In characterizing his team’s recently-completed spring exhibition season, men’s soccer coach Mike Noonan offered some insight by way of an apt metaphor.
“For the first time, I don’t feel as though we’re clearing the debris,” he remarked. “We’re now starting to build.”
For Noonan, who’ll begin his fourth season at Clemson next fall, the most gratifying aspect of the spring is that he saw the Tigers evolving into a more focused and purposeful team that’s willing to accept and even embrace challenges.
“Honestly, we’re still in the process of creating a culture within the team, and I thought we made more gains this spring than we have since I’ve been here,” said Noonan. “The players basically took ownership over the maintenance-running of the team, so that the coaching staff was able to really focus on the soccer-playing pieces.”
From a leadership standpoint, the addition to the roster of graduate-student Thomas McNamara - an attacking midfielder/forward from Brown with one year of eligibility remaining - had an impact that was felt at once.
“Tom McNamara graduated from Brown and came in and started in January,” said Noonan, who previously coached at Brown, and actually brought McNamara there as a recruit. “He immediately had a huge impact on the culture of the team. He and Phanuel Kavita were named as captains. We sent the team home for Christmas with a program, and when they came back you could tell that their commitment level was at a better place than it’s been.
“So that was a good start, and throughout the spring season, it was fun to coach. Not that it hasn’t been fun in the past, but every day you looked forward to going to practice, and every day the players looked forward to being at practice. And for a coach, that was an awesome environment.”
As for the spring slate itself, Noonan deliberately by-passed ACC opponents, which addressed the fact that while the Tigers often performed well in the high-level context of their league games last season, they sometimes stumbled midweek and out of conference.
“We scheduled a lot of games, and because we struggled with our midweek opponents last season, what we designed for the spring was to schedule teams that we would potentially play in midweek,” said Noonan. “We played teams like Georgia Southern, Davidson, East Tennessee State, Georgia State, and then mixed them in with the Charleston Battery and Northwestern.
“So it was a blend of really challenging games at varying levels, and all against teams who we won’t play on our schedule next year. So I thought the design of the spring games was really good. You learn as you go, and the games were spaced out well enough so that you could learn something and work on it for a week or two and see how it went.”
While results are deemphasized in the spring, the Tigers did realize some objectives along those lines in finishing with a 5-2-1 record.
“The last weekend we went up to Rock Hill, and had two matches,” said Noonan. “In order for the players to accomplish their goal of winning at least five games out of the eight we were playing, they had to win both of the games, and they beat both East Tennessee and Davidson. I think everybody on the roster felt as though they got better, and the coaches felt the team got better and got tighter.”
Though a decisive loss to a USL professional side (the Charleston Battery) indicated that consistency is a work-in-progress, Noonan was encouraged by the style and quality of the Tigers’ play as it developed through the spring.
“In the end, and as I kept on telling the team, it’s not about wins and losses in the springtime,” he said. “It’s about the process and the performances they had. When we did take a tumble, which we did against the Battery, it was about their response to it. We were exceptional in the first half against the Battery and probably should have scored two or three goals, and then we lost our way in the second half.
“So we’re still working on consistency, but we implemented a style that’s possession-based. The movement and the angles and the passing and the quality of some of the goals we scored were terrific. So I was very pleased with the spring.”