Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taylor puts Kewpies at ease

Coaching change allowed Hickman to relax en route to state semifinals.

The Hickman boys soccer team is 10-4 and has advanced to the MSHSAA Class 3 semifinals since Adam Taylor, above, took over as coach of the Kewpies for Larry Thornburg in early October

By Andrew Wagaman

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The boys walk off the field. They smile, they give each other high-fives, they say things like, “good stuff.” If you are lucky, you’ll catch a hug or an exclamation of disbelief.

That’s only if you are lucky. For the most part, the boys of Hickman soccer have treated each of their postseason victories with the casual exuberance you would expect out of a competitive intramural team.

“Sweet, man.” “What a game.” “See you tomorrow.” “SSDD.”

Hold up, guys. Coach — yes, they have a coach — has another story.

It would be easy but unfair to decide that because the Kewpies’ evolution from a mediocre 4-4-2 team to a 14-8-2 Class 3 state semifinalist team corresponds with when Coach Adam Taylor took over, He is the key to it all, “The Answer.” Say what you want about Larry Thornburg, the former coach who resigned amid criticism in early October, but these players were just as good then as they are now, and the team’s strategies, while altered, are not wildly different or more successful under Taylor.

“It’s so free flow right now,” junior forward Colin Janicek said. “It’s really just us playing on the field; there’s no one interfering. We are a really loose team, and when we just do what we know how to do, we play so much better than when we are tense.”

What sounds like a rebuttal to Taylor’s influence is actually a testament to it. The Hickman soccer team has won four straight games against favored teams because, quite simply, Taylor has let them play like the boys want to play. He isn’t the answer, but it would be just as unfair to ignore the significance of his presence on the sideline.

When Thornburg took over as head coach in 2007, he offered Taylor, a Hickman alumnus and recent Missouri graduate, a job over lunch as the freshman coach. The next year, he was promoted to the JV team, which he coached until this October. When Thornburg resigned, Athletic Director Doug Mirts asked Taylor to take over at the Collinsville Tournament. He hopped into his car, met the team at the tournament and said the most honest thing he could think of.

“I told the kids that they had to be coached by someone, and I was that person, so they needed to listen to what I said and move forward,” he said.

That weekend Taylor made the most notable of his few strategic adjustments. Unhappy with the lack of opportunities the Kewpies were getting by running only one forward, he added another between the day’s two games. After escaping with a 1-0 win over Morton, Ill., in the morning, Hickman routed Hudson, Wis., 5-2, the most goals the team had scored all year.

“He gave it to us 10 minutes before we kicked off,” senior forward Taylor Cox said. “We didn’t really practice it or anything. It just worked out.”

Over the next month, it was more Taylor’s instructive approach than any technical changes that just worked out. Yes, he stressed possession soccer and keeping the ball on the ground, which has enabled the attack to control the game and facilitated the defense’s job. He has also demanded his backs to mark up on dangerous players such as Jeff City’s Alec Nagel or Kickapoo’s Skyler Russell, part of a broader emphasis on opponent-based preparation.

But it is his method of communication that the Hickman players always bring up first. They are reluctant to criticize Thornburg, but most agree that Taylor’s tendency to provide positive feedback has established a better connection than they had with their former coach.

“Whenever we’re not doing something right, he doesn’t pull us out for the rest of the game or anything,” Cox said. “He tells us what we have to do, and we try to do it to the best of our ability.”

“I think we had it all along but weren’t able to put it together,” Janicek said. “He ultimately helped us pick up our heads and play together more.”

Janicek, who played for Taylor as a freshman but didn’t get to know him very well until this year, says the coach quickly gained the trust and acceptance of his players by being straightforward with them and more of a peer than an authoritative figure.

“With any new coach, it takes awhile to bond,” he said. “We didn’t just jump in and commit to his thing — we had to learn a little bit about him. He opened up a lot to us and pretty much said, ‘What’s done is done, and we have to move on, because the season still has to go on.’ ”

An attacking player in high school, Taylor doesn’t pretend to take credit for the defense’s remarkable postseason, in which they have allowed just one goal. Rather, he turns to his most useful resource, assistant coach Conrad Hake, for pointers at practices and adjustments in games. Taylor preaches just one thing to his defense: the importance of focus. While it is nothing profound or particularly new, his players have truly taken the message to heart.

“He says the more mentally focused we are, the further we’ll go,” Cox said. “Our defense, especially Logan Forsythe, controls the game with mental play, and the physical play follows.”

Taylor, who is currently substitute-teaching and hopes to become a full-time teacher in the future, says he and the athletic department have decided not to deal with his coaching future until the season is over. If offered the job, though, he would readily accept.

“The kids have been great,” he said. “They’ve worked unbelievably hard for me, and I’d love to work with the younger kids again.”

Coach has a story — another one from his own trip to the state semifinals. You see, he was a freshman on the last Hickman team, in 1999, to advance to St. Louis. A few years later, his playing days were cut short when he injured his knee as a senior. He understands how fleeting one’s glory days can be and thus wants this footloose group of kids to realize that this is more than just “good stuff.”

“I’m always giving them a story, whether it’s motivational or humorous, just to understand how special this is,” Taylor said. “I want them to realize that these are memories that will last the rest of their lives.”

This article was published on page B1 of the Thursday, November 19, 2009 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune. Click here to Subscribe.

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Driving Directions

  • WAYNESVILLE : Take 63 South Towards Jeff City. Take US-54 W thru Osage Beach to Camdenton. Take MO Hwy 5 South to Lebanon , MO.Continue on MO Hwy 5 South to I-44 E towards Waynesville, MO. Take Exit 156, toward WAYNESVILLE/FORT LEONARD WOOD. Turn LEFT onto HIGHWAY H/I-44-BL/MO-H. Continue to follow I-44-BL.Turn RIGHT onto MO-17/W I-44-BL.1001 HISTORIC 66 W.
  • QUINCY TOURNAMENT IN QUINCY ILLINOIS: From Columbia Take 70 West to Kingdom City. Take 54 North to Mexico and then 54 east and north (54/19) to Laddonia. From Laddonia take 19 North to New London and then 61 North to Hannibal. When you get to Hannibal, you will need to take a right at the sign that says Quincy or to Illinois or to Springfield which is hwy 72 across the river. You will then pick up Highway 172 north to Quincy. In Quincy take the Broadway exit and go left.The fields we are playing on are located on State Street. The streets in Quincy that run West to East are numbered streets. The Mississippi River is to the West and the street numbers get higher the further East you go. When you enter from highway 172 the first street you will see is 48th street. Go left. At State St turn right and the park is a few blocks on the right. The Paul Dennis Complex is located on State between 36th and 48th street.
  • JEFFERSON CITY- 179 SOCCER PARK: Take 63 to Jeff City. Across the river take Hwy 50 toward Sedalia. Take the hwy 179 exit and turn right onto 179. The soccer park is about 3 miles on your left.
  • DESMET High school from CBC High school (about 3 miles): leave CBC and turn left (east) onto N Forty Dr. Turn right onto Conway Rd. Follow Conway Rd to left at S New Ballas Rd and it is about 1.2 miles to the high school at 233 N. New Ballas Rd.
  • CBC High school in St Louis: about 1 hour and 50 minutes. Take I-70 east to US40E/US61S just past Wentzville. Head toward Chesterfield/Forrest Park. About 23 miles to Mason Rd exit. Take S Mason Rd north back over the highway. Turn right on N. Forty Dr and the high school is on your left about a mile at 1850 De la Salle Dr.
  • CAMDENTON: Hwy 54 out of Jeff City to Hwy 5 in Camdenton. Turn left (east) on to Hwy 5. Continue on Hwy 5 for 5 or 6 blocks and can see the school campus on your left (north side of road). Turn on to Dare Blvd and the stadium is a block or two behind the schools.
  • SMITHTON TOURNAMENT: I-70 west to Booneville. Exit on Hwy 5 south. From Hwy 5 take Hwy 50 west. Go to Hwy W and turn south. Follow Hwy W into Smithton. Turn east on to E. Washington St. (I think this is a continuation of Hwy W), Turn right (south) on to Myrtle Ave and the school is 550 Myrtle Ave. Games are at the school.
  • ROLLA: Hwy 63 out of Jefferson City. Continue on Hwy 63 into Rolla. Turn left (east) on to 10th St. Continue on 10th St about 8 blocks to N. Cedar St. High School is at corner of N. Cedar and 10th St. Soccer field is behind the high school.