On Wednesday, February 1st, I woke up thinking about the fall of 2017. I should have been thinking about calling my Father* as it was his birthday, but February 1st was also our National Letter of Intent Signing Day. This was the day years of work came to fruition. This was the day when prospects would put pen to paper and make it official that they were joining our 2017 Aztec Soccer family.
As I imagined how the team would look and play, I also re-evaluated our class…again. I read their bios and recognized it was unlikely that the media would be all over this class. I smiled, knowing we had signed another group that believes in Aztec Soccer and its core values. This is to say, we had signed another talented class that would come in to assist our ambition of earning back to back NCAA bids.
On the surface, it seems so simplistic and obvious to recruit those that believe in your program and value system. However, it wasn’t too long ago that our program decided to slightly compromise our recruiting paradigm with the hopes of breaking through the barrier which was curtailing our ability to play in post season. We felt the need to find more “talented” players and that meant taking gambles in areas that we are not normally accustomed to. The byproduct of this shift, this compromise, in our prior recruiting philosophy was multiple losing seasons, trouble off the field, and a decline in our program’s academic prowess.
It did not take us long to realize we needed to return to our original recruiting formula. Although the realization was clear, there were still remnants of our mistakes and it took us time to clean up the locker room. However, we could not simply return to the same old ways, as we wanted more than winning records with no postseason berths. So we vowed to work with a greater due diligence to understand what type of person and player we were getting, while possessing a more steadfast approach to select traits like integrity over ability.
There are many ways to construct a team and finding “talent” comes to the forefront of every coach’s recruiting model. The word “talent” can be the difference between a successful season and a losing one. Aztec Soccer, obviously, seeks “talented” players because competing in arguably the country’s best league, we need to do more than simply pass and trap the ball. However, it is imperative that these so called “talented” players work with each other for the good of the team, unselfishly grafting for the program’s best interest, not their own.
In my readings over the years, I came across a quote I wrote down on this subject. The author stated, “a collection of talent with unbalanced chemistry and poor attitude can get beaten by teams of lesser talent.” This makes so much sense, yet we would beg to differ. Our 2016 team’s paraphrased definition of talent is “a person of ability who is hard working and possesses an altruistic nature for their teammates.” This newly derived definition would entitle us to call ourselves one of the most talented teams in the country.
Using this definition, we can confidently declare that our last three recruiting classes are some of the most talented groups we have assembled. This is exemplified by a season that brought us back to the NCAA tournament, while defeating the number one team in the country, tying the eventual National Champion, beating a sweet 16 team twice, and finishing the regular season ranked 19th in country. The group of players discussed have a full buy in to our Aztec Soccer Culture and what we expect from an Aztec Soccer player. We firmly believe that this has been the delineating factor to getting us out of the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.
Additionally, this definition not only set boundaries for what we look for in a player, it re-calibrated our search to the more significant question…what do we look for in a PERSON?
Above all else, we look for Trust, Respect, and Loyalty. In any healthy, functioning family, love is at the core. This love is nurtured by the trust, respect, and loyalty within each family member. We seek people that are exemplary citizens, which breeds TRUST in one another, which earns RESPECT across the group, and that respect propagates the unconditional bond, LOYALTY. We find that when people possess these attributes, they have the type of character needed to accomplish great things, together.
Just because we find talented people who are talented players, we are not guaranteed success. There must be an intrinsic drive cultivated by extrinsic factors to learn, achieve, and persevere through adversity. This means we are looking for talented people/players who thrive in challenging, adverse environments. Aztec Soccer players must have mental resolution, knowing hard work creates success, and that they are willing to bring that ethos to the training ground every day.
In our effort to embed this mentality, we borrowed Pittsburgh Steelers, Head Coach, Mike Tomlin’s axiom, The Standard is the Standard. In short, whatever you label the standard to be, then that standard must always be met in whatever task required. We took this aphorism to mean that if we wanted to be champions, we needed to always train like champions, always play like champions, and always act like champions. On the training ground, we want individuals to play as hard in 5 v 2 as they would in the National Championship Final and this adage was a concise way to express our desire before each practice. We are firm believers that you play how you train. To be the best on game day, you have to train like the best, everyday…the Standard is the Standard.
This segues to the need of players that fulfill our Aztec Soccer identity on the field…”Be Horrible to Play Against”. We play every game with the purpose that our opponent leaves the pitch feeling that, if they had their way, they would not want to play us, again. This concept is the case on both sides of the ball and is accomplished by “Out thinking, Out working, and Out competing” our respective adversary. We want to play tough, intellectual football with a mentality that “Aztecs Never Tire” and “Aztecs Never Quit”. The talented people and players we seek must embrace this identity and must do it with a fervor that is unquestionable. It was this identity that produced one of the best defensive teams in the country and our best winning percentage since 2005.
As I reflected on this past season and its many achievements, I realized how important it was to find individuals that understood what our Aztec Soccer Core Values are; Trust, Respect, and Loyalty. As Signing Day came, my 2017 class impressed the greater need to find those student-athletes that had the SAME belief structure. Equally important, we are looking for those individuals eager to do the hard work, day in and day out, to establish a cultural identity of being Horrible to Play Against. I assure the reader that very few teams enjoyed playing the Aztecs this year, and even more importantly, very few teams will enjoy playing the Aztecs for years to come.
*Please note that I did send my father a video of his grandson singing Happy Birthday and I followed up with a call later in the day.