I've been covering the UD women's soccer program for nearly as long as Head Coach Mike Tucker
has been coaching the Flyers -- which is about as long as UD has regret over my diploma. I thought I had seen all there was to be seen, until I saw the 90-minute beatdown Sunday afternoon in the Atlantic-10 Championship in Kingston, RI. The Flyers butchered #1 seed St. Joseph's 7-0 like a steer visiting the slaughterhouse. The Hawks walked into the game with an 18-1-2 record and 17-match unbeaten streak. They came out the other end as hamburger.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Not only did the Flyers abuse St. Joseph's on the scoreboard, they abused them in the game of soccer
. It's not that Dayton ran up the score -- the Hawks were fortunate
it wasn't 10-0 or 11-0. Dayton did whatever Dayton wanted, and they did it doing all the right things at the right time. SJU
wanted to pull hair in the school cafeteria. Dayton took it to the octagon instead. It was a fighter jet digesting a bird into engine #1 and never slowing down.
Things went so right because everyone that took the field became the best version of themselves -- whatever that individual ceiling was. Erin O'Malley was back to her old self again, setting Karl Malone-esque picks to shield the ball from opposing midfielders. Libby Leedom played eyes-up and head-strong, and Alexis Kiehl did what Alexis Kiehl does -- turn every matchup into a beep test until the opposing players tap out from exhaustion.
Freshman Micayla Livingston touched so far beyond her previous high water mark, the American Sports Network telecast sounded like her own paid promotional infomercial. Just 20 minutes into the match, her defender was grabbing the shorts and calling "uncle". Livingston saw it and played harder
The Flyer back line operated with the precision of a German rail time table. Nadia Pestell ran loose like a pit bull with a snapped chain and stuck a cork in everything in her direction. Yet her offensive punch might have been even better -- her booming overlaps up the sideline got her deeper into the Flyer offense than she'd been all season. And it was all natural and unforced. Every time she made the call to push high, it was the right thing to do. She understood where the mismatches were and her speed was a weapon worth exploiting.
Along with Sarah Byrne, Hanna Merritt, and Nicolette Griesinger, they made SJU's top-scoring offense look like lawn ornaments. A10 Offensive Player of the Year Dakota Mills -- all 5-11 of her -- touched the ball about six times all match. If you want to slow a great player down -- deny them the ball. Smart soccer once again. The Flyer defense was never really tested because they made sure there were never balls to be tested against. Working that little bit harder at the beginning made their jobs so much easier at the tail end. Even three weeks ago this concept was elusive. On Sunday afternoon, it was almost perfection.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
The overall work rate and off-the-ball movement was -- well -- off the charts. Every player had an open passing lane to an open player because a teammate did the extra work to fill free space and provide an outlet. After a while, the game looked so easy to the Flyers. Every time someone had the ball, they had two or three options -- all on the ground. The match had great passing, but the real
work was done away from the player with the ball -- and everyone on the team pitched in.
To say Dayton won at least 80% of the 50/50 challenges is probably unrealistic -- it was probably higher than that. Players went after loose balls like a pack of crazed dogs. After a while, the Hawks were so physically demoralized they began to lose their mental toughness as well. And every time the Flyers saw weakness, they tightened the screw even further.
The number of times any player can play to 110% of their ability 100% of the time in any game in any season is about 2-3 matches at most. Dayton got that from every player in the same game. When Keagin Collie body-slammed Dakota Mills at midfield, the match was over
. That was a play from a player I had not seen all season. The champion wrestler. And while Collie got whistled for the foul, it didn't matter
. She made her point that things were going to be different today.
SEIZING AN OPPORTUNITY
It's amazing to think that UD had to win a home match against UMass
in the regular season finale just to qualify for the A10 Tournament at all. In essence, this was a four-game single elimination tournament and the Flyers outscored their opponents 15-1. For a team that couldn't stop anybody defensively for two-thirds of the season -- the Flyers have amassed five clean sheets in the last seven matches. Offensively, UD exploded. Five of the 15 goals came against the two best defensive teams in the league (SLU
- Quarterfinals, GW - Semifinals). UD outscored the top scoring team in the league (SJU) by seven goals in the Championship. I'm sure if you ask GK Kaelyn Johns she'll tell you she prefers not
having much to do inside the box.
Remember when the Flyers were 3-8-3? It was literally about 2.5 weeks ago. They will be playing in their 10th NCAA Tournament next week and how they get seeded should be one of the most interesting storylines of the bracket. Their record is not great, their RPI is awful. Yet they just cut through the best of the A10 like a hot knife through warm butter. The odds are the Flyers will have a major 1st Round challenge on their hands.
BACK TO FRONT
The reversal of fortune is one of the most dramatic I've ever seen in the program, but this team had a lot of improving left on the table heading into the final week of the regular season. By and large they underachieved up to that point, coughing up results to mediocre opponents by hemorrhaging goals-against and relying too heavily on one player in the offense. They took a lot of criticism -- much of deserved -- but everyone around the program knew they had more to give. The hurdle was convincing the players they had it in them. And the first order of business was demanding a better work ethic over 90 minutes. No more naps, no more feet off the gas pedal, no more inexcusable gaffs or mental meltdowns. Fans saw a much better work rate against UMass when the finality of the season was at stake. Tucker also tweaked the lineup and stuck an extra defender in the back line. He also returned Leedom to the attacking midfield where she's most comfortable. These were small but significant changes.
Against St. Louis, they took it to place it had not gone all season. I believe it was at this point that Dayton started believing in themselves again. Instead of playing with one another, they started playing for
one another -- demonstrating love for their teammates by how hard they work to make their teammates better on the field. Love is an action, not a feeling. Once placed in action, players fed off one another and collectively surfed the tidal wave into shore.
Even had the Flyers won 2-0 -- or had lost 2-1 -- it was one of the best matches ever played under Mike Tucker. The passing was impeccable, movement purposeful, defending high-class, and work rate -- how many times can it be said -- the work rate drove the bus. Nothing juices up a team like watching each other dig to a place deep inside one's ticker. No Flyer team has collectively
played as hard since UD's 3-1 loss to Virginia Tech in the 2009 NCAA 2nd Round.
A WINNING PRODUCT
Sunday afternoon was soccer at a near-elite level. The kind good enough to beat NCAA at-large teams. And here's the most interesting part of the 180-degree turnaround -- there's no reason why the Flyers can't do it again. Nobody did anything against St. Joseph's that was beyond their skill set. There were no video-game bicycle kicks, nutmegs, fortunate bounces off the crossbar, or feasting on a cupcake to feel artificially better. Every goal was manufactured with high-level build-up. Every defensive stop was collective and sound. Every 50/50 challenge was an individual battle for supremacy.
And that's perhaps the most gratifying part of this championship team. What came so difficult three weeks ago looked so easy at times on Sunday afternoon in Kingston, RI. Truth is, it was anything but easy. The Flyers played their guts out and nobody tried to fake the sweat equity. They had each others' "six" which is all any coach can ask in team sports: to be the best version of you, so you can help your teammates become the best version of themselves.
We got another win in us?