Gatorade baths to coaches are like walking into a surprise birthday party or getting your first kiss. They are a very American way of celebrating an important victory in sports. Chicago Bears Hall of Fame Coach Mike Ditka was the first known coach to get doused with the sports drink in 1984. Gatorade dumps are sacred moments that some coaches never get to experience. I was lucky enough to experience my first orange bath in just my second month of coaching.
Like many college graduates of the past couple decades, I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I had just finished with a journalism degree from West Virginia University and didn’t really want to use it at the age of twenty-two. In spring of 2002, I moved back to Winston-Salem and I was living in an apartment with my friend, Graham Lyles, near Hanes Park.
We slept in late, frequented bars like Black Bear and The West End Opera House, and we held off becoming adults as long as possible. Graham was interning at Baptist Hospital and applying to medical schools and had his life figured out. I had no idea what I wanted to do with mine. I had my first two jobs fall in my lap and they both would alter my course.
I was living my lazy life that summer and I ran into Coach James Williams, my high school soccer coach at R.J. Reynolds. He told me that he had a friend that was just hired as the varsity boys soccer coach at North Forsyth High School. He was looking for an assistant coach and junior varsity head coach. I agreed at the time just so I could say that I had a job, even though it was just part-time.
I had to get more work so I substitute taught in the school system. After two weeks, I subbed in an autistic classroom at Jefferson Elementary, and luckily for me, a position opened and I was hired in that classroom the following week. Coaching high school requires you to have a job that gives you afternoons off, so this job at Jefferson was perfect. Working with autistic kids for two years was something I won’t ever forget, but that is for a different blog.
North Forsyth was a decent program when I was in school four years earlier. The dynamic of the team and the diversity of the school had changed substantially in just four years. The school had a much larger Hispanic population and the soccer program went significantly downhill due to a decrease in talent-level, but more importantly not being able to keep good coaches around.
Being twenty-two, I really didn’t research the coaching position like I would research a job nowadays. North Forsyth’s J.V. Boy’s Program didn’t win a game the year before. They not only didn’t win a game, they didn’t score a goal!
My first day was the first day of tryouts. The j.v. pool was eighty percent Hispanic, ten percent country, and ten percent from the travel team crowd that I grew up playing with. There were Hispanic players around when I grew up, but they wouldn’t try out for their high school teams for various reasons.
I was twenty-two at the time, but I looked sixteen at most. I could have easily been one of the players in the eyes of the parents and other players walking down to tryouts that first day. Tryouts were easy since the varsity coach put them together. All I had to do was evaluate the players I wanted, which was also simple since there weren’t enough for me to make any cuts. I was going to get what the varsity coach didn’t want.
There were two freshmen wearing Twin City Soccer Club shirts that I really wanted on my team. They had grown up playing in the same club I played on and you could tell. They were as talented as the juniors and seniors out there. It was all up to the varsity coach. Did he want to keep 18 or 20 players and give me 16 or 18. He decided to take the two players, and put me on the back-foot of my first coaching job right off the bat.
My goalie was on the larger side of the scale. Some of the Hispanic players didn’t speak English, so I had to designate two of the players as team translators. The Hispanic players were my most technical players, but they also didn’t have any history of playing for an organized team. I had a couple players that had played organized club soccer and a couple players that had just a couple years of recreational soccer under their belts.
It was a rag-tag group of players, with a young coach with absolutely no coaching experience playing in a conference with schools with much more soccer history and soccer talent. The cream of the crop in the conference that year and many years before was Mt. Tabor High School. Their varsity team ended up winning the North Carolina 4A State Championships that year.
I knew a lot about Mt. Tabor, because they were my high school’s rivals for four years. Unfortunately for the first three years, it wasn’t much of a rivalry. Thanks to a long goal by my good friend, Daniel Eggers, we beat them just one time in at least eight attempts my freshmen through junior year. My senior year, they not only were more talented than my team at Reynolds, they were also more talented than most teams in the country. They were ranked in national high school polls and first in the state. My senior year, I learned that you could beat the talent of Mt. Tabor with heart and brains. We ended up beating them twice that year and winning the conference title for Reynolds for the first time in over a decade.
Their junior varsity team was more talented than the varsity team at North Forsyth. We did okay the first couple of weeks of games. We actually had a couple ties and had scored some goals. Then we had to play Mt. Tabor. The game was at home and there was a large crowd filtering in to the stadium in anticipation of the varsity game with the top team in the state.
They scored two goals in the first five minutes, and that was all she wrote. They were up by six at half, and cruised to an 8-0 win on our field. An 8-0 soccer win is equivalent to a 56-0 football win or forty to fifty point blowout in basketball. When a team starts to play keep away from your team, it is very embarrassing as both a player and a coach. Mt. Tabor played keep away from us for the majority of the second half. In losses, coaches look for bright spots to move forward. There were no bright spots except for when the referee finally blew the whistle to end the game.
The week didn’t get much better as we went to powerhouse Greensboro Page and they beat us 10-1. Conference play didn’t get off to a great start to say the least. Over the past twelve years, I have learned a lot about coaching soccer technically and tactically. No matter how much I learn about systems of play or the newest moves, it still won’t compare to as much as I learned that following week about coaching from the heart.
The week before we traveled to Mt. Tabor I made practices more fun. We still had our fair share of fitness, which is still important to me as a coach, but for the most part the team left every practice happy even though we were coming off two atrocious games.
During that first slaughter with Mt. Tabor, I also learned how important it is to really get to know your competition. I paid close attention to Mt. Tabor’s strengths and weaknesses. In their 8-0 win, there were a lot more strengths on my list than weaknesses.
We got off to a good start to the re-match week with our first win of the past two seasons and it was a conference win. There was a spark in the team that week that I didn’t see before and they actually believed they could win at Mt. Tabor. Though I didn’t have the same confidence, I did feel that we would have a better showing that the 8-0 drubbing from the first game.
Just like most j.v. games in high school sports, nobody really shows up until the second half to get ready for the varsity game. This played into my plan. My players didn’t have much to be nervous over since nobody was there, and the Tabor players didn’t really have anybody to impress on their side.
In sports it is hard to get psyched up for a re-match after you killed the team the first time around. I knew that the first ten minutes of the eighty minute game would set the tone for both teams. I constantly repeated to the team that week to not let them score the first ten minutes. If we held them the first ten, we would have a shot for the whole game. We not only held them off the scoreboard, we knocked in a goal. The first game we didn’t have a shot all game, and the second game we already had a goal in the first ten minutes.
We woke a sleeping giant after that goal and they pounded on us the rest of the half. My large goalie was diving left and right and playing out of his mind. He was “in the zone.” I also had a budding star emerge. He was by far my smallest player, probably no taller than five feet and around a hundred pounds. He was very similar to my size when I was a freshman at Reynolds. He also spoke very little English. That day at Mt. Tabor, he came out of his shell. He was dribbling circles around the much larger and stronger Tabor players, who were wearing the navy and white striped hand-me-down jerseys from the varsity team that I played against when I was in high school. He provided the first assist on a beautiful pass and he was our only real offensive force in the first half.
At half time, the team was as excited as a team could be and I had to tamper down their excitement a little bit. The stands were starting to fill for the varsity game and I knew that it would be hard to repeat our first half performance, especially with Tabor now having a reason to play. Once again, I emphasized the first ten minutes of the half. “Hold them again and we can maybe beat them,” I repeated over and over.
Miraculously, once again against the run of play, we scored and shockingly took a 2-0 advantage. They threw the kitchen sink at us for the final thirty minutes. As each minute passed, I pushed my team further and further into our defensive end and made as many time-killing substitutions as I possibly could. With about ten minutes left our line of defense cracked and Mt. Tabor struck a goal to cut our lead to 2-1.
Fortunately, they never really had any good chances over the last ten minutes.Our parents were standing and cheering and our varsity team bypassed their warm-ups to cheer us on for the final minutes. With a final couple clearances of our defensive area, we held Tabor off and the ref blew that final whistle, which is music to a coach’s ears when he or she is winning a close game.
My team stormed the field, which is very rare at that level, and to my surprise I had the chilling relief of the Gatorade bucket dumped on my back by a couple players on the bench. Freezing ice being poured over your head on an already chilly day might not sound like fun, but it is one of the greatest thrills a person can experience. I spent the next ten minutes shaking hands of parents and even the varsity coaches from Tabor. That whole time I could hear and see our old, white activity bus shaking with cheers and jumps while I was more than fifty yards away. The ten-minute ride back to North was filled with songs like “We Are the Champions,” and even some Spanish songs where I had no idea what they were singing.
The game also didn’t end up being a fluke. Later in the season, we played Page at home and after their 10-1 slaughter at their place, we played them to a 2-2 tie at home. We finished the season with five wins and three ties from a team that didn’t win the year before. Though the Mt. Tabor win was just a junior varsity level win, it meant much more to me. It was the moment that I found out what I wanted to do with my life.