New Mexico's final season: 40 balls
Less than a month before the start of last year’s college season, the University of New Mexico announced that, due to ongoing budget deficits and Title IX concerns, the 2018 season would be the final one for its nationally prominent men’s soccer program. This decision to cut soccer created a maelstrom of debate and controversy. The state’s politicians (among others) got involved. But for the Lobos players and coaches, there was still a season to play. This series is an insider’s deep dive into that final season, and the story of a team fighting for a proper ending. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.
Practice is supposed to start at 7:30am. But it can’t; there’s a crisis. One of the team’s 40 yellow and blue Nike soccer balls has gone missing.
This, in Lobo land, is the arrival of the plague crossed with a tornado warning. Fish calls players into a huddle. He points to the lines of balls at the edge of the practice field. He counts. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….39. There are only 39 balls. 39. 39.
No one knows what to say to diffuse the tension. “My bag had ten,” one Judas offers meekly (there are 4 bags, 10 balls each). This is the not the response Fish is looking for. “39?!”
“You’ve got five minutes!”
Players scatter in all directions. Where is it? Some players head for the storage area at the end of the field. Others go towards the indoor football facility; maybe a ball rolled down there.
A handful make the trek outside of the facility, circling around the fence to see if a ball might have left the Lobo practice facility altogether and ended up in the nearby houses. Of course, finding that ball would be like finding a needle in a haystack, but everyone must at least appear to be part of the solution.
Still finding nothing, two freshman head off in a dead sprint for the locker room, a half mile down the hill. Maybe the missing ball is just sitting in the dressing area.
Fortunately, it is. Relief.
Back at 40 balls, Fish makes the point that several of the best players in last year’s World Cup were only 19—the same age, or younger even, as the Lobos. Thus while college students reside somewhere on the periphery of adulthood in terms of “real life,” in soccer terms there are no such excuses. So keep track of the 40 balls; do your job.
Two nights after the win over Seattle University, the Lobos host the University of Washington. The Huskies enter the game fresh off a season-opening win over Maryland.
The Huskies are a team that knows New Mexico well. Head Coach Jamie Clark coached under Fishbein from 2002 to 2005. Associate Head Coach Jeff Rowland, an Albuquerque native and La Cueva grad, played for the Lobos during the glorious early 2000s stretch.
After warmups, Rowland—clad in his UW black and purple—steps in front of the Lobo faithful. For Rowland, it’s a difficult situation. “I mean my old head coach is there,” he explains. “My best friend is Mike Graczyk, who is on staff. Then the program and obviously what’s happened this past year…it was not a game I was looking forward to.”
And tonight he’s being inducted into New Mexico’s Hall of Honor.
During a ten minute ceremony, Rowland’s resume is recounted: two time First Team Academic All-American; from walk on to 2005 consensus All-American; finalist for MAC Hermann Trophy.
Rowland received notice of this honor right around the time it was announced that men’s soccer was being discontinued. “The athletic department is inducting you into the Hall of Fame in the same year they decide to cut the program,” he says. “I thought a lot about that.”
Given that Rowland has a game to coach, and will be unable to attend the banquet later in the fall, he has prepared a video statement. It is, not surprisingly for those who know Jeff, genuine, heartfelt, and utterly well-prepared. He thanks everyone possible. “I am extremely proud to be the first-ever soccer player represented in the Hall of Honor,” he says.
But his graciousness is balanced with a sharp political edge. “I cannot end without addressing the topic on all Lobos hearts and minds,” he says. “The best award would be to continue the UNM men’s soccer program, to continue its legacy of excellence. And to continue the opportunity it provides to my home state.”
For Athletic Director Nunez, who is sitting high in the stands this August night, there is nothing to do but applaud politely. His situation is an awkward, stressful, no-win one.
Once the game finally starts, it’s all Washington. The Huskies sit back and allow the Lobos to move the ball harmlessly back and forth at midfield. Nary a real chance arises. After halftime, however, Washington strikes. Two quick UW goals end any hope of New Mexico starting the season with back to back wins over top 25 teams.
To a certain extent, the letdown for New Mexico isn’t surprising after the emotions of Friday. Monday’s crowd of just over a thousand fans did not have the same intensity as it had on opening night.
Standing on the track, conducting interviews afterwards, the players immediately recognize that they should have given more. “We created chances, we just lacked a little bit of energy,” Nick Taylor summarizes.
Even with the loss, however, the scene at the rail is spirited. Plenty of kids still want autographs. The warm, clear evening is perfect and conversations linger. The team is heading on the road, so this is the last of these gatherings for a few weeks. And certainly a split with two ranked teams on the opening weekend is not the end of the world.
As one of the most geographically isolated programs in the United States (New Mexico doesn’t have another Division I men’s program within 350 miles), the Lobos fly a lot. And when they do, they look good.
The California trip over Labor Day weekend marks the team’s first real travel—the first time they will walk through airports on official University of New Mexico business together. As such, there are several rules that the newcomers must come to grips with. The first: suits. Like actual suits. The New Mexico men’s soccer team does not travel in one of the Nike sweat suits that it has been issued.
A couple of the freshman don’t own anything close to a suit. This is taken care of by the seniors (especially Antoine). “I have on somebody else’s shirt, somebody else’s shoes, somebody else’s pants, and somebody else’s tie,” says one of the previously suitless freshman. “Probably the only thing of mine is my socks. And my underwear.”
“In the first place, we don’t make money,” Fishbein clarifies, regarding the dress code. “So somebody is paying for you with tax dollars…to fly around the country. You have an obligation to do that at the highest level.”
Sometimes it’s the sheer power possessed by a college coach that stands out.
“It’s not a democracy,” Fish says. “Well that doesn’t sound right, but you’re entrusted with helping them make the right decisions and leading them.”
In addition to the suits standard, Fish also asks that the players not walk through the airport with earphones on or phone in hand. This, of course, is difficult to enforce. But the point is that the players should represent New Mexico well; they should be considerate and engaged with their surroundings.
As Miguel and Gallo (Erik Virgen) board the Southwest flight taking the Lobos from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, they do so looking sharp.
(Miguel and Gallo, headed for California)
“Business trips,” Miguel tweets, with a picture of the two standing in front of their Southwest Airlines ride.
Like on all of its trips, the Lobos get around town via mini-vans. The team rents four vehicles, which Fish, Mike, Kelly, and Joe Sorce (the trainer) drive on each trip.
The choice of who rides in which van goes by seniority, and so not surprisingly the oldest players pile into Joe’s van. He is 27. “They’re all college kids,” he explains. “Sometimes they act like idiots.”
The next group loads up with Kelly. Then Mike. Then, for the last of the freshman, there is a ride with the head coach—always an adventure, always on duty.
Given Southern California’s traffic and the distance between LAX, the team hotel, Northridge, Fullerton, and then back to LAX, the trip is a grind.
“It feels like we’ve been here forever,” Kelly says as the team takes the field for Northridge.
The game against the California State University-Northridge Matadors kicks off at 7 p.m.
“They want a broken game,” Fish says during the last minute instructions. “They sub a lot…we want a proper game.”
Proper or not, it’s a taut affair. New Mexico dominates possession, shots on goal, and corners, but it can’t find the back of the net.
Late in the second half, the Matadors, capitalizing on an injury substitution for the Lobos, do. The game ends in a 1-0 defeat. It’s a frustrating loss for the Lobos.
“No rhythm in the first half,” says Antoine.
“We can’t start that way…we’re soft,” bemoans Simon.
After the game, the Lobos wander around the CSUN athletic center clad in their towels, looking for a working shower room.
Mike and Kelly are philosophical about the team’s second straight loss. “They thought it was going to come easy,” Mike explains. Kelly points out the obvious: this is not an experienced team. “I’m glad we have another game right away,” he concludes as the players head for the mini-vans.
After a day off, the Lobos face California State University Fullerton on Sunday September 2. Game day is spent killing time. Kelly goes out for a run. Fish walks the campus. The players try to stay off their feet.
The pregame meal is at 3:30 in a stuffy CSUF Marriot conference room. The menu, as always, consists of the same mix of protein and pasta: chicken breasts, spaghetti, salad, rolls and water. Finding the place and getting the food falls on Champ. This time, he’s nailed it. “If we start out slow,” he says, chewing, “it’s because of these rolls.” They’re too good to stop.
In the hall, as his players finish up, Fish ponders his two-fronted fight. He’s trying to lead a team, the same as always, but he’s also crusading to save the program. At yesterday’s meal, he brought up the fight to save the program—the support by politicians and movement among the Board of Regents—and several of the players told him they’d had enough. They don’t want to talk about the politics and the future right now.
Thus for Fish, it’s a tough balance. “I wonder if I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “Is it better to just let it be dead?” If he did go the dead route, Fish could focus on winnings games, finding the players new schools, and positioning himself for a new job. Instead, he’s stuck in between.
(New Mexico versus Cal State Fullerton. In a really big stadium)
After two games of scoreless soccer, New Mexico gets on the board quickly against the Titans. In a large football stadium that can seat 10,000 (CSUF discontinued intercollegiate football in 1992, after setting an NCAA record with 73 fumbles in its final campaign), the two soccer squads play in front of about 200 fans. Less than 13 minutes into the contest, on this warm Southern California evening, Taylor converts an assist from Antoine. 1-0. New Mexico.
In the second half, goals follow by: Puig, Antoine, Taylor, and then Omar.
“The forwards played tonight!” Fish yells to a happy, relieved post-game locker room. Tonight the team took its chances and converted, something the coaches saw as missing versus UW and Northridge. And the shots went in. Of the 10 shots (and 7 shots on goal), the Lobos converted five. This is not sustainable, but for tonight it works.
The 5-1 victory evens the Lobos record at 2-2 for the season.
The college soccer season is a blur; too many games in too little time. For New Mexico, a couple of days back on campus are followed by a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There the team stays in a deserted downtown Doubletree Hotel. On game day, the team meets for breakfast at 9 and then watches video on Tulsa’s set piece as 10. Then at 11, the team takes over the steamy indoor pool for a shakeout/activation exercise with Joe.
When the team gets to Tulsa University, the first player out on the field for warmups in Puig. He’s an Oklahoman who knows this lush, dense field well given the fact that he played on it as a freshman two years ago.
As the players test the surface (Puig, Antoine, and Elijah dance and move the ball around in a triangle) they finish off a conversation that’s been going on and off since they left Albuquerque: “Who would play you if they made a movie about our season?”
The players, like most 20 year olds, have a surprisingly easy time getting to a mental place where they can imagine themselves on the big screen. The players joke about finding an actor with the intensity to play Fish. Who could carry such a role?
Scotty, for his part, doesn’t say much until he’s asked what actor would play him.
“Mel Gibson,” he says, without a moment’s hesitation. And that’s that.
(The Captains: Scotty and Tom)
The Lobos dress in their all-red kits. The night is damp and drizzly. The Tulsa soccer field, unlike most, has no protection over the team benches. Slowly everyone gets wet.
With less than three minutes left in the half, a Tulsa defender wins a tough header in its own half and launches a rather benign approach 50 yards the other direction. The Lobos defense reacts too slowly. Tulsa exchanges two passes in the box before a left-footed shot finds the top left corner. 1-0 to Tulsa. Dorsey raises his arms high into the rain in frustration.
“Pick your moments,” Fish urges at the half. Mike tells the wings to push up further into Tulsa’s half. “We’re making them look good … Win tackles, connect passes, and good things will happen,” Fish finishes.
For the second half, Gallo and Omar come out as starters. The two freshmen are becoming more and more integral to the Lobos attack. Right away, both make their presence felt. Off a stoppage, Gallo delivers a long pass across field to Tom, who serves a ball 40 yards into the box. There Omar controls it and shoots. The ball hits the keeper and slowly tumbles into the goal. After being thoroughly outplayed in the first half, the Lobos have tied the game. 1-1.
The score stays tied.
Through the end of regulation.
Through the first overtime.
And through the second overtime.
In the 108th minute, with the evening’s steady drizzle having turned to rain and with mere seconds until the game will be recorded as a tie, Tulsa scores.
A Tulsa wing delivers a cross in front of the goal. Dorsey pops it up with a header. The ball falls at the feet of Tulsa’s Adam Habib, a player who did not play until the second overtime period. Habib jukes once, scoots around Barreiro, and chips a soft knuckleball of sorts into the top right corner. Goal Tulsa. 2-1 to the Hurricanes.
Several of the Lobos on the field fall onto their backs in disbelief after the gaol. Just like that, it’s over. Billy argues with the referees. Puig walks stone-faced back towards the Lobos’ bench, working his way around a pile up of celebrating Tulsa players. Champ walks out to meet his keep. He puts an arm around Ford’s slumped shoulders.
(New Mexico following its 108 minute loss to Tulsa)
Scotty (AKA Mel Gibson) is hurting afterwards. He tends to burn slow and steady, but “we put so much into it,” he says in his Scottish brogue. “That’s what makes this so hard.”
Dorsey, the senior who had a close up view of the winning goal, can still hardly believe how the game ended. “Wrong foot, top corner,” he says with a shake of the head. “You don’t expect those to go in.”
The Lobos return to Albuquerque disappointed, but hardly despondent. A home stand awaits. They’re 2-3, but given the challenging early season schedule this was always a possibility.
On September 11, New Mexico hosts UC Santa Barbara on a beautiful evening in Albuquerque. The Sandia Mountains are a watermelon pink as the game begins. Omar, working off a rebound created by Tom and Miguel, scores early, giving the Lobos a 1-0 halftime lead.
It isn’t nearly enough. The UCSB Gauchos score two quick goals after the break.
Final Score: UNM 1; UCSB 2
Four nights later, Old Dominion University comes to town. It’s the Conference USA opener for both teams. Looking to shake things up, the coaches have decided to replace Ford in goal. Fetterly—the hotshot frosh—takes over.
The result is the same. UNM 1; ODU 2.
How does one care for a team’s ecosystem under such duress? Push harder, or lay back? Meet and talk more, or just play?
There is no handbook.
On the surface, the coaching staff keeps plugging away. Mike provides the technical coaching. He breaks down the team’s film and that of its opponents, peppering his sessions with, “Does that make sense?”
Kelly starts the practices and leads the warm ups. A quick whistle, followed by “OK, on the bands boys,” gets everyone started. He scouts and coaches set pieces.
And Champ toils away with the keepers. With Fetterly now starting, backed up by Ford and Anthony, the order is a bit different. But the seclusion of the goalies remains. At 24 and former all-conference player himself at St. Mary's, Lucas frequently fills in on the field during practice as well.
As for Fish, his role by late September seems to be talking. Individual meetings. Group meetings. Impromptu pep talks during breaks in practice. He seems to be trying to will the team towards victory by talking them through the process. He doubles down on his attention to detail.
When Omar shows up late, again, Fish makes him run laps around the field for an entire practice. “Keeping going, Omar,” Fish yells when Omar looks his way. “Keep going.”
After practice on Tuesday September 18, two days after the ODU loss, Fish gathers the team in the middle of the practice field. Everyone is dripping with sweat. The fall cool down is still only a hope.
“You’re 18 to 23 year old men,” Fish points out. “You’ve got to act like it.”
“It’s about moments.” In 90 minutes of game time, there are just a handful of moment that decide the outcome. Messing up in the key moments matters. “It’ll cost you a game,” he says.
And the same goes for life—even moreso.
“A DWI? Life ruined.”
“Cheat on your wife? Marriage over.”
Perhaps it’s this moment-centered focus on details that keeps the ball issue alive. Poor Nick Williams.
Nick Williams traveled to California and Tulsa despite the fact that he’s leaning towards red shirting. He’s an engaged practice player. And he’s become the keeper of the soccer balls—a high-stakes position.
“It gives me anxiety,” Nick Williams says.
Every Lobo is in charge of something: cones, jerseys, the whiteboard, practice prep, practice clean up. But nothing compares to the pressure on Omar, Julian, Carlos, and Nick Williams. They are the ones in charge of the soccer balls.
The ball issue gets worse after the ODU loss.
The problem is multi-fold. First, and most basically, college soccer players can kick a soccer ball a long way. Second, soccer players rarely pass up a chance to take a shot. Almost every time the action in practice stops, players take the chance to launch a ball at a faraway goal. Or to try to hit the top post (Antoine tells me he’s going to do it all season; I never saw it). Or to torpedo a teammate walking away. Third, freshman are inherently irresponsible. As Nick Williams explains it, Omar began shirking his ball duties almost as soon as he arrived in Albuquerque. “Omar would never take a bag,” he says.
(Nick Williams, with one of his 40 soccer balls)
“We didn’t do a very good job at the beginning of the season taking care of the balls,” Nick Williams admits with the seriousness of a convicted felon. “Early on, maybe one or two,” disappeared without too much concern on the part of the ball-quartet.
But things only got worse from there. “We’d already got in trouble for the balls once…then one day Carlos and I were counting them, and we were like ‘uh, we only have 33, we’re like oh no.” Seven missing balls. This wasn’t good.
“Of course that day, [Fish] is like ‘this doesn’t look like 40 balls…let’s count ‘em.”
So a recount (it’s only a couple dozen soccer balls here, not the 2000 Florida presidential election recount) ensues. “So we count them, and we’re at 33…and he was pissed.” Fearing for their futures as part of the New Mexico soccer program, the freshman set out to find the missing soccer balls after practice. They found three. “So we got back up to 36 or something like that.”
Then, from one of the assistant coaches, came a bit of grace-laced information. “He comes up to me,” Nick Williams remembers of his salvation, “and says, ‘Like don’t worry about, we bought like 70 balls.”
“So we have some extras…. if you come get them you can just go put them in the bag and say that you found them,” the coach says.
But just because there is knowledge of this treasure trove of balls does not make it readily accessible. And so comes a one-man extraction attempt.
“So I try to sneak into Champ’s office because he’s the one with the balls,” Nick Williams says. The problem is that the coaches’ offices all have glass walls. The place is series of adjoining fishbowls, and Fish just happens to be in a meeting in his office when Nick Williams makes his ball salvation attempt. There is nowhere to hide.
“I see that Fish is in his office, and I’m like 'he’s not going to ask me what I’m doing in here,'" Nick Williams remembers. There is no way that this head coach, in a meeting, will immediately get what Nick Williams’ presence means. Right?
“He knew right away,” Nick William remembers, shaking his head.
“He stopped his meeting in there with all those people and he starts yelling at me. And he’s yelling at me in a joking way, but still in a way that says you screwed up,” Nick Williams says.
“You guys are the worst ball crew that we’ve ever had in the history of this university.”
“How do you lose seven balls?”
There are no easy answers. “I’m just like… I don’t know,” Nick Williams says.
“And then we had to pay, which is ridiculous because we bought 70 balls and we’re now down to like 62.”
“We had this week long debate about who was going to pay how much,” Nick Williams explains. In the end, the team ponied up a collective $200 for the replacing-missing-balls fund.
“That was ridiculous,” Nick William says, but with a chuckle.
Again though, what happens after Fish’s obsessiveness is informative. Nick Williams has gotten better. “So now every morning I get into the locker room, take out all the bags, make sure there’s ten in all of them,” he says. “Every day, count that 40. That’s what I’m thinking about. We have to have forty, because I don’t want pay that money again and I don’t want to get yelled at.”
What’s more, Nick Williams has become a bit of a ball-dictator himself. To his teammates he says, “I’m like, double check your bag, make sure we got it.”
He has also gone on the offensive. “I have one ball in my locker that is an extra,” he admits. “It’s like a rainy day ball. Just in case.”
After two weeks at home, the Lobos travel to Boca Raton, Florida to face Florida Atlantic University. A traditional bottom-dweller in the CUSA, FAU offers little resistance. The Lobos roll to an easy 2-0 victory, finally getting the clean sheet they’ve been chasing. Fetterly in goal seems to be working.
At midseason point, the Lobos are 3-5.
Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico. He studies the role of sports in America, and is the author of the recently released The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete.
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