Ready For The Spotlight
Dec. 3, 2009
NCAA.com Men's Soccer Blog | Interactive Bracket
By Kevin Scheitrum
It's an office meant to house about five people comfortably. Half a dozen, maybe. Twenty-six might have been a little much.
But the Drake men's soccer team found a way to make it work - same as they'd done on the field all year in 2008. And late last November, all 25 of them crushed into coach Sean Holmes' office to find out via phone if, for the first time ever, their season would continue into the NCAA Tournament.
"All of a sudden we hear our name and we just all erupted," said current senior Kevin Shrout. "It was a pretty special feeling. We didn't even hear who we were playing. We didn't care."
For the six then-juniors in the office, getting Drake to its first-ever Tournament was a goal they'd held tight since finishing their freshman campaign at 6-7-6 in 2006. An average year for an average program. Those were the kinds of years that Drake had gotten accustomed to, at least before Holmes began slowly re-routing the program. But those certainly were not the type of years that the freshmen, the talented group made up almost entirely of Kansas City transplants, would accept.
"I wasn't used to losing that many games," said Luke Gorczyca.
But it's what happened after that 2008 Tournament selection - and how it was processed - that's driven Drake to unprecedented heights this year, from a team that finished under .500 three years ago to wins over Western Illinois, No. 4 seed Ohio State and a surging Boston College club in this year's D-I Tournament, and a national quarterfinal date with North Carolina on Friday (6 p.m. ET).
And thanks to an ultra-tight senior class that refused to be anything close to average, a program that hadn't won an MVC Tournament game in seven years before 2004 now stands with some of the biggest names in college soccer. A program buried in Des Moines, Iowa, one largely overshadowed by Midwest programs that are, in turn, overshadowed by their coastal counterparts, has become the surprise team of the Tournament.
"Coming here, a goal of mine was to put Drake on the map," Gorczyca said. "Nobody really knows where we're from. I'm with a great group of seniors, and we knew that we had the potential to make an impact."
"I don't know if you can get a closer group of guys together," said Garrett Webb, a fellow senior and Hermann Watch List Nominee, and the team's leading goal- and point-scorer with 13 goals and 31 total points. "I love everyone on the team, but these seniors, they're like brothers to me. We've been through a lot. We've seen the low-lows and now we're seeing the high-highs together. I couldn't think of a better group to do it with than these guys."
Through 109 minutes in the NCAA Tourney opener in 2008, the Bulldogs battled Saint Louis - the all-time leader in national championships - like they'd been there before. But then, with just four seconds left, the Billikens scored. Four seconds later, the best season in Drake history ended.
Suddenly, that original goal of simply `tasting' the Tournament, as Webb, put it, didn't seem enough. Sure, it was nice, and sure it was monumental, but all it amounted to was a weak ointment on a fresh wound.
"A lot of us just felt like - not that we should've won - but maybe yeah, that we should've won," Gorczyca said. "Deep inside that we let it slip away."
"[The loss] allowed us to revamp that goal," Shrout said. "We wanted to make a run in the Tournament. ... It helped with our confidence, going in and playing with a storied program like Saint Louis. I thought we played with them the whole game, and to lose with them with just over four seconds left was...less than ideal."
So they worked. And, knowing that they had one season left to leave a lasting mark on the Drake soccer program, they worked some more.
"It came down to who was willing to put in the work to come out victorious," Webb said. "We had so many seniors, and we were on the same page of not wanting to have that feeling we felt in Saint Louis the night we lost. That's a tough feeling to get over."
Every year, teams talk about ripping themselves out of the masses and vaulting the program to national notice. The bootstraps story, the Alger myth. And for so many teams, the idea ends as just that: a myth. The aspirations never really keep up with the pace of reality.
But after that sub-.500 2006 season, Holmes addressed his team. He saw something in his rising sophomore class that made him think that something special was on the way, as long as they committed themselves to it.
"Coach sat us down and let us know that the future was gonna be looking brighter if we pushed each other," Webb said. "So we came up with a few goals to leave a legacy behind. Our Kansas City guys all come from winning backgrounds, so we wanted to be known as winners."
Two years later, they found themselves feeling something unexpected: a goal achieved, and little left but agony. They'd pushed the program to a level where just getting a chance wasn't good enough.
"They wanted it so bad - you could see it every day in training," Holmes said. "They were talking the other day and they were like `Wouldn't it be cool if we lived together after college?' It's kind of incestuous. It's the closest I've ever seen in 21 years. And there's only one other time [as an assistant coach at Evansville in 1996] I've seen that kind of brotherhood exist."
The Bulldogs opened this year with a win over Indiana in an exhibition, one that didn't count for the record but reinforced to the Bulldogs exactly what they suspected in the loss to Saint Louis: that, in 2009, they belonged in the highest class of college soccer.
"Indiana is a top-notch program, and when we were able to pull out a win, it gave us confidence going into the season we can play with anyone," Gorczyca said.
Then came wins over teams like Creighton, Western Illinois and DePaul, along with a tie with Northwestern. And over the course of an MVC schedule that saw the Bulldogs play each team in the conference twice, they kept winning, eventually taking home their first-ever MVC Tournament trophy.
There have been more talented players to play at Drake in his 12 years there, Holmes said. Not that the players aren't great. Shrout and Webb got nods to the Hermann Watch List, earning them the nicknames `Hermie 1' and `Hermie 2' in the locker room, after Webb got the edge over Shrout in his preseason testing stats.
But what defines this crew is the quality of the individuals, Holmes said. .
"We've actually had better players in the program, but we've never had a better selection of guys," Holmes said.
They're different, too, all six of them.
Gorczyca, whose 16 points rank fourth on the team, he's "very simple," Holmes said. Shrout has "pizzazz." Defender/MF Calvin is "hard as nails," while Webb's "built like a brick house." Defender Julien Edwards is "incredibly dynamic." Meanwhile, the fourth senior, defender Brian Wurst - a transfer from Tulsa but a Kansas City native - has started as the defensive anchor in every one of the Bulldogs' 24 games this year.
A number of them grew up playing soccer together in or around Kansas City, so there was some familiarity coming in. Gorczyca and Clark played together in high school, while a number of them played on the same club teams.
But familiarity doesn't necessarily breed community. Character does, the players said. And there's a ton of that on this squad - the bulk of the senior class has GPAs at or above 3.5, according to Holmes.
"You play teams all year that are fighting on the field and bickering," Shrout said. "But starting at the top, we're all very good friends off the field, and it shows on the field."
The mark's already been made. No longer is the MVC a one-team race, with Creighton leading the pack. No longer is Drake an afterthought in any level of college soccer. And if the enduring legacy of this senior class isn't elevating the team's standards to a height completely foreign just three years ago, it'll be showing the kind of people it takes to keep those standards high.
"Everyone talks on the theoretical level about doing it with good students and good guys," Holmes said. "I remember someone who won a championship a few years ago, and he said `we don't make apologies for how we act or how we do things.' And that killed my soul a little bit.
"Every coach claims or aspires to being a teacher," he continued. "I'm a father of three boys playing youth soccer, they aspire to play college soccer, and these guys are becoming what I want from my own kids."