on to the biggest stages of their lives is something Patrick Baker and everyone involved with his program will never forget and take pride in on a daily basis.
"This has been fun. I have never had a more enjoyable time coaching a team," said Baker. "I thought 2000 was pretty special because we beat Carolina and we beat Florida twice. This year by far surpasses any year I have had in coaching. It has been a true joy."
Watch Florida State continue to chase its dream of winning a national title at 12:00 p.m. Friday, December 5 live on ESPN2. For all the latest news on Seminole soccer please log on to the official athletic site for the Florida State University Department of Athletics at www.seminoles.com.