Tigers Return To Familiar Territory

Tigers Return To Familiar Territory

Friday September 20, 2013


Clemson men’s soccer back on national stage

The Clemson men’s soccer program has reclaimed a spot among the nation’s elite.

The Tigers are unbeaten through six matches. The national pollsters are taking due note, and crowds for home matches at Historic Riggs Field have been electric.

It is what Mike Noonan envisioned nearly four years ago, when he departed Brown after a 15-year stint that included 10 NCAA postseason appearances and eight Ivy League championships. Noonan headed south intent on reviving a Clemson program that had uncharacteristically fallen on hard times.

The Tigers compiled a 20-32-4 record in the three seasons prior to Noonan’s arrival. But he had watched from afar in the mid-1980s, when I.M. Ibrahim guided Clemson to a pair of NCAA titles. He was keenly aware that he was inheriting a program that, despite its recent struggles, had won 72 percent of its all-time matches.

This was a program that owned 26 total NCAA Tournament appearances, had reached the College Cup on seven occasions and owned 13 Atlantic Coast Conference championships.

Noonan knew what Clemson soccer could and should be, and since January of 2010 he has focused on that restoration.

“History and tradition are two of the values we have within our program,” Noonan said. “Restoring that history and tradition was one of the great challenges we had when my staff and I came here. It certainly is something that we are proud of, and something that we hope to build on.”

The rebuilding process, punctuated by seemingly endless recruiting trips and countless hours on the practice field, hasn’t been easy or painless. But when the Tigers play host to defending ACC champion Maryland on Saturday night, they will do so as the nation’s fourth-ranked team. Clemson heads into the match against the 17th-ranked Terrapins having yielded just one goal on the season and as one of five NCAA Division I teams nationally that remain unbeaten and untied.

“I think the team has grown in its experience,” Noonan said. “I think the fact guys have played together for the past several years is the key to what we have been able to accomplish on both sides of the ball. I am proud that the guys are seeing the benefits of their labor.”

After posting a 5-9-4 record in Noonan’s first year in 2010, Clemson finished 8-8-2 in 2011 and went  unbeaten in its final six matches (4-0-2). That closing stretch included wins over top-ranked Maryland and No. 14 Boston College, and a tie vs. No. 24 Duke in the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament.

The Tigers failed to advance in the ACC Tournament after falling short against the Blue Devils in a penalty kick shootout. They missed out on their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006 despite their strong finish to the season, but Noonan could see his plan falling into place.

“There were seedlings during that season of what we were trying to accomplish in terms of some buy-in,” Noonan said. “It was a very young team; it was really the first freshman class that we had brought in. We were hired late (prior to the 2010 season) so we really didn’t get to recruit as much that first year. You could really start seeing some of the benefits of some of the things we had done in recruiting. Some of the character the guys showed down the stretch was terrific, and it was something that we certainly built with.”

Steps continued to be made gradually. Clemson reached the semifinals of the ACC Tournament in 2012 before falling to Maryland in double-overtime, but a sub-.500 overall record ruled out consideration for an NCAA bid. But the Tigers stormed into this season with a veteran cast and a winning attitude.

Team leaders include junior defender Phanuel Kavita, who hails from the Republic of the Congo, and played for the Real Salt Lake Academy squad in Casa Grande, Ariz. Real Salt Lake MLS team assistant coach Miles Joseph, a former Clemson, U.S. National Team and professional standout, steered Kavtia toward his alma mater.

“Phanuel is a young man of super character, and we were lucky enough to land him,” Noonan said. “He has had some life experiences that many of us haven’t had growing up. He appreciates every day and the opportunity he has to play for Clemson and to promote our program and the education that Clemson provides him. I think he is one of the most appreciative people that I have ever come across, and he’s turned into a great leader and player for us.”

Clemson is currently led in scoring by midfielder Thomas McNamara, who was recruited by Noonan to Brown and starred for the Bears for three seasons before graduating from the Ivy League school in 3 ½ years. With one year of eligibility remaining, he joined fellow midfielder Bobby Belair – another Brown teammate and Noonan recruit – in making the move to Clemson.

“One of my biggest second thoughts and disappointments in leaving the job at Brown was that I was not going to be able to coach Tom and Bobby and the recruiting class they came in with,” Noonan said. “We had brought in a fantastic freshman class. Obviously, I kept track of them. I knew that they each had a redshirt year, and we were fortunate to get them to come down here and join us.”

After excelling academically as undergraduates at Brown, Noonan said the student-athletes were sold on what Clemson could offer in the way of graduate studies.

“One of the reasons that Clemson was so appealing was because of the academic pursuits that President (James) Barker has put out there for the school,” Noonan said. “I think it fits well into our mission as coaches, and that is something that has attracted many of our players here – Tom in particular, so that he could continue his graduate work at a place that value academics the way we do, but at the same time at a place that offers first-rate athletic programs. Athletics is a big deal here at Clemson and in the ACC, so it was a great opportunity to mix both of those worlds.”

Despite this year’s impressive start and indications that this could be a turnaround season, Noonan cautions that the road grows steeper from here. A dozen games remain on the regular-season schedule, including four against ACC teams currently ranked among the nation’s top 20 by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

“It’s tough,” said Noonan, who will be going after his 250th win against Maryland on Saturday night. “Without question, top to bottom – and with the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and eventually Louisville – it’s going to be a bear.

“But that’s the challenge and that’s the fun of it.  If you look at it in a positive light, every game is going to be a good game, every team is going to be well-coached and well-prepared. Competition is something that we embrace and we enjoy. We love it.”

TOP OF THEIR GAME

Clemson’s leap to No. 4 in the Sept. 17 Soccer America poll highlights a week in which Atlantic Coast Conference fall Olympic sports dominate the national rankings. ACC teams hold 13 of the 20 possible spots among the top five teams ranked in the Soccer America men’s and women’s polls, the National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll and the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association women’s rankings.