’Tis the season.
Not for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. That holiday season is history — until next December, anyway.
In the American sports world, ’tis the season for … well, you know: basketball, hockey and football — though for football, ’tis the postseason.
But wait — ’tis the season for the other football. In the United States it’s called soccer, of course, but whichever term you prefer, it is undeniably the world’s most popular sport. Leagues across Europe and the world are in the thick of their campaigns, from the Premier League (England) to Ligue 1 (France) to the Bundesliga (Germany) to Serie A (Italy) to La Liga (Spain).
Meanwhile, American soccer is in its offseason after championships were decided in December both professionally (Major League Soccer) and collegiately (three NCAA divisions plus other associations).
My focus is on one of those college divisions, NCAA D-III women’s soccer, and I’ll spotlight one Division III team: the Messiah College Falcons.
Early last month, the Messiah women reached the national championship game — which ended in a pulse-pounding 1-1 tie after two overtimes — and then fell 5-4 in penalty kicks to Washington-St. Louis.
The Falcons went on a steamrolling run through the regular season and the NCAA tournament. After starting the season with a 2-2 record, the Messiah women won 20 straight games — including the tournament — and advanced to the Final Four by going on the road to defeat defending champ Williams.
FYI: My daughter Kayla just completed her senior season at Messiah, in case you were wondering whether I chose this team at random.
She was a central defender as a junior and senior, and a wingback/fullback as a freshman and sophomore. I would list her career accomplishments, but then I suspect I’d be diagnosed with Proud-Obnoxious-Father Syndrome.
Besides, my focus is on the program and the ideals it aims for — and often fulfills, according to those who know the program best. And who knows it best? The players, naturally.
At the end-of-season team banquets I’ve attended, a consistent theme has been voiced by graduating seniors (each speaks at the banquet): Coaches care about the players as people first and soccer players second.
These seniors refer to the program’s core values — such as putting team before individual, investing in relationships, pursuing excellence — and thank coaches for living lives that are worth emulating on and off the field.
Seniors speak of friendships forged with teammates — through sharing day-to-day life and the crucible of offseason training and the pure joy of zany team events such as Halloween costume competitions. Speaking of training: 20 straight 200-yard sprints, anyone?
Here’s a sample of what my daughter said in her speech:
“I think about the teammates who went far beyond the surface level and saw who I really am — the way girls intentionally pursue relationships with one another. I see a group of people who love to be together, plain and simple. I couldn’t be more grateful for my four years in this program. It was a dream of mine for a while [to play at Messiah], but the reality of being a Messiah women’s soccer player surpasses anything I could have imagined.”
By the way, the emphasis on cultivating healthy and strong relationships hasn’t come at the expense of success in the win-loss department — far from it. In fact, you can make a case that such an emphasis has been a key reason for the program’s amazing achievements.
Sure, too much water will hurt a garden — just as out-of-kilter relationships can damage a team — but the right amount of free-flowing water is, safe to say, essential for a garden’s well-being.
How successful is Messiah women’s soccer in the record book?
Led by coach Scott Frey, the program has won five national championships, the first in 2005 and the next four coming in a five-year span from 2008 to 2012. To my knowledge, his winning percentage at Messiah (in the .930 range) is the best in college soccer history across all divisions among coaches with 10-plus years of experience.
My daughter’s class finished with a four-year record of 86-6-7 — with plenty of help, of course, from other classes. If you’re keeping score at home, here are the season-by-season marks:
2016 — 22-3
2015 — 22-0-3
2014 — 22-0-3
2013 — 20-3-1
The impressive distinction of such numbers goes hand in hand with players’ testimonies about their growth outside the lines, thanks to the impact of coaches and teammates. It’s no wonder that one of my daughter’s classmates said in her speech that Messiah is “the greatest place in the country to play soccer” — a sentiment expressed by many student-athletes who have appreciated the program’s fusion of deep friendships and extraordinary soccer.
This remarkable blend dovetails with the college’s athletic mission:
The Department of Athletics at Messiah College seeks to develop Christian character while pursuing athletic excellence. In doing so, the Department fulfills Messiah College’s mission to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character, and Christian faith.
In addition to the team banquet, my daughter was among the players who spoke at the NCAA D-III Final Four banquet in December. While parents weren’t invited — the event was for the eight Final Four teams — I read her speech.
(If the phrase eight Final Four teams is jarring to your mathematical sensibilities, the solution is easier than you might imagine: The banquet was for the men’s and women’s Final Four. Now, back to your regularly scheduled post…)
Note how this excerpt of her speech is a real-life, real-time example of Messiah’s athletic department mission:
“I noticed a coaching staff who demanded our absolute best on the field, but who also invested in our character development. At practice, leading meant being the first person to get water, pick up cones and move goals…”
“I saw friendships that were marked by a willingness to care for the other in radical, sacrificial ways. Most importantly, what I found was the foundation from which all these actions stemmed — the desire to love God and love others. Although soccer is what brought our team together, that is not the foundation of our program. Our goal is to point back to God…”
Coach Frey has summed up Messiah women’s soccer this way: “We’re playing a sport we love, with teammates we love, for a God we love.”
For those who believe in God — soccer fans or not — perhaps you’re ready to say “amen.”
For those who don’t believe in God — skeptics or otherwise — perhaps you’re prone to question or dismiss such talk.
I grew up in the church, and I’m aiming to persevere in the church, yet I have wrestled with faith questions for most of my life. Of course, the writers of Scripture express plenty of questions along with their affirmations of faith.
So while this blog post has arrived at a natural stopping place — and is lengthy enough already — I invite you to stay tuned for a follow-up post on some life-and-faith motifs that are interwoven with Messiah soccer.
P.S. To receive an email notice when there’s a new post, you can enter your email address on the top right of this blog. I average about one post per month; the max I’ll post is one per week.
© Bruce William Deckert 2017