The bus is scheduled for a 7:30 a.m. departure, and everyone is early or on time. Some board with pillows in hand. As is true of many college campuses these days, most have an iPod or similar digital musical device. Twenty active players shared most of the thirty seats, along with one hobbled player in a protective boot, a trainer, two coaches and a soccer fan disguised as a photographer. That fan was me.
The opponent this day was Webster University, with a scheduled noon game time. The drive is 187 miles. This is the life of a Division III soccer player.
I would imagine the trade off between leaving earlier to arrive earlier is a tough decision for the coach. Waking in the six o’clock hour on a Sunday morning is early for most college kids, and it was for this fan as well. As it turned out, we had a short break halfway there for the players to eat breakfast (carried in a cooler and bagel sacks, no buffets this day), and arrived about an hour before game time. There’s no overnight stays with a leisurely 9 a.m. wake up call in Division III soccer, other than an occasional long trip.
The bus is filled with athletes who have chosen to continue their education at prestigious Illinois Wesleyan University, a highly respected academic institution that just happens to field consistently competitive teams in most sports. The scholarships are academic rather than athletic. NCAA eligibility concerns rarely occur.
On this day, the game is played at the Saint Louis Soccer Park, a pitch that also hosts the Saint Louis Athletica Women’s Professional soccer team. Two local assistant referees join a center official that happens to be a year removed from his childhood home in the Netherlands. Everyone has their own back-story.
When the game starts, the sun overhead ensures a warmer day than the past few games, all played in the evening. The metal bleachers reflect the heat, and it’s clear the player’s energy is draining faster than in the earlier contests.
The first half is a little sluggish as each team looks for a weakness in their opponent. At halftime, the score is the same as when the game started. The teams meet in whatever shade they can find near the field; there are no locker rooms to re-group in on this day.
For Webster, the second half starts exactly as they want, scoring the game’s first goal 30 seconds in. For a team that hasn’t won or tied in their first four matches, the celebration is one of excitement, and perhaps relief. Yet there is no panic by their opponent, and the lead is short-lived as Illinois Wesleyan answers four minutes later with an unassisted goal of its own. The teams are deadlocked again.
In college soccer, there are a fair amount of games that end regulation in a tie. Most conferences play two ten-minute overtime periods if needed, with the first score in regulation deciding the outcome. On this day, it looks like overtime is a probability until Wesleyan scores at the 85:50 mark. The goal is the last of the day, and the 2-1 victory makes the road trip a success.
The teams shake hands and immediately vacate the field as two women’s teams hover around the bench area. They have their own game to prepare for, which will follow shortly. For the Illinois Wesleyan players, they have a few minutes to talk to family members attending the match before a quick shower and another three hour bus ride home. A brief stop for dinner at a small restaurant is paid for by the university. The coach negotiates free meals for himself, the assistant and the bus driver. He also carries a tax waiver letter; overall, he is saving the university about 35 dollars in the process. It may not sound like much, but it’s indicative of the budget adherence some conscientious coaches show at smaller institutions. Every bit helps.
The bus rolls into campus a little after six o’clock, ending an eleven hour day. Complying with NCAA rules, the players don’t practice again until Tuesday (it’s mandatory players get one full day off a week). But that only accounts for their soccer life; there’s no excusing the next day’s classes.
It’s Sunday night. Back to the books.
Photos: (1) Paulo Michelini listens to head coach Ryan Lakin during pregame instruction. (2) Robert Tabaka wins a challenge at midfield during the closely contested match. (3) Goalkeeper Win Fisher clears the ball as Webster players close in. (4) Freshman Jeff Graham celebrates the winning goal with junior Nick Jefferson as a Webster player (background) tries to determine where the breakdown occurred.
Credit: Jeff Findley – All