Soccer and Volleyball Follow Up Sweet 16 Seasons

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In the fall of 2015, LMU volleyball and women’s soccer both advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen in their sports. Volleyball took out Colorado St. and swept Stanford at Stanford before falling to Kansas. Soccer knocked off UC Berkeley and Minnesota, losing to West Virginia in the round of 16.

We spoke to Coaches Tom Black (volleyball) and Michelle Myers (women’s soccer) about how last year’s success helps their team head into the new season.

Coach Tom Black, Volleyball
Last year’s team was very successful, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament. What is the greatest challenge facing you this season in the aftermath of that kind of success?

Any time you have success, the greatest challenge is entitlement — the idea that ‘this success happened, therefore it’s going to happen again simply because I exist.’ That’s the biggest trap of success. It could happen coming off a great season, a big win, a nice compliment. The biggest challenge of any success is understanding what led to it.

Many players from last year’s team are returning this season. Do you try to figure out how to maintain the elements of last year’s team identity or do you take the approach that this year’s team needs to find its new identity?

I think it’s both. Last season’s success wasn’t just a product of last season; it was a product of years of work. Any time you have continuity with coaching staff and players, there is a corporate knowledge that you want to protect. There is a system of how we do things, and, hopefully, each year you are refining and improving it. So you don’t want to get rid of that, you want to enhance that. At the same time, every team is different, and every team has different people. The question is how do you get the best out of the players within a system that we’re constantly trying to refine.

How do you get players to recognize the leadership that you think they should be providing to the rest of the team?

I believe leadership is a series of skills, and because of that anyone can do it and anyone can get better at it but it’s really hard. So we can teach it. It’s a combination of teaching the kids that you have right now to be better leaders and at the same time using the lessons of past years to get better and better. What I see is that every summer, heading into a season, the team has worked harder and prepared better than the year before. It’s not that they’re better people than last year, it’s just that they’ve learned from the team before. That’s an example of how the continuity of the program builds on itself. Within the history of the program, a person can get better, and we can help develop that.

How you do that? Most people probably believe leadership is innate, not learned.

Very few things in life are innate, aside from your height, your eye color and your skin. I think everything else is a skill that can you build. Sometimes we tell ourselves things are gifts so that we don’t have to work hard at them. I don’t pretend to know everything about leadership. But I know that if I’m a good leader, I’m going to make everyone around me better and we’re going to get closer to accomplishing the mission than we would’ve without my leadership. So, you can break that down: That’s commitment, so you ask what does it mean to be committed? That’s communication, so what does it mean to be a good communicator? That’s relationships. We can define all of that, and see where we’re good and where we need to get better. The game encompasses all these dynamics. I think being married is a skill. In a marriage, you’re going to make some mistakes. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but can you learn from mistakes and get better. I don’t see how volleyball is any different. The challenge is identifying what the skill is and how to get better. That’s the hard part. That’s why this job is so awesome: You grow so much when you’re trying to help other people grow.

When you took over at LMU, it seemed that you made an aggressive offense an identifying trait of LMU volleyball. Is an aggressive offense something every team should strive for or can you only play that way with players with a particular set of skills?

You do need to suit what you’re doing to the strengths of your players. But, having said that, I think we sell our athletes way too short in terms of what they’re capable of. There is not a single advancement in sports that is due to the advice “Go slower. Move slower in a more predictable fashion.” It doesn’t happen that way. Instead, it’s “Be faster. Be more dynamic.” Offense is very much like that. We’re going to go really fast all the time, and a lot of people are going to pull their hair out while looking at it. The point of offense is to score points, so the question is what are the skills that are going to score us the points as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the best thing is in the future, but I guarantee you it’s faster and more aggressive than what we were doing before. I think the boundaries we draw are way too confining for athletes. What they’re capable of doing is pretty incredible if we’re able to teach it.

You’re an assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team. Are there ways in which that experience benefits LMU’s players?

It’s been a huge priority for me that my national team experience benefit LMU’s team. If the players here can see how my time with the USA team is benefitting them and they feel that their experience here is solid, then the USA work is going to be positive for everybody. If the players here don’t see how that time is benefitting them, then it’s going to be a huge negative. We teach in the exact same ways and believe in the same principles. Everything I do in one, I’m able to bring to the other.

Coach Michelle Myers, Women’s Soccer
Does the team’s NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance last season shape your planning for this year’s team?

The biggest thing for a coaching staff is pressure. You want to be able to sustain that success. You want fans and critics to know that it wasn’t a one-time thing. There will be pressure on us but we have to not let that get in the way of what we’re doing. We have to concentrate on the day-to-day matters first. Last year’s success was wonderful, but it happened because we did those things. We have to start from the ground and do those things again.

Young players like Charlee Pruitt, Jill Farley, Gabbie Sanfilippo, Sarah Sanger, Emma Tyrnauer and others were crucial contributors last season — they played like seniors. How will you help them build a new team identity this year?

That’s the tough thing. Last year, we graduated out a large class. This year, we have a small senior class — basically four players. It will be key for all the upperclassmen to be involved in leadership. The junior class will have to step up. That’s the biggest change from last year, when we had a true core of senior leadership.

Can you teach that leadership or is it inherent in some and not others?

I think it’s a little bit of both. Some players are never going to be vocal leaders, and we don’t tell them to be vocal leaders because when they try to do that the players know it’s not their true self. So we tell them to lead in a way they’re expected to lead.

What does this year’s team have to master to play their very best?

The season will be a little bit about our mental toughness. With last year’s team, we lost Cassidy Nicks early on, and Sarina Bolden got hurt. With every little bump, the team as a whole decided, “OK, someone else will step up.” As the season went on, they kept having confidence. That’s what we have to master this year.

Is there a pre-conference match that you think is going to reveal a great deal about the potential of this team?

The local giant is always the toughest match. Playing at USC will be a big game for us. They’re going to be a loaded team this year. That game is going to show us how we stand up to their level of play and as well as in character: how we react if we go down in that game or take a loss. If we come out of that with a solid result, it will be a huge confidence-builder. The bottom line is if we play well and do the things we want to do, then we can leave there proud whether we get the result or not. Last year, the first weekend at Penn St. was like that. After the game, we felt we did pretty well even though the results didn’t show wins. Our players will have a little more motivation for that game. Also Charlee Pruitt’s little sister is now on that team, so that will be another thing that will be bit of a motivation.

If a fan of LMU athletics comes out to see a match this season, what kind of soccer is she or he going to see?

We like to play possession soccer, and we like to play with purpose. That means attack the flanks, get in behind the opponent and put them under pressure defensively. Our hope is it’s an exciting style to watch. We hope we can lock it down on defense, and then it’s a matter of putting one in the back of the net at the other end. We want to play with passion, we want to play with pride and we want to play with purpose. It’s about the process and striving for progress — the five Ps.

Does a successful season playing in a style that emphasizes speed and technical skills attract good high school players who have the same traits?

We get a little bit more mileage out of the success of last season, but we know the style that we want to play so we try to find those athletes who are going to match that style. We want the players who are hungry and only want to get better and in whom we can see the possibility of them getting better. When we talk to them, we explain why we see them fitting into our system. But it’s funny with females. Sometimes they might be more interested in the color of your uniform.

Recruiting is tough because you’re now recruiting freshmen in high school. They haven’t had time to do their research and look at the important things. These students are so young that they don’t really know what they want out of college yet: the size of the school, the nature of the academics, location and the soccer and coaching styles. Some players might not even want to play when they’re seniors in high school. On top that, there’s the difficulty of getting into the mindset of a player, who they are, what they believe in, what kind of person they are. That’s why we have a lot of transferring going on in our sport. It’s a little bit of a broken process right now.

How do you describe what you’ve been trying to build in the four years that you’ve been head coach of LMU’s women’s soccer?

It’s about more than just me. It’s about a staff and a support staff. I was privileged to be an assistant under two coaches who I really respected and learned from. When my turn came, the foundation was there. My job was to tweak it a little bit toward the things I like to see on the field. Speed on the flanks, defensive pressure, teaching the players the nuances of the game — that’s the stamp I’ve tried put on the program, and to raise the expectations each year for the athletes in terms of what it means to play at this level. Every year, I find things that I need to improve on. Last year was a very fun year, but I’m not going to go about bragging about it much. After all, we have another year coming up.