Kicking it up a notch

Girls’ soccer finds success with new coach


Ian Jones

Senior Micaela Riley plays in a game against Pembroke Hill March 22. The Lions won 2-1.

By Gary Schmidt

It’s a simple law of physics: an object in motion stays in motion. For the girls soccer team, the constantly turning coaching carousel has held fast to that law.

During the past eight years, the Lady Lions have had a revolving door at the head coaching position, seeing five coaches come and go during that short time. The new head coach, Matt McCune, is here to change that.

On Aug. 31, McCune was announced as the new head coach of the team and came in with an established résumé to back himself up.

Starting his soccer career at the ripe age of 10, McCune began an odyssey that would see him cross the pond and back, and eventually wind up holding the reins in Lawrence.

McCune said his interest in the sport took off when he had the opportunity to try out for a youth national team, which he made. He represented the Central division of the United States in 1988. With the team, McCune traveled to Europe to tour with the USA team and play against the top youth talent in the region.

These experiences drove McCune to play in college at Ottawa University and then some stints with semi-professional teams.

It was also his opportunity with the US youth team that drove McCune into coaching, leading him to found the Vinland Valley Soccer Association.

Vinland Valley flourished under the leadership of McCune, who remains the club’s director and boys technical director, and is perennially one of the premier youth clubs in northeast Kansas.

Moving from youth programs to the high school game, is a step up, but one McCune is welcoming warmly.

In his coaching, McCune has taken from the best and hopes to be able to apply his experience to the high school level.

“Everything I have done I have borrowed from other coaches, I try to copy winning coaches,” McCune said. “That doesn’t always work, but I feel that I have created a nice winning program through those coaching concepts and ideas. I’m just going to try and instill those same things with the high school girls.”

The Sunflower League is consistently one of the strongest soccer leagues in Kansas on both the boys and girls side of the ball. Being able to establish a strong program given the fierce competition will be a big challenge and one that will possibly take time, McCune said.

“We are going to have our setbacks and our lumps, but if you want to build a winning program you have to coach the right stuff,” McCune said.

McCune is a big proponent of possession-based soccer and says that he tries to emulate the “tiki-taka” style of play made famous by FC Barcelona — lots of short and quick passes in tight spaces. The team has spent much of its season so far working on fundamental ball skills.

“Soccer, you see, a lot of times, teams will back away from the fundamentals and start playing kickball… we are just going to try and stick to the guns and teach them the right things. It’s just going to be a lot of fundamentals and a lot of technical stuff,” McCune said.

The work paid off early on for McCune, whose team was victorious in his first two matches in charge of the Lady Lions, securing a narrow road victory against Pembroke Hill, 2-1, and then by steamrolling Highland Park, 10-0.

Still early on in the season, McCune is maneuvering between different line-ups and formations, but the early successes of the season have come with the Lady Lions outfitted in a 3-2-3-2 formation, a derivation from the popular 3-5-2 formation.

Whether or not this will be the formation the team employs for the rest of the season is the question. With only three primary defenders on the backline, pressure is put upon the midfielders to drop back and defend, and pressure on the team as a whole to possess the ball to prevent counter attacks that can expose the backline.

“I don’t know how well this will work out right now, because really it is three defenders,” McCune said. “We might have to go to four defenders and maybe play with a sweeper. I’m not the type of coach that is going to stay with a formation. You got to go with what will help the team win.”

Going from having the same coach over the past three years to suddenly switching to a new and more complex coaching style may seem a daunting challenge for the team, but according to senior defender Elaine Harris, the girls are taking it well.

“[The girls] have been responding really well,” Harris said. “They’ve been working a lot harder and seem like they care more.”

The difference between this year and last, according to Harris, is the effort given every day — from both the players and the coach.

“I like how he really pushes us,” Harris said. “Our old coach really didn’t do that. He seems to care a lot more.”

Harris is one of two captains for the Lady Lions and so far has been a huge factor for the team.

“I guess I’ve had more of a leadership role,” she said. “Since it is my last season I want us to do good, and I want us to push each other.”

That senior leadership, along with the team’s newfound tenacity, has carried the Lions this season.

On a frigid April 1 showdown against Seaman High, the Lions were down two goals with just under 17 minutes left in the game and were being barraged by shots from the Vikings. Freshman goalkeeper Kaelyn Weiss, stepping in for the injured sophomore Tori Mosakowski, came up big with save after save to keep the Lions within reach. Finally, a fortuitous bounce off an in-swinging cross fell to freshman forward Anna Chieu who graciously tapped it home to bring the Lions within one.

From there it was the Lions who controlled the run of play, sending ball after ball into the box, only to be stifled by the stout Seaman defense. It was looking like the Vikings could escape with the win intact, until Chieu slipped in one last time and slotted it home with a cool composure to tie the game with minutes left in the match. With the game tied at three goals apiece, the game would have to go into overtime to have a winner.

The ball bounced around both sides, with no serious chances appearing for either team until junior midfielder, Carson Drake, the team’s other captain took matters into her own hands.

Off a give-and-go at the half line, Drake received her pass and took a touch into space, baring down the throat of the opposition. Touching past a Vikings midfielder, Drake looked ahead and saw no one from the Seaman backline step up to pressure the ball away from her, so she had a go. The diminutive midfielder sweetly curled a right footed strike up and over the Seaman goalkeeper, knuckling ferociously into the top right corner.

The full time whistle blew and pandemonium ensued.

Off the heels of a dismal 4-13 season last year, a comeback of that degree was previously unthinkable, but behind McCune, the unthinkable is now feasible. Much has changed in the girls soccer program as it equaled the win total from a year ago just four games in.

Coming back from the brink of death, off to a 4-0 start, and brimming with confidence, what a difference a year — and the wisdom of McCune — can make.