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Learning From the Losses

One milestone for a women’s soccer coach, countless lessons learned along the way

By Aliceann Wilber as told to Brian Burnsed

The 500th win earlier this season was not a big moment. If there weren’t sports information directors and media around, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

I remember my first loss, though. I think that may be more typical of coaches. We tend to remember all of the things that didn’t go well before we remember the things that did. It was 11-0, so I remember that one distinctly. We were playing Wells College, which had quite a good program at the time. And so that 11-0 loss was a clear mandate to me of how much I had to learn. Whoa, welcome to college soccer.

In terms of going from rags to riches, this is a good story.

My first year here at William Smith College was 1980. I had no college coaching experience whatsoever, knew next to nothing about soccer, and this is the God’s honest truth: We would get in the van to go to a game and, at that time, there was a big knitting rage. Everybody is knitting these beautiful sweaters. They would get in the van, pull out their knitting, and chatter happily all the way to the game while comparing stitches and colors and patterns. Then we would get killed, they would get back in the van, pull out their knitting, and they had no idea who they had played.

Aliceann Wilber, William Smith College

Only by the mid-1980s did I even have an idea what the national soccer scene was. Until then, there was no point in me paying attention to it. But, around that time, I wanted us to be in the mix. Step by step by step, we were finally able to score some goals, finally able to prevent some goals, finally able to win a game. We started to have a very different mindset on trips where we were careful to maintain and promote focus. Though I do have to say that our players in the early 1980s did knit some beautiful sweaters.

I learned that you have got to go where your fear is. You’ve got to get down in the belly of the beast and crawl around a little bit. I remember when we first put the State University of New York at Cortland on our schedule. They were a juggernaut. Nobody wanted to play Cortland because you knew you were going to lose. I knew I had to go there to get better. And so I used that philosophy to build the program – keep taking on something that we might have wanted to duck because it wasn’t comfortable.

We were finding out who we could be, and there was a tremendous amount of excitement. In 1987, we came on to the national scene, and we beat Cortland to get into the final four. I’ve never forgotten that Cortland win. That was the tipping point.

We lost in the national finals to the University of Rochester that year, but that experience was enormously beneficial. When we lost, my kids who were the leaders of the team said, “We are winning it next year.” And they never looked back. We had fantastic leadership, kids who knew what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go and how they were going to do it. Everybody else just got on board and followed them. That mindset and determination that they were able to carry from one season to the next – I paid a lot of attention to that. To win a national championship now? You can’t do it without that mindset. It’s just too difficult.

Together, we realized that if you apply yourself and you don’t take shortcuts and you work incredibly hard as a group and everybody is on the same page, you can accomplish things. And the next year we won our first national championship, just like my players said they would after that tough loss to Rochester.

I’ve never forgotten the conviction it took. That was one of the pinnacles of my career because that’s a lesson that doesn’t stop with soccer. That applies to all aspects of your life. And I was so gratified  that all of my kids – I still call them my kids even though they’re about 50 now – had a chance to learn that through the sport. I think that experience created a belief in
my players, and it created a belief in me that has persisted in all the years since. We
knew where we had come from.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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