What would it be like on the road with the Northern Michigan University soccer team? The team was selected to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. It wasn’t like it was a regular thing where all the players knew exactly what to expect. Head coach Matt Granstrand had some experience going to the NCAA but it had been years.
My job on the weekend was to be the on-site administrator for NMU. It didn’t sound like it would be too hard. Represent NMU and be there if a player or coach got ejected but I knew that wouldn’t happen with the players and coaches that we have.
We all met behind the Superior Dome Thursday morning to load the bus and be on the road by 8:30 a.m. I showed up at 8:15 and to my surprise the bus wasn’t there. Matt was pretty frustrated but knew there must be an explanation. After waiting around for a half hour he got his explanation. Apparently, there was a problem with the steering and there needed to be a quick fix before we hit the road.
Our driver Pat showed up at 9 a.m. and we quickly loaded the bus and got on the road. “Do we even bother counting?” said Granstrand knowing the team was more than excited to start the trip. The team doesn’t get too flustered about travel plans. “We just go with the flow. You probably won’t find this attitude with other teams.” said Granstrand.
I was warned earlier in the week to be prepared for some chick flicks but there were no movies on the way down. The players settled down as we got farther down south. The fatigue of a long season and many weekends on the road at the end of the season was catching up. I caught up on some sleep myself.
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Our first stop was the Schmidt residence in Slinger, Wis., where starting midfielder, Becky, had her mother cook up a delicious meal of lasagna, fruit and dessert for the whole team, two coaches, trainer, bus driver and myself. The team was still a little tired from their naps.
“Be quiet! I’m trying to eat,” assistant coach Joe Gillespie joked to the silent table.
After lunch the squad got their practice gear on, played some piano and continued to play with the family dog, who was more than excited to have a house full of kids to play with.
We boarded the bus and were back on the road for our destination; University of Wisconsin-Parkside. We only had an hour to go.
The moment we got on the bus, the preparation for practice and scouting the game started. Coach Granstrand got on the phone, calling coaches who were familiar with Friday’s opponent, Northern Kentucky. The Norse were a very good team entering the game 17-2-1. Coach got various reports on NKU and strategies for the game. Matt and Joe talked about drills to run in practice and strategy for the game. We only had 45 minutes for practice.
We arrived at Wood Road Field in Somers, Wis. at 2:45 p.m. for practice. The temperature was in the high 50s and it was calm; perfect for soccer. Joe did drills with the fielders while Matt and redshirt Nichole Musi warmed up the two stellar goalkeepers. After 45 minutes we got off the field and had a quick meeting in front of the bus.
“All the pressure is on them. We have nothing to lose tomorrow. We’ve accomplished our season’s goals. They’re the ones that are nervous,” Granstrand said to his team.
Pat drove us to the Best Western in Kenosha. Everyone found their rooms while Matt, Joe and I had to go to a quick meeting back at the University with the other schools coaches and administration. From there it was finding supper.
The seniors make the decisions that Matt doesn’t want to make. They pick the options for food. There were groups that went to Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings and Noodles & Co. The group that went to Texas Roadhouse had a long wait so the other two groups got rides back to the hotel before they even had their food. From there it was settle down and get some rest.
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The bus loaded and was ready to head to the field at 9:30 a.m. The team was excited to get new participation field passes. “These are way better than the GLIAC ones!” Dana Bush said. They also received game programs with rosters from all the teams in the tournament. They looked for friends and former teammates on other teams.
We got to the field where the Wildcats started stretching. Everyone sat in a circle, giving out advice about the game. “Play hard. Have fun. Win balls. Have fun.” Each player had something positive to say and it seemed like each player ended their advice with “have fun.” They knew why they play the sport they love. It’s not for the glory. It’s not for fame. It’s not to win every championship. It’s to have fun.
The game started with NKU dominating the play for the first 15 minutes. NMU weathered the storm and got a couple scoring chances of its own. Senior goalkeeper Dana Bush single handedly kept the ‘Cats in the game making eight saves in the first half to keep the score 0-0.
I was excited. I can’t imagine how the team felt. We can win this thing! A man that is close to UW-Parkside soccer program told me that No. 17 is the toughest player on the field. KC McCary is No. 17 and had a task of battling in the middle with the strength of the Norse.
It didn’t take long for NKU to finally break through. Amanda Mason took the ball at the second half whistle, dribbled through the NMU defense and passed it off to Hannah Wissel who buried the first goal of the game.
They have a good team, but we have a good team, too. We can make a comeback. We have seniors Dana Stephens and Kari Buckel who can score goals at any time. We have emerging stars Amelia Johnson and Brekelle Sellers who have shown flashes of brilliance this year. We also have defenders Missy Mohr, Aurora Jackson and Caitlin Glendenning who have made goalkeepers Jessica Baker and Dana Bush look better then they already are.
But the Norse continued to score, adding three more goals before the game was over. Coach Granstrand was able to sub out all his seniors and give them the congratulations they deserved on great careers.
After the game, NMU received medals of recognition from the NCAA. There was a team picture and then it was off to be with family and friends who had made the trek to the game. Nobody seemed sad. Everyone was happy with the accomplishments of the season.
“Next time we need to come to the tournament and win a couple.” said Granstrand.
We boarded the bus and made our way back to the hotel for the final time. Everyone packed their belongings and walked to the nearby fast food restaurants. One player didn’t make it out of her room before everyone left for food, so her teammates had to go help her before we left for Marquette.
The ride home was different than the ride down. Everyone was alive and fairly loud. Plans were made for the weekend, while movies like Harry Potter and John Tucker Must Die played.
The season was over. A new season will soon begin and a new journey in life begins for the graduating seniors.
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