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Captain’s Corner No. 9

Nov. 20, 2000

Senior midfielder Mike Potempa has agreed to give fans an inside look at Clemson Men’s Soccer with his journal, Captain’s Corner. Be sure to check out ClemsonTigers.com to see what the Hunt Valley, Md. native has to say about the Tiger soccer team throughout the year.

The Furman Game – NCAA Tournament First Round

Sitting in room 115 of Jervey Athletic Center is always an experience. It is where we have our first meeting before preseason begins, it is where we have our film sessions, last year it was where we found out our season was over and there would be no hope to compete for a National Championship, among other things.

There have been some truly great times in there, like when we found out we got the number one seed for the NCAA tournament in ’98, and there have been some ugly times like when we had our meeting and video session after we got smashed by Duke 5-1 freshman year after a miserable performance on our part.

The thing that I’ve grown to realize is that each and every time we part from that room, we grow as a team and learn something new. Whether it be pointing out our mistakes or praising our efforts, Coach Adair always uses our time in 115 to make our team better and unify us as a family.

This year, it would be where we all gathered once again to find out who, we had to face in the NCAA Tournament. Since this is my fourth year here, I have experienced quite a few ups and downs when it came to this point in the season.

Freshman year, I didn’t think that we had a chance to get into the tournament at 9-6-3. We lost way too many games to be considered for a bid in my mind, but we did have the toughest schedule in the country and did beat some ranked teams towards the end. It turned out that the Monday that the selection show aired, the television didn’t work so the entire team piled into coach Adair’s office and listened to the show on the phone. It turned out that our strength of schedule proved to be enough to get us in. As soon as we heard that we made it, people went nuts…jumping up and down, hugging each other, screaming and shouting…just knowing that our season would continue. Being a freshman, I had no idea what the tournament was all about. I knew that it was important, but since I had never played in it before, I had no idea who we had to play, where we played, I didn’t even know where the Final Four was.

Sophomore year was very much the same in that we had just beaten Duke to win the ACC Tournament the day before, and gathered once again and watched as our name appeared first as the tournament’s number one seed.

Last year, however, we gathered in 115 with hopes of getting an at large bid, which in reality, wasn’t going to happen. We had lost too many important games, and although we did have an impressive strength of schedule, it just wasn’t enough to get us in and our aspirations were crushed. It was an extremely hard time to go through in that you never really hurt until the selection show is over and you are told that your season is much that same: over. I can remember Matt Elliott telling me how sorry he was and saying, “Whatever you do Mike, don’t let this happen to you next year,” as he put his head on my shoulders and began to cry.

This year, we came away from the ACC Tournament with a draw to Wake Forest at their place. Although they went through on penalty kicks, we all felt as though we played well enough to win and that we dominated the majority of the game as we out shot them 32-16, hit the post 4 or 5 times, and made their goalkeeper look like Fabien Barthez. (I will say that it was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen since I’ve been at Clemson along side Jeff Haywood’s performance in goal when we played Duke last year). Anyway, since we didn’t win the tournament, the next best result we could have gotten was a draw. It didn’t hurt us, or necessarily help us in terms of postseason selections but it would have been nice to get through.

This year, we knew that we were going to get into the tournament but we weren’t sure where we fit. Coach was optimistic that we would get one of the top four seeds but I just couldn’t see how. Our strength of schedule was good, we had only lost 3 games, but San Jose St. was undefeated, we knew UNC was going to be #1, and Stanford probably was going to get one too, that left room for one more seed. The selection show went on naming the first three brackets, which we weren’t included in, and the first, third, and fourth seeds were taken up. The man continued to name the teams that were getting in and we still weren’t being named. We all began to get nervous and wondering if we were getting in at all, never mind a seed.

Then there were two spots left and the first team that showed up was Furman, then everyone went crazy knowing that we were the last team to be named with the number two seed. It actually surprised me that we were number two, but when you look at strength of schedule, opponent’s strength of schedule (ours was the toughest in the country), and our record, it all adds up. That would mean, however, that we would play Furman in the first round at our place.

We played them once before during the regular season and beat them 2-0, but it would be different this time because it’s lose and your out. There is no second chance, no time to make up for your mistakes. That is what the regular season is for: to learn from your mistakes and ensure that they don’t happen when it comes down to the postseason. Coach always tells us that a game can be won or lost in a matter of seconds and when the NCAA Tournament comes around, teams are good enough to take advantage of those weaknesses.

Our preparation for Sunday’s game was the best it has been all year. Every practice was sharp, the fitness sessions went extremely well and showed that everyone was match fit, and everyone was focused. We got the proper amount of rest we needed, and wound up staying in a hotel on Saturday night in Greenville to get away from campus. Our football team was playing USC and the town was crazy all weekend especially after we won.

Everyone knew that this was going to be a great first round game, and a shame for whoever lost, but nobody could have known about the weather that was heading our way. The weathermen were predicting that it was going to snow all day on Sunday, just in time for our game, and the temperatures weren’t going to break 40. I didn’t believe it due to the fact that just last week it was 70 degrees and sunny, but I will be the first one to admit, I was wrong.

When I woke up on that Sunday morning, it was snowing hard. Not just flurries, but hard snow was falling like it used to in Maryland. It did surprise me and made me think back to the days of club with John Ellinger but after talking with Pablo, we realized that we never played in the snow before…a lot of cold and freezing rain, but never snow.

The conditions continued to get worse during the warm up as the snow began to stick to the ground, the ball was skipping all over the place, and our feet were beginning to freeze. All things set aside, our warm up was still extremely sharp, and everyone was excited to play. When we went into the locker room, we went over a few last minute details, put on a dry pair of socks, and ran out onto the field ready to play.

Due to the harsh conditions, it was hard for any team to really get a rhythm. We weren’t able to put many passes together, and it was also hard to play fast because you were always worried about getting the ball under control first and then making the proper decision. There was about an inch and a half of snow beneath us, and the ice began to stick to the ball as it rolled along the ground. The ball got hard and “dead” making it very difficult to slot a ball more than 10 to 15 yards.

We knew that they would sit in and try and counter-attack to create chances using John Barry Nusum as their target and have players come from behind to join. All we need to do is establish good starting positions on him and their other attackers, preventing them from getting into any sort of dangerous positions. Due to the conditions, it was impossible to stop them every time but overall, they really didn’t get much started. They did get chances, as did we. They missed one from the 12 off of a cross from the right side, while one of our players missed an open net after he beat the keeper on a brilliant combination. But the ice and snow continued to be a factor and prevented what would have been a sure goal on a dry sunny day. However, we had to deal with the conditions as best as we could.

Their goal game off of a free kick at about the 22-minute mark. Their player hit the wall on the initial free kick, but the ball skipped back to Matt Goldsmith who saw that Douglas was starting to come off of his line and decided to chip him. When Doug began to try and get back, he slipped but still got a hand to it. However, due to the slippery conditions, it skidded off of his glove, hit the bar and went in. The rest of the half was spent trying to establish a style that would be effective in the snow. We were stopping their counters, but we weren’t getting any clear cut chances either. (We had a lot of corner kicks but nothing substantial) So we went into the locker room down 1-0 but by no means out of the game.

When we left the locker room for the second half, the snow had stopped and some of it had started to melt off. This gave us a chance to get back into our rhythm and go at them right from the whistle. From the beginning of the second half, we had a number of chances, not just decent chances, but great chances. Our time finally came at the 56th minute when one of our guys was fouled at the top of the box about 20 yards out. They had a 6 man wall and everyone else was mixed together in the box at the far post. It was a direct free kick and Mark put it into the upper corner perfectly.

The crowd went nuts and we all slid to the far side and hugged some of our alumni (JW) and ex-trianers (CF) who came to support us. I know I say this a lot on these reports but it was one of the greatest free kicks I’ve ever seen and it was what we needed. From that point on, there was no doubt in any of our minds that we weren’t going to let this game get away from us. We had battled back and we were ready to get the game winner, which we thought was Steven Ryhne’s goal at the 63rd minute off of a brilliant first time ball by Ian Fuller to split their defense. Steven made a great run across their line of defenders, took a touch to get into space, and slotted the ball far post past their keeper. It was also another great goal that reflected what we had worked on all week as well as all season.

The second goal wasn’t quite enough to solidify our victory as they got another goal off of a corner kick at the 65th minute. Their player made a run and headed the ball over the line about 2 inches before Oskar cleared it. It was a goal but it was a soft goal to give up on our part, especially after we worked to hard to get back into it. The rest of the game was in our favor as we continued to attack them, play in their half, and stop their counter attacks. They did sit in, very rarely coming out to play, and we kept putting pressure on their backs. Our last goal finally came in the 87th minute off of a throw by Pablo. The ball was flicked by Gooch and put in by Ricki Lewis who was stellar all afternoon. The fans went crazy and that is when we knew we were on to the second round. It felt great to win. I was extremely happy for everyone on the team as we worked to hard to get here and now, our hard work is beginning to pay off.

Now we play UCONN here at Clemson on Riggs at 2pm. We played them during preseason at UCONN and were terrible. Some of our players were injured, we were just getting used to each other, and weren’t a true team yet. At this point in the season, I can truly say that things are coming together. Our freshmen have matured, we’re 100% healthy, we have great depth, and have found a style that suits us. I am looking forward to getting back to training and putting together another week of preparation like the one we had last week. If we continue to play the way we have been ever since Duke, work on a few things, and go into the game like we did against Furman, we should be ready to put together a better performance than we did in August.

For all of you who showed up in the freezing rain and snow on Sunday, your support is greatly appreciated by all of us. For those of you who couldn’t make it, it was a game to remember and I hope I’ve given you an inside look at exactly what went on. (Sorry for the length, I haven’t done this in a while….Happy Thanksgiving!)

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