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magazine home > archives > winter 2005 > features

University of Memphis sports teams enjoyed arguably their best seasons ever this past fall. A conference cross-country title by distance runner Mate Nemeth and a second straight bowl appearance by the football Tigers were a few of the highlights. But the biggest surprise came from a team that, one might say, had the luck of the Irish on its side.

Kick of a Lifetime
by Greg Russell

  Soccer team

Members of the Conference USA soccer championship team - the University of Memphis Tigers.

Shortly after a score that would help vault the University of Memphis' athletic program to dizzying heights, a middle-aged man - in a moment of excitement - leapt from his seat in the bleachers, lost his footing and took a nasty tumble to the ground.

Now if you're thinking DeAngelo Williams touchdown run, guess again. A Rodney Carney slam-dunk? Contemplate a bit more. Try a goal by forward Andy Metcalf that would help Memphis to a landmark soccer victory over national power Saint Louis.

And who says soccer isn't exciting.

"To tell you the truth, that was a little bit embarrassing," says Neil F. Dobson, the fallen fan, whose son, Daniel, is a midfielder on the team.

But who could blame Dobson for the mishap - he had just driven hundreds of miles from Garland, Texas, to watch perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2004 collegiate soccer world - the U of M men's team. The Tigers followed the mid-season 2-0 shutout of the Billikens with C-USA regular season and tournament titles, and an appearance in the NCAA tourney - the team's second berth ever.

Not bad for a team picked to finish ninth in the conference and, by some accounts, not even in the top 100 among all collegiate teams.

"Coming into the season, we were hoping to place in the top six just to make it to the (conference) tournament," says head coach Richie Grant, who for the second time in his six-year Tiger career captured Coach of the Year honors.

Daniel Dobson
Senior Daniel Dobson, a first team all-conference selection, during an early season match.

Never mind the fact the Tigers lost in the first round of the NCAAs (no thanks to an unkind seed). The Tigers rebounded from a 1-8 conference record a year ago to finish the year at 16-4-1 and an 11th place national ranking. Along the way, the U of M beat five nationally ranked teams.

"Coming into the season, we were picked ninth out of 10 teams - we took note of that," said freshman midfielder Adam Montgomery, himself an oddity at Memphis. When was the last time the Tigers plucked the best player of any kind from the heart of Big Orange Country? "It is a little strange coming here after growing up there (near Knoxville), but Memphis was the best place in the state to play Division I."

Grant, the Tigers' Dublin-born ball of energy, says the team's turnaround happened months before the season on what at first appeared to be an ill-fated Valentine's Day trip. The head coach took his team to Texas to play the Dallas Burn of the professional Major League Soccer association.

"We drove to Dallas, stayed four to a room and when we woke up the next morning, there were six inches of snow on the ground," says Grant. "The match was canceled."

But Grant rescheduled the game and the team again took the long drive to the Lone Star State. This time and despite a 4-0 loss, Grant got what he was after.

"We were looking for a better way to keep our athletes excited during the spring - our players were completely energized by that opportunity," Grant says.

"That's what made us hungrier," agrees Dayton O'Brien, an Evangelical Christian School product who was C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. "That trip was a huge building block in this program."

Grant's success also comes from having a team with an international flavor. Eight players hail from overseas, including six from Ireland, and assistant coach Robert Nicholson comes from Scotland. The blend has seemed to work wonders.

  Championship celebration

The Tigers were all smiles after capturing the C-USA soccer tournament title. Picked to finish ninth in the conference, the U of M also won the regular season title.

"The American guys are more athletic, but the Europeans that come over are more technical, so it is a good match," says John Reilly, a senior from Dublin, who says the Memphis heat has been his biggest foe.

"The American players are more quiet and reserved," adds junior Stephen Cooling, also of Dublin.

"Those guys (Irish) are very intense - it can surprise you - but it really helps us out," notes Montgomery.

The Irish connection hasn't been by accident: Grant annually hosts Dublin-based secondary school Colaiste Ide for exhibition matches each spring. The head coach says the school places 20 to 30 Irish players in the NCAA system, "but our belief is the best come here."

Grant believes the realignment of Conference USA, while hurting some sports, will actually benefit soccer. Despite losing Saint Louis, the league picks up national powers Southern Methodist and Florida International, as well as Kentucky, South Carolina (the SEC doesn't field men's soccer) and Tulsa. All five schools were included in the field of 48 teams in the NCAA tournament.

Next season looks even brighter for the Tigers. Grant loses just four seniors: Reilly, Dobson, Justin Dyer (Christian Brothers High School) and Argentine goalie Sebastian Vecchio.

"We seem to be on solid ground," says Grant.

 

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