Friday, November 2, 2012

New Coach, Same Results for Mercer

For Mercer women’s soccer, perhaps there is truth in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Beginning with the latter, there are several things that remain the same for the program.

To begin, the Bears have experienced a great deal of success in the last few years. Mercer returns to the A-Sun Women’s Soccer Championship for the seventh consecutive season. Now on the strength of Friday’s 3-0 victory over North Florida, it will battle for the A-Sun title for the fifth time in the last six seasons.

The Bears also enter the championship final as the No. 2 seed for the third time, a position from which they won their 2010 title. They also have experience as the championship’s top seed, and even advanced to last year’s final as the No. 6 seed.

Additionally, Mercer’s appearance in its third straight championship final marks the first time since 2001-2004 that a team has enjoyed that accomplishment.

Like many programs that experience success over such a period of time, even with such a seemingly solid recipe for success, Mercer inevitably experienced its share of change.

Enter Tony Economopoulos. Like any first-year head coach, he began to seek the delicate balance of initiating change where necessary, while leaving other facets of the team well enough alone. After all, the Bears had become a mainstay in the A-Sun Championship, and were just one year removed from an A-Sun title. So what are some of the “things” that have changed?

“I didn’t want to change a lot,” he says. “I am an open and intense kind of guy, and I wanted my team to share in that approach while enjoying playing soccer. I understood that was one area that could be improved upon from some of the previous teams, and I wanted them playing more loose.”

Combining hard days with more “fun” types of practices, along with creating a more enjoyable experience off the field, on trips, etc., is Economopoulos’ approach to the game to which his team is responding.

“First and foremost they are college students, and I want them to enjoy the college experience,” he says. “They are creating memorable moments on and off the field, and I want them to remember those and to enjoy them while they are happening.”

Economopoulos joined Mercer understanding that while he was inheriting a team with talent, experience and recent success, he also knew that he would be behind in the recruiting process and a few key players would no longer be Bears.

“I thought we had a good squad, but I also knew that we would be missing a few pieces and that we would have some work to do. I felt like we would be in the mix if we were able to get some things right and people in the right positions, and we just continued to get more confident as the season continued.”

The turning point for the first-year head coach came on Sunday, Sept. 30, when the Bears claimed a 3-1 victory over 2011 A-Sun runner-up ETSU on Parent Appreciation Day in Macon. Sophomore forward Tess Patton scored in the win and finished with three goals and an assist in helping the Bears to two key conference wins during that weekend.

At that point the win was the Bears’ sixth straight, placing them in a three-way tie for second place in the A-Sun standings, but the win told their new head coach much more.

“I thought we made a statement in the win over ETSU at home,” he says. “They were the preseason No. 2 team, and to beat them the way we did gave me an indication that we could be a force for the rest of the season.”

Economopoulos’ approach to the game and his preferred style of play has created a team that will excite its fans literally from first touch. Mercer’s first goal against the Ospreys was the seventh time this season that the Bears have scored within the first 10 minutes of the game. It is an example of how this change has been positive, and how he has made his mark on a team with a great deal of potential.

“I want us to play fast, aggressive soccer,” he says. “I want my mark on this team that we are a team that creates a lot of chances, that we are aggressive, and that we are always competitive

“This is a team that leads by committee. We have a tremendous back line that has enables us to keep many clean sheets this season, but this is a great group of kids, on and off thefield. They have done all that we have asked them to do, they have bought in to what we are trying to accomplish and I think our record and our success is an example of the type of attitude that our team possesses.”

So one more time Mercer enters Sunday’s championship final. There are several on this team that have been there, done that, and have literally gotten the t-shirt. But if this season is any indication of how things are changing for the Bears, this is another chance for them to play fast, to play loose, to enjoy themselves and to make lots of memories that could just include another championship banner.

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