Tension, poor morale cause three-year funk for soccer team

Anthony Maggio

At a soccer practice in early October, a lone ball sat in the wind and rain far away from the practice field next to Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.

Written on the ball in faded permanent marker was the name “Famodu.”

The ball, presumed to once belong to former Minnesota soccer player Nike Famodu, is one of the last remnants of a soccer team at Minnesota which has struggled through changes, dissent, injuries and a host of internal problems over the past three seasons.

Since beginning intercollegiate competition in 1993, Minnesota was a conference powerhouse. The Gophers posted winning records their first seven years and won Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1997.

But Minnesota finished the Big Ten season 1-9 this year, the worst conference record in team history. Its 7-11-1 overall record marked the team’s third straight losing season.

The problems began more than three years ago, when Sue Montagne, the only head coach the Gophers had known, left for Georgia after the 1999 season.

Enter six-year assistant Barbara Wickstrand. Minnesota’s current coach was given the job after Montagne left, a promotion that initially pleased the players.

But as losses piled up and relationships strained, the team’s mood steadily worsened, gripping the Gophers tight enough to eventually squeeze 16 players out of the program.

So what caused a consistent winning team with talented players and its own new stadium to hit bottom on and off the field?

Four former players spoke about their experiences under the condition of anonymity, while several others declined comment.

“I’m not happy with our results at all,” Wickstrand said. “I feel bad for the team. I see them as a better team.”

Growing pains

players were ecstatic when Wickstrand began her tenure, because someone already in the program was taking the reigns. But from the get-go, signs pointed to trouble.

“We had a team that was Big Ten champs, had a great couple of seasons, and then all of a sudden the team went to crap,” a former player said. “Well, we’re sitting around complaining, but only four girls came back for the season in shape.”

This surprised Wickstrand, and initially stalled a team hoping to build on its previous success.

The Gophers finished tied for sixth in the Big Ten in 2000, but posted an 8-10-1 record – the first losing campaign in team history.

Players who had only known victory were getting their first taste of defeat – and weren’t happy.

To complicate matters, Wickstrand’s style was one the Gophers hadn’t seen. She was a disciplinarian at practice and with team rules, and she admits to going overboard at times.

“My first year, from going to assistant to head coach, the transition wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped or really thought that it would be,” Wickstrand said. “I had different visions and I thought we needed more structure.

“But I think that I took it to the extreme.”

Besides the added discipline, players said they felt there was a lot happening behind the scenes, and that politics – not talent – were determining playing time.

As players began leaving the team, negative attitudes grew, and the upperclassmen did little to help.

Players said that in the 2000 season, the seniors and juniors did not lead in a way the coaching staff had hoped.

“Seniors didn’t want to get to know freshmen,” a former player said. “They were annoyed by the freshmen. There was no team atmosphere any more.”

Added Wickstrand: “They were not leaders.”

Voelz no help

by the spring of 2001, players were approaching then-women’s athletic director Chris Voelz with concerns about Wickstrand’s coaching abilities.

At one point, players said the squad took a vote of no confidence in the locker room, but nothing formal was presented to the women’s athletic department.

Players said many of the seniors in Wickstrand’s first two seasons discussed the problems at length with Voelz.

But instead of being helped by Voelz, players said they felt betrayed, as nothing was done and word leaked back to Wickstrand about the players’ complaints.

“No one was really confident in having Chris Voelz on our side,” a former player said. “It’s very well known that Chris Voelz and coach Wickstrand had a very close relationship. Everything always got back to coach Wickstrand.”

Scoreless

the overall biggest concern the players had with Wickstrand, a goaltender at North Carolina State, was her offensive coaching ability.

In Montagne’s tenure, the lowest goal output by the Gophers in a season was 35. In Wickstrand’s first season, Minnesota found the back of the net only 20 times.

The lack of offensive production put doubts in the players’ minds.

“The more and more we asked specific questions about our game, how to fix problems we were having, she just really didn’t have any concrete answers ever,” a former player said. “I felt I couldn’t learn anything from her.”

With conflicts piling up, players said they lost confidence in Wickstrand. The positive attitude which ran rampant in Minnesota’s soccer program throughout its brief history was diminishing.

As a result, players began leaving. After Wickstrand made cuts following the 2000 season, players hit the road in record numbers. In all, 16 non-seniors have left the Gophers program in Wickstrand’s head coaching tenure by transferring, quitting, or being cut.

And it wasn’t just benchwarmers who were leaving. Former all-region defender Juli Montgomery was one of the first to go, and major contributors, including Kecia Lee, Jordan Bieler, Hailee Walsh, Noelle Langston and Katherine Arndt have since followed.

So in Wickstrand’s second season, she took a whole new approach.

“My second year I went totally on the reverse and I said, ‘OK, you guys pick your rules,'” Wickstrand said. “It was about growing, finding balance, finding what my vision really was.”

But no solution was found, and in 2001 the Gophers struggled to a 5-12 record, the worst in the history of the program.

The team tallied an all-time low of nine goals for the season, with sophomore Rachael Roth scoring seven. The loss of senior all-region midfielder Alison Rackley with a broken leg for most of the season didn’t help things offensively.

Still, Wickstrand’s decorated career as a goalie and the team’s lack of offensive production left players pointing at Wickstrand as the problem.

“I believe the best defense is going to create more offensive opportunities,” Wickstrand said. “I’ve played on a lot of championship teams; I’ve played on the national team. All the coaches I’ve coached with or been a player under have had that philosophy.

“If you don’t let them score you can’t lose.”

But on the opposite side of that philosophical coin is scrawled, ‘If you don’t score, you can’t win,’ and Minnesota had always been known as an offensive team.

In Montagne’s seven years as coach, the Gophers averaged 55.29 goals per season. In Wickstrand’s three seasons, Minnesota has averaged 17.

Coaching carousel

minnesota has been a revolving door of assistant coaches since Wickstrand’s first season.

In Wickstrand’s first year, Richard Drake and Colette Gilligan were her top two assistants.

Drake left after the 2000 season, and was replaced by Eric Bell. But in the spring of 2002, after the poor 2001 season, Gilligan mysteriously left the program.

“I don’t think she was fired or left,” a former player said. “They just realized that they weren’t working well together. (Gilligan) refuses to talk about it.

“Nobody was ever given the real reason.”

Neither Gilligan, reached in Clinton, N.Y., where she is the head coach of the Hamilton College women’s soccer team, nor Wickstrand would comment about the situation for this story.

With no reason why their favorite assistant coach was no longer with them, players said they grew even more upset, and the morale dropped even further.

“Colette is so offensively minded and that’s where we had our biggest problems with what was going on,” a former player said. “The team really latched on to Colette because she listened to what we had to say.”

Players said it was difficult for them because the coaches all came from different soccer backgrounds, and would often correct each other in practice.

“That’s going to be a problem if you don’t share the same philosophy (with assistant coaches),” Wickstrand said. “The head coach pretty much sets the vision, sets the philosophy, and you need to have assistant coaches that stand behind you.”

This season, Ellen Obleman and Chris Higgins took over the assistant coaching positions, and Wickstrand said she couldn’t be happier.

The chemistry of the coaching staff, according to Wickstrand, is the best it has ever been.

Poison purged

even with coaching stability, the Gophers were the worst they have ever been in the Big Ten this season, finishing with a 1-9 record, 7-11-1 overall.

The offense improved, with Minnesota scoring 22 goals – the most of a Wickstrand-led team. But after starting 5-1, Minnesota collapsed. The Gophers won only two more games all season.

But this season, the lapses were kept on the field. Off the field, the team generally kept a positive attitude.

Wickstrand’s contract expires in January, but even with three losing campaigns, athletics director Joel Maturi said he plans on re-signing Wickstrand, and no other coaches are being sought.

Maturi shares Wickstrand’s optimism for success in the upcoming seasons.

Only two players are left from Wickstrand’s first season – Roth and Amy Khaleel. All the players whose negative energy bled through the program have left.

“Minnesota was definitely slowly dying from that poison, that ugly negative tension that existed on the team,” a former player said. “It’s definitely a good thing that many players left.”

Throughout the 2002 season, the 12 freshmen on the squad often commented on the friendliness of the upperclassmen.

Players like Keely Dinse and Meghan Jones, who have weathered the storm during their careers at Minnesota, have given the underclassmen positive attitudes to build on.

“It’s a healthier environment for everyone,” Wickstrand said. “It’s healthier for the kids, because their personalities are different (than the past seasons.) They’re more easy-going, more enthusiastic. I think our strengths complement one another. And it takes you awhile to get the right chemistry.”

With proper team chemistry, the return of Roth, midfielder Amanda McMahon, and a more experienced team in general, the Gophers have an opportunity to do some damage next season in a conference that loses many seniors on top Big Ten teams.

But most importantly, Wickstrand feels she has the head coach position finally figured out.

“I think this year I really got it,” Wickstrand said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to be me. Take me as I am. This is what I’m about. I’m up front, I tell you straight up my expectations, consequences, because (the players) are responsible adults. There are certain standards and expectations and rules that everyone has to abide by.

“But I’m not the captain and commander.”

No one can pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong the last three seasons. Everyone involved with the program has their theories, but no one knows for sure. But Wickstrand knows one thing for certain.

“We haven’t played up to our potential,” Wickstrand said. “I’ll take just as much responsibility in that as our team.”

Anthony Maggio welcomes comments at [email protected]