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November 7, 2008

Adversity breeds character

By: Matt Kovatch

James Gilson

What a difference a year makes. The 2007 Virginia Tech men’s soccer team made school history by advancing to the national semifinals, but the 2008 squad has been stuck at the bottom of the ACC for most of the season. What’s been the reason for the downturn? James Gilson, a junior from Glenwood Lake, N.Y., who led the team in goals (six), assists (four), points (16) and shots (33) at the end of October, recently sat down to discuss the mindset of the Hokies as they wrap up the fall campaign and begin to prepare for a turnaround in 2009.

IHS: The season hasn’t quite gone the way you would’ve liked. Did you guys know it would be a tougher struggle or has it been kind of a shock to you?
JG: “We knew it was going to be tough coming in because we lost so many starters. We don’t have a whole lot of older guys either, so we knew it was going to be tough to acclimate the younger guys to the whole culture. We had those things going against us. We could tell in the spring that it was going to be hard for the new guys coming in to mesh with the team because we were low on numbers. It’s especially tough for the younger guys because they had to mature so quickly – we needed them to play. Some of them had to become key players right away, which is hard to do. Some liked the challenge and took it on, while others kind of went by the wayside.”

IHS: What’s been your impression of the newcomers? Do they have what it takes?

JG: “There is a lot of skill in the freshman class – more skill than any of the other classes I’ve seen. Having been a freshman two years ago, I know how hard it is to come onto the field with older guys who are expecting a certain level of play. It’s hard to analyze what is soccer ability and what is nerves or stress, but they all give 100 percent and are trying to learn, and that’s really all you can ask for out of freshmen.”

IHS: Another difficulty has been season-ending injuries to key guys like Charlie Campbell and Alexander Baden. How rough has that made things?
JG: “That’s been really frustrating. We already knew that this year was going to be tough, and then we lost Alex in the spring – he is our key component in the back line. But then we said, ‘OK, maybe someone will step up. At least we still have something going forward. We still have Charlie.’ And then Charlie got hurt in the first game of the season. It was like, ‘Jeez, nothing is going our way.’ It would’ve been easy to throw in the towel and make excuses, but that’s not what we wanted the season to be like. As much as those missing players are in the back of your mind, you have to keep going forward and moving on.”

IHS: It obviously hurts to have lost a scoring threat from last year like Patrick Nyarko, but what about all of the other pieces that didn’t return from last season?
JG: “We lost a lot of key components and some things that you can take for granted. For example, Georg Zehender didn’t score a ton of goals, but you never really know how valuable it is to have someone switching the ball and calming the game down. He was so good at slowing things down and keeping possession. Ben Nason was just a leader who came up with huge plays, which is kind of what we’re missing this year. When he was on the field, you always thought you had a chance to win. Scott Spangler was just a workhorse who could get anything done and came up big in big games. Marcus Reed could play any position on the field, which is a huge asset to have. All the foreigners – like Robert Edmans, Stefan Hock and Markus Aigner – were awesome players, and our bench was so deep. Then there was Patrick. I’ve never seen anything like him, and you’re probably not going to see anything like him again.”

IHS: In your three seasons here, the team has been in the middle of the pack in ’06, to the NCAA College Cup in ’07, and now at the bottom of the ACC in ’08. Do you think you guys caught lightning in a bottle last year or is that something you can get back to?
JG: “I think we had a really special group last year. We had fifth-year seniors all the way down to freshmen who were playing. That’s pretty hard to get, especially playing at the level we were playing at last year. But I don’t think it was a one-time thing. A big part about last year was that we had a lot of players who had played together for a while. I think that learning how to play together is a huge asset to have. This year, we only had about a month to try to get everyone to learn one another, with only four or five of us having played together on a field before. And as much as last year might seem hard to get back to, a lot of it has to do with the team’s mentality. We were really confident last year, and that’s something that was missing my freshman year and something that is missing this year. As much as skill has to do with everything, a huge part of the college game is the right mentality, and that’s something we need to develop for next year.”

IHS: You mentioned how guys need to learn how to play with each other. With so many goalkeeper changes and the mixing and matching of lineups, how much of that got accomplished this year that could help out down the road?
JG: “Personally, I think I’ve played every position on the field except center back and goalie. There hasn’t been a lot of continuity in the lineup, but what we’ve learned by doing that this year is who you can count on and who you can’t count on, as well as who has enough soccer IQ to learn certain positions and where we can put them. We’ve just had trouble finding the right combinations of players who work well together for 90 minutes. Do you stick with something that you’ve been losing with just to have something to keep learning with and keep moving forward with? Or do you try to mix it up and go for it all? I don’t know which method is better, but we’re trying to figure it out.”

IHS: Touch on your individual success this season. How have you improved since you arrived here in 2006?
JG: “I came in off of an injury as a freshman, so it was really hard just to keep up with the level of play. The hardest part for me was the speed of the game – it was so much faster than anything I had encountered before, but I got used to it. Personally, I am very competitive, and I really wanted to start. Coach Weiss met with me at the end of my freshman season and asked me where I saw myself, and I told him I thought I should start the next year. He was skeptical because I didn’t have a good fall, but in the spring, we were low on numbers and he put me up top at forward. I ended up scoring three or four goals out of nowhere after playing as a defender in the fall. It boosted my confidence as a player. I think the biggest part of my game that has improved is my maturity level. Coach always called me a cocky New Yorker, and that’s still a little true, but I learned how to control it a little bit. When you’re surrounded by such good players all the time, it’s kind of hard not to improve, and now it’s my duty to pass things on to the new kids who have come in.”

IHS: You have three goals on penalty kicks this year. Talk about your strategy when you step up to the ball and what it’s like to be the guy who is trusted to take those shots.
JG: “I was never that guy who took that responsibility, even on my club team in high school. But this year, I kind of felt the need to take control as one of the older players, and this is one of the ways that I can show that I’m a leader and that I want the best for the team. I kept making them in practice and thought, ‘Hey, maybe I’m pretty good at this,’ so I told Coach that I was willing to be the guy to take them. When I go up there, I already know where I’m shooting. Most of the time, I don’t even look at the goalie or the net. I just put the ball on a good spot and kick it where I want it to go. I missed one because I accidentally kicked the ground before I hit the ball, but we wound up scoring off of it anyway.”

IHS: Finally, for readers who might not get to watch the games and only see the scores on, what would you say that this team does well that has you excited going forward?
JG: “As much as it doesn’t show in the scores or the stats, we keep improving. In the beginning of the season, we really couldn’t play a lick as a team. It was just kick and run. But lately, we’ve begun to look a little like the team that we were last year. There are a lot of positives to take out of this year – adversity breeds character. This was a tough year for the freshmen to come in, but they’re going to be that much hungrier to do well next year because of it. With the exception of Scott Dillie and Taylor Walsh, we have everybody coming back. Then you add in Charlie and Alex, who have the College Cup experience. We’ll have more game experience on the field, and we have a good recruiting class coming in, too. I’m really excited about what’s to come next year.”