Both the soccer field and the men’s program needed a spruce up job. Friday against Bryant University, 7 p.m., will be the first showing for how far new head coach Kenny Arena is on both.
To swim down the fault stream of FIU Soccer Field just sends anyone who cares screaming for tequila, so let’s just use the old reliable “What a dump.” But Thursday morning, Arena stood at the field checking out some of the improvements being made that’ll make the field more presentable.
“We’ve tried to make the players understand that this is a very important program with a very rich tradition,” Arena said. “We’ve tried to upgrade everything from the way we practice to our facilities, to make this an environment that not only looks very professional, but operates very professionally. It’s what this program deserves based on what the program has achieved.
The nod to that tradition comes from the replacement for the last connection to that tradition. Munga Eketebi – All-American player on the great mid-1980s FIU teams that were as good as any at any level, longtime assistant coach, then head coach – couldn’t beat NCAA sanctions and Conference USA. A 5-8-2 record last year left him at 27-51-9. Sacking Eketebi as the program finally got back to full scholarships reeked of both unfairness and an understandable desire to just start anew.
FIU showed signs of being something like what it once was last season. Against ranked teams, they went 1-0-2 and lost in overtime to perennially good SMU. But it also included a loss to Georgia state and getting smoked badly at Tulsa and Memphis.
“We definitely had a strong squad,” said senior defender Anthony Hobbs, FIU’s lone representative on the preseason All-Conference USA team. “It was whether we were going to turn out to play or not. Against the better teams we did well, we competed with them. Against teams we should beat, we just didn’t show up.”
In addition to Hobbs, FIU returns sophomore forward Quentin Albrecht, who lead the team in goals, and senior midfielder Lucas Di Croce, third on the team in scoring. Freshmen outnumber seniors, 8-5.
When I asked Arena about his emphasis on the postive, he covered more ground than grass in an interesting answer:
“There’s going to be times you have to critique, but if you do it in the right way, everybody enjoys learning. So, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they want to come to work every day. That they enjoy this experience. But also that the experience is very challenging.
“I respect the fact that they have a lot of responsibility, being student/athletes and playing. We demand a lot out of them as an athletic department to serve in the community. Being a student-athlete today is one of the hardest jobs. When we’re done as an athlete, I don’t think the first couple of years when we have careers that it’s as hard as it is when we’re here. These guys train from 8 to 10 in the morning. that means they’re up at 6 eating breakfast. Then they have treatment, weights, they have classes, they have community service. Then they have to study, they have games. It’s a very exhausting, but very rewarding experience.
“If you’re asking them to do that much, then it’s our job to make it a positive environment so that you keep them going.”
Just as men’s hoop coach Richard Pitino clearly got his half his chromosomes from Rick Pitino, Kenny Arena couldn’t be more recognizable as the son of former U.S. National Team coach and current Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. I asked Arena, 33 hours ahead of his first game as a college head coach, to name the one or two biggest things he’s learned from each coach he’s worked under.
“Bob Bradley was very disciplined. He made sure everyone was held accountable all the time,” Kenny Arena said. “My father, he treated each player with an incredible amount of respect and gave them their freedom, but found a way to have a culture that every time they stepped on the field, they gave it everything they had.
“The last coach I worked with, (UCLA’s) Jorge Salcedo, he was very organized,” Arena said. “He found a way to make life easier for the players, whether it was during practice or traveling. From the details of the hotel to what they’re eating to the timing of all that stuff, he made sure everything was organized so all operations ran smoothly and I found that helped the overall psyche of athletes. When everything’s organized and thought of ahead of time, they can just concentrate on playing.”
Last week, Mario Cristobal declared Jeremiah Harden "1A," close to Kedrick Rhodes at running back. I asked the pecking order and if Harden and Rhodes were even going into the season.
"Ked is No. 1. Ked's going into the game first," Cristobal said. "Those other guys have earned playing time. Both Harden and Mallary have pushed really hard. They've got to play. theyr'e smart, they're tough, they've made good plays in practice. Shane Coleman, he's getting better. He's not at the level of Harden and Mallary yet, but he's a guy you feel comfortable putting in the game as well."
Just throwing out there: don't sleep on freshman defensive lineman Fadol Brown. Brown and Darrian Dyson might have some problems early in the season as they get used to dealing with pushing and shoving against nearly grown men for 60 minutes. But both possess the size and athleticism that'll eventually get you a few plays a game if they're rotating off the bench.
Tonight's the free food, drink, stuff meet the Panthers event at The Stadium Club in FIU Stadium.
As change marks the men’s soccer program, so does the volleyball program head into its Friday night season opener at the Campus USA Credit Union Invite in Gainesville against Florida handling grand metamorphoses.
And we do mean grand – big group of newcomers containing bigger young women playing a vastly different style for a very different head coach.
Daniela Tomic rolled up a .721 winning percentage in seven seasons, easily the best by any FIU volleyball coach, before leaving for Bowling Green last winter. Former Tomic assistant and Trinidad and Tobago national team coach Trevor Theroulde took over, then added assistant Travers Green.
Redshirt sophomore setter Jessica Egan said, “The coaching staff is more in sync, which is vital.”
One consistency left from Daniela Tomic’s seven years as head coach: Jovana Bjelica making the preseason All-Sun Belt team. The senior outside hitter’s third such honor was announced Thursday morning. Bjelica led The Belt in kills last year and realizes as the established best player on the team as well as being a senior
“In a playing sense, I’m playing the same, but I think it’s harder now,” she said. “there’s a lot of younger girls who need some kind of role model and we older ones, upperclassmen, we need to be more of a role model. So, I have to talk more, which I don’t like.” Bjelica laughed at her shyness. “We need to talk a lot because many of them are still shy and don’t feel the freedom to talk.”
In a 2011 blog post about Bjelica, I noted that on the eye test, you’d pick her as FIU volleyball’s best pentathlete. On this year’s team, that athleticism blends almost as much as her height (5-10) does among the team’s 10 players 6-foot or over (last year’s team had seven).
“We’ve added a lot of height and we’re very stacked in positions, you could say,” Egan said. “Last year, we kind of ran into an issue where ran out of people with injuries. This year, we’re not going to have that problem. There’s competition at every position.”
Egan's playing time increased after 6-3 Renele Forde suffered a season-ending injury. Forde is back as a fifth-year senior.
Four or five of the new players walked through the Graham Center two weeks ago while I was working there around lunch time. You never saw that place get so quiet. Palpable awe.
“We are much bigger than before,” Theroulde said. “We are playing way above the net. We are much more athletic. We could be big and slow, but we’re not big and slow. We’re big, quick, athletic. We’re more aggressive.
“My style of coaching, we’re going to be more aggressive. We’re really going after the opponent.” Theroulde laughed, “I prefer to be the predator than the prey. I want to be the real Panther.”
Which brings us to FIU’s nemeses, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, picked to finish first and second in the Sun Belt’s East Division. FIU’s picked to finish where they have the last two years, third.
“We’ve been changing our style,” Egan said. “There’s still some kinks to it. It’s a powerful style we’re going for. Western and Middle have really different styles. Middle Tennessee is very fast. The way we’re playing, we’ll be able to handle that, no problem. Western Kentucky, they’re simple, but they’re good at what they do. It’s just a matter of zoning in on those players and executing our side of the court.”
Theroulde said the team must play up to its ability, but getting that out of them is his job.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. I said, ‘if we do not do it this year, we have to analyze ourselves as a coaching staff,’” he said. “We have all the pieces. We need to put those pieces together. And make sure they’re able to function effectively. Then, we’ll see that beautiful picture. We’re trying to play a different style of volleyball. It’s faster, it’s powerful.
They’re strong teams, too. They’ve added parts, too. It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with us. It’s a totally different team than we had in previous years.”
Wednesday, Theroulde watched video of FIU’s 32-4 2009 team.
He estimated, “In key positions, we’re way better. We’re still trying to develop that mental toughness that last team had. If we’re able to get that and a level of consistency, nothing is impossible.”