As Marshall hoisted the College Cup trophy in Cary, North Carolina in May 2021, the college soccer world watched as the unlikely champion marked the Cinderella story complete.
After winning the national title, Marshall coach Chris Grassie acknowledges that the bar has been raised, and that there is new pressure on his program that was not there previously.
"Unfortunately we've raised the bar on ourselves so high — we kind of made the joke that if we don't win a national championship, we don't come back to a big parade and thousands of people in the stadium cheering us on. If we finish second, we don't get that. We've set the bar really, really high but that's okay — top players need to live on that knife edge of success and failure."
Grassie and the Thundering Herd look ahead, as they are in the midst of the season following their first-ever title.
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"I think to have that goal you know, we won't win it every year but now that is the goal for the program. That is where we're aiming for before but that's now achievable. It's right there, it's tangible," he said.
Although Grassie refers to his time in Cary as his "favorite three week vacation" of his life, he also acknowledges that the 2021 championship team was built by the right foundation, incredible leadership and the result of getting one percent better in every category for many years leading up to that moment.
"I think one of the biggest things I brought [to the program] was the vision and the belief that we could do this, and then the roadmap to get there," Grassie said. "We talked about 100% improvement, we need to improve every aspect by 1% and just have a constant improvement cycle."
Under Grassie, Marshall won its first conference title, made its first and second NCAA tournament appearances in history, and took home the national title in 2021, just four years after Grassie took the helm in 2017.
"We brought in a style of play that is risky, we keep possession of the ball, we will try and play out a pressure," he said. "In those early days, those first two years were the hardest of my career, but by far the most rewarding. We made the decision, we're not going to go try to just win games and be pragmatic, and maybe win 10 games instead of eight. So we took those risks, and we made the decision. Style, philosophy over wins. I think it really paid off."
Obviously a national championship has helped with recruiting, but Grassie believes the impact has even radiated into the spirit of the community in Huntington.
"I think us winning [the championship] allowed everybody to stand a bit taller, to believe that they could do anything, if you want to go win an Oscar and be a movie star, somebody from Huntington can go do that," Grassie said. "Everything is on the table, as an athletic department, as a program. The star above the crest will be there forever."
Grassie created a steady uptick of success within this program. Within two seasons, he had doubled the team's win count from the year prior and even received Marshall's first NCAA tournament bid. When asked what made the 2021 squad the one that was able to break through and win it all, he remarked on one factor: bravery.
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"We had some tough, tough games against Clemson, Georgetown, UNC but we had to continue to be brave enough to follow our philosophy and play the way that we knew how to play and not just kick it and not just try and panic in the moment but be brave," Grassie said. "Bravery was the key, the key factor. "
All in all, Grassie will remember the 2021 championship team as well as his time in Cary as some of his favorite moments. He mentions that part of this rests in the fact that even prior to the national championship, he was at peace with not winning it all.
"I realized a moment before the national final how proud I was of [the team] and how proud I was to be a coach, it was kind of overwhelming. It was very emotional," he said. "I just realized at that moment, it didn't really matter whether we won or lost, we've achieved that greatness of being able to support each other and and having that realization that it didn't matter, we'd already won and we should go win this game. It was really remarkable, and something that'll stick with me forever."