Tonight, FIU women’s soccer faces Central Florida in FIU’s first NCAA game in 18 years. Back on Sept. 17, the football team beat Central Florida to go to 3-0.
Unbeknownst to all at the time, that marked the peak of the football team’s season (thus far). That also would be the day the women’s soccer season turned around. In fact, the two teams began going in opposite directions from that weekend.
FIU went out to the Nike Invitational with a 2-4 record. They rolled Stetson most of the season opener, then saw goals in the 64th and 89th minutes, the last on a created-luck bounce, hand them an infuriating 2-1 loss. Rare is the lost two-goal lead. FIU turned two such leads into losses in those first six games.
Then, in the first game of the Nike Invitational, on Sept. 16, Oregon State blasted them 7-0.
7-0? Losing by a touchdown in school soccer? That’s a humiliating score that says, “We’re a team of serious players. You’re a bunch of dilettantes.”
It’s a good bet few, if any, of FIU’s players have been on the business end of that message. This was a team their coach honestly felt before the season possessed the talent for winning the conference, doing some special things. Coming after their early losses, the dismantling could’ve left FIU in pieces for the rest of the season.
Or, it could be a moment similar to what the 1970 Dallas Cowboys faced. The title-turned-nickname carried by the Cowboys wasn't yet “America’s Team” but “Next Year’s Champions.” That's the title of a book on the 1968 Cowboys which became a sneered reference to the Cowboys yearly unfulfilled potential. Once again, in 1970, Dallas appeared to have the most talent. Yet, they fell to 5-4 after getting trampled 38-0 by the Cardinals on that popular new ABC show Monday Night Football.
A tearful apology by head coach Tom Landry preceded a players only meeting. Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said in Peter Golenbock’s book Landry’s Boys he told his teammates they’d been deserted by everyone, coaches, wives and the media. “I said, ‘Guys, it’s going to happen right here in this room or it’s not going to happen.’ Several of us talked. We said, ‘We are going to do it for us, not for somebody else, not for the coaches or the fans or Tex (Schramm, the general manager) or anyone else.’”
The original Doomsday Defense came together and Dallas won the last five regular season games, both NFC playoff games and got to Super Bowl V.
Sophomore Nicole DiPerna remembers coach Thomas Chestnutt saying, “You guys need to have a talk” and the team heading for one side of the field while the coaches and trainers played two-on-two.
“We were asking, ‘What’s happening to us?’ DiPerna recalled.
Sara Stewart recalls the team deciding to be more positive on the field, not let frustration poison play. Probably came in handy during the Sun Belt tournament when they got down to Denver 1-0 early and when they got overrun in the second half of the championship game by Western Kentucky.
DiPerna said they made a promise to each other they repeat before every game: play for each other and do everything they can to make each other’s life easier.
The next night, they took a 2-0 lead at Oregon and brought home a 2-1 win. The second goal came on a penalty kick taken by freshman Johanna Volz, the Oregon native who buried the final penalty kick in the Sun Belt Conference championship shootout. In the run bookended by those two games, the Panthers went 11-1-3.
“The biggest thing that showed the character and mental strength of the team is turning around off that 7-0 and getting a 2-1 result at Oregon,” Chestnutt said. “That Saturday morning, the captains took the team away and chatted for 40 minutes. It was the pivotal moment in the season.”
A season that's still going.
FIU opens its women’s basketball season Friday night against Jacksonville at The Bank.
Over the 18 seasons between my first stretch on the FIU beat and the current one, I’d occasionally check our FIU stories to see which coaches remained and which moved (or got moved) on in life. Every time I’d see “women’s basketball coach” was still followed by “Cindy Russo,” I thought, “Go on. Hang tough, girl.”
Russo took over the FIU program just after Miami met McDuffie and Mariel. Wayne Gretzky didn’t have an NHL scoring title (he lost on the goals scored tiebreaker to Marcel Dionne his first NHL season). Howard Schnellenberger was still saving the University of Miami football program. Sophomore Pitt quarterback Dan Marino split time with Rick Trocano. The Lakers had won an NBA title with Paul Westhead assuming the head coaching job after Jack McKinney suffered head injuries in a bike accident. But the best coach on LA’s staff was another assistant, Pat Riley.
And this was the coolest video that had been produced to that time…
She might be the coach in this town with her current job title the longest. This is season No. 32 as head coach at FIU, 37th overall in college coaching. Or, her entire adult life.
When I sat down with her last week to talk about this year’s team, I couldn’t help but ask: ever get tired of it?
“Everybody gets tired of their job,” she replied, what remains of her native Virginia accent tugging on the shirttail of a few sentences. “The travel is the hardest thing. We travel a lot with recruiting and meetings. The time you want to be in Miami is in the winter. And we’re gone half the winter!”
She laughed, then said, “If I had to go back and choose a profession, I’d choose the same thing and do it all over again. I think everybody gets burned out in their job. Every year I renew myself and I have a lot of energy this year. The kids are what make it worthwhile. Working with individuals in here as well.” She threw a hand toward other offices in the building. “They’re really really nice people as well.
“It keeps you younger. I’m beginning to realize people my age don’t look like me because you can’t get fat. You can’t have a belly, they’ll let you know. You just don’t want to -- it’s not healthy -- but you don’t just want to not look like you’re an athlete. I got a little chunky these last few years and they didn’t mind telling me.”
She pointed out some of her chronological peers can’t text, but she stays up on techie evolution because you better if you’re in charge of a bunch of 18 to 21-year-olds. Or, if you just want to keep up with what’s happening.
“Life would be different if I got out of coaching…different. It would be nice and peaceful. And I look forward to that day, but it’s not today.
“There won’t be any people to stay in coaching this long anymore. It’s hard then, now it’s harder.”
Still there, though.