Help From Above
Oct. 7, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
The Greeks learned, over time, to hate it.
Aristotle wrote severely of it. Later generations, counting Shakespeare and Nietzsche among their ranks, followed suit in railing against the deus ex machina, the ancient Greek plot device in which a crane – literally, ‘the machine of God’ – would either pluck a character off the stage and out of trouble or help a god descend to the rescue.
The machina gave playwrights an easy way out of jams. And that’s precisely why critics began to despise it. Not just for the sloth of the device, but for its departure from life. Things like that, Aristotle wrote, just don’t happen. Change must come from within.
Fiction writers hate the deus ex machina because it doesn’t mimic reality. But there’s talk in Ithaca, N.Y. – a town whose name itself derives from an island off the Greek coast – that maybe, well, it does. That change can come from the outside. And that it can, quick as a phantom hand, make that change happen immediately.
In 2008, the Cornell men’s soccer team finished a year that set program records for futility. Records for fewest wins and most losses: 1 and 15, respectively. For fewest goals-scored: 8. It was, in the words of senior captain Matt Bouraee, “probably the worst experience of my life.”
Enter Jaro Zawislan as head coach. And see a program that had fallen into quite possibly the deepest on-field despair in 102 years as a varsity team rise, dramatically, back up. Now 4-3-2 going into an Ivy League and homecoming showdown with No. 8 Harvard (7 p.m.) on Saturday after tying defending Ivy champ Penn last Saturday, the talk surrounding the Big Red’s resurgence sounds nearly theatrical.
“I don’t think we were necessary a 1-15 team,” Bouraee said. “I think we had more talent than our record shows, and coach Jaro was able to bring out that talent.”
“It’s night and day,” said sophomore midfielder Jimmy Lannon. “It’s really amazing what coach has done. He really brought a new enthusiasm to the program. … It’s almost like coach Jaro breathed a breath of fresh air.”
“Going into games [last year], it was like we’re going to compete, and maybe we’ll get a win,” said junior midfielder Scott Caldwell. “That was our attitude. Now, it’s that we’re going to get a win.”
The truth is, like most truths, somewhere in the middle. An amalgam, a contract between a team that asked for more from itself and a coach that demanded it.
Zawislan, the 11th head coach in Big Red history, came to Cornell with the mandate of ‘changing the culture of the program.’ Hired because of his lineage – the Poland native started every game in goal over four years for Clemson until graduation in 1993, before taking various coaching jobs at Creighton, Stanford and Syracuse – as much as for his expertise – while at Syracuse, he ran the planning and recruiting processes for the Orange, bringing in a top-40 class in 2003 – he came in to, in short, change everything.
And in front of him was a roster full of players he hadn’t recruited and a team still searing from the pain inflicted a year before.
“ felt like a blanket was pulled out from underneath us,” Bouraee said. “The program collapsed. We couldn’t win a game. Everyone’s morale was so low. We went into games almost expecting to lose. There was no enthusiasm left playing.”
So Zawislan did what seemed to make the most sense, and something that’s not so unordinary for a deus ex machina: destroy everything.
It was a concerted sort of destruction, one bent on severing the 2008 season from the team’s memory by wiping it away altogether. Gone were the preconceptions. Gone were the still-fresh images of missed tackles and nets that just refused to let shots in. As far as he and they should be concerned, Zawislan said, Cornell was 0-0-0 – just like the first-time head coach was.
“They knew I didn’t have any preexisting ideas about their play,” Zawislan said. “I told them I’m not gonna look at that stat sheets from the past, who started and who didn’t. You guys need to earn everything you’re getting from your performance on the training field.”
“The most important thing was to have a mentally fresh start,” he said. “Making sure that everybody believes in themselves, everybody believes in their abilities, believes that their hard work was gonna pay off. They had to start thinking of themselves as a brand new team, not the team of the 2008 record.”
What was obvious from the outside – imagine the outsiders, to stay with the metaphor, the Greek chorus – is that there was a new force in town. Something descended from the outside.
But what was less obvious is the amount of work the team put itself through in the offseason. Most teams head home over winter break, coaxing the all-day aches out of their joints that accumulate over the course of a 10-week regular season that brings around 20 games and a seemingly endless cascade of practices and workouts.
The Big Red, led by Bouraee and assistant coach Joe Schneck – who organized one-on-one training sessions, even during the coaching vacuum – stuck around. And they worked. Before Zawislan’s appointment in mid-April, they worked. After, they just worked harder.
“My team did not give up after a 1-15 season,” Bouraee said. “We knew a turnaround was coming. There was a new leader of our program, and we wanted to make a good first impression.”
So when it came time to battle, the Big Red were ready. Only, the biggest battles didn’t happen during games.
Zawislan made clear that practice wouldn’t be just a way to sharpen skills. It’d be a passport to even see the field during games, a daily competition to move up or down in what Zawislan calls “the pecking order.” And the team of unfamiliar faces he found in front of him was eager to run with whatever expectations the coaching staff placed on them.
“I don’t want to say it was an easy process, but I think the players themselves with the attitude they had right from my appointment, that made it easier on the program,” he said. “They just bought into it from the start.”
“It’s made us 10 times better,” Lannon said. “Practice carries over into games, and if you’re fighting tooth and nail in practice, the games almost seem easy. I don’t want to badmouth last year, but it was different. There wasn’t the same fire to it. There’s an attitude to this team.”
It’s an attitude that’s helped them claw back to win close games this year, where last year, they might – and most likely, would – have fallen. It’s an attitude that’s seen them already exceed last year’s goal total in seven fewer games. And it’s an attitude that saw them walk off the field more angry than content when the Big Red picked up a point in-conference after tying the defending Ivy champions at Franklin Field last weekend.
“We weren’t fully satisfied with just a tie,” Zawislan said. “We don’t play not to lose or to tie.”
So now, with the top-ranked team in the conference coming to town on Saturday, a one-loss Harvard squad that’s torched defenses this year, there’s reason for the return of an essential phenomenon in Ithaca: optimism. And with that, there’s a reason to believe that the right force, met with willing troops, can perform wonders.
“It is a total team effort and total university effort to turn this program around,” Zawislan said.
“Honestly, I thought it would be better this season, but I didn’t expect it to come this quickly,” Caldwell said. “I thought there’d be more wins here and there, and we’d be playing a lot better, but since the first game we knew it was gonna be different.”