When it comes to sports, hot dogs are more associated with something other than soccer
(think ’70’s jingle baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet), but for U of M women’s
soccer head coach Brooks Monaghan, it meant a big score.
At a tournament in Houston three years ago, Monaghan was scouting players on one field
when he decided to make a food run. As he passed by another field on his way to a
hot dog stand, something caught his eye: a player that he knew relatively little about
“did something special,” he recalls.
“I was like, ‘Wow, let me watch this kid.’” Monaghan kept watching and eventually
targeted the athlete as a top recruit. The result? The player, Vendula Strnadova,
came to Memphis where she earned C-USA Freshman-of-the-Year honors after her first
season in 2007. She followed up that campaign with C-USA Offensive Player-of-the-Year
and Midfielder-of-the-Year awards last season.
For Monaghan, it was another recruiting coup, a player who blossomed into a top-level
athlete who has helped Memphis to back-to-back C-USA season and tournament titles
as well as consecutive NCAA appearances, the first in the program’s history. With
all but two starters back, Monaghan’s team is again a C-USA favorite. And after two
straight first-round exits in the NCAA tournament, the squad is poised to scratch
even deeper this season.
“On paper it looks great,” said Monaghan, who is entering his 10th season as head
coach. “We lost one or two starters, depending on the system we used in a particular
game last year.
|Laura Laufenberg. Right: Lizzy Simonin. Photo by Joe Murphy.
“And the past two seasons, we’ve really had to rely on freshmen coming in and making
a big impact. This year with the returning players we have, we look at the freshmen
as a bonus. We don’t feel we need freshmen to come in and light it up because we feel
like it is already in place. But we are very pleased with our recruiting class. We
believe some of those kids can compete for playing time.”
With back-to-back NCAA appearances, the Lady Tigers are perhaps Memphis’ second most
successful program of late behind men’s basketball, but it certainly took some doing
to get there. When Monaghan took over the program three weeks before the season began
in 2000, he inherited a squad that was going nowhere fast — it had finished 5-13 the
year before and only had one winning season since the program was started in 1995.
And while some first-year head coaches are afforded the luxury of inheriting a talented
team — some go on to win conference championships with the prior coach’s athletes
— Monaghan had no such luck.
“We took over a below average program and we were very young coaches,” said Monaghan
of himself and assistant coach Jodi Grant, wife of men’s head soccer coach Richie
Grant. “I was very green, to say the least. I had been goalkeeper coach (for both
the men’s and women’s teams), but I had no experience in the office, no experience
as a head soccer coach. We were trying to figure things out.”
The program progressed from seventh in the conference in 2004, to fifth the following
season to third in 2006. Then came the back-to-back conference titles.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said of turning the program around.
To build the program, he first looked overseas.
“When we first started, it was hard to get the really strong American players so we
began by bringing in international players,“ he said, noting that recruiting wars
overseas weren’t as intense as on the home front. “As we elevated the program, it
was easier to bring in domestic kids. My philosophy now is to go get the best.”
The roster also has a huge “northern” flavor to it, with six Canadians on the team,
thanks largely to Grant, a native of Sherwood Park, Canada.
Monaghan was no stranger to Tiger soccer when he took over: after a year playing at
the University of Evansville, he was goalie for the Tiger men from 1992-94. Grant,
whose maiden name is Fisher, wasn’t either; she was on the inaugural Lady Tiger team
This season, the Tigers look to have a nucleus that will push even deeper into the
NCAA field. With most starters back, including, Strnadova, C-USA Freshman-of-the-Year
Lizzy Simonin and team captain Laura Laufenberg, the squad seems ripe for a third
straight conference title.
“We want to go even further and take the program to the next level,” said the midfielder/forward
Laufenberg, a junior from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. “The chemistry
gets better each year. I feel like we are right there with the other good programs.”
Strnadova, who grew up in New Mexico but is a native of the Czech Republic, agrees.
“A lot of the team is back so it won’t take us as long to play well together,” said
the junior, who is also on the Czech Republic’s national team.
Memphis lost a heartbreaker to Illinois in double overtime in the first round of NCAAs
“It was an even game, it could have gone either way,” the head coach said. “Illinois
made it to the Sweet 16. It could have been us.”
The team’s success off the field is also noteworthy: 24 of 26 players had 3.0 or higher
grade point averages last academic year.
Monaghan’s schedule this go-round is rather daunting, with the likes of SEC opponents
LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee peppered throughout.
“We want to play the best competition to prepare us for conference play.”
He said Central Florida will challenge for the C-USA title, but many other teams including
East Carolina will be in the mix.
“I truly believe that there are seven or eight teams that can win the conference this
year. It is extremely competitive.”
The players welcome the opportunity to defend the team’s back-to-back titles.
“We definitely have a target on our back,” said Simonin, a sophomore from Lee’s Summit,
Mo. “But we wouldn’t want it any other way.” — by Greg Russell