YEAR IN REVIEW: LOOKING BACK WITH HEAD COACH DAVE GIFFARD
VCUAthletics.com: You're coming up on the one-year mark as head coach. Can you reflect on your first season at VCU and how these first 330-plus days have played into your expectations?
DG: These first 330 days have gone by pretty fast. It seems almost like a blur when you look back and know that this time last year I was getting ready for an NCAA quarterfinal game [at Akron] and working toward winning a national title. Very quickly, at the end of that season, I was here at VCU. I remember I got here in the office on Jan. 6 and between then and now, it's been a bit of a whirlwind in a lot of ways.
I thought as a group we had a really strong spring last year. Academically, we started to lay the foundation for our expectations of how we do things off the field. The guys really bought into everything we were doing and that certainly made it enjoyable from a coaching standpoint. You look back and we were able to put together a staff of two of the top assistant coaches in the country [in Brett Teach and Ryan Pratt] and a very strong up-and-coming coach in graduate assistant Matt Cannady. Those guys have done a great job and are certainly as good as any coaching staff in the country. That was exciting for me in my first go-round to be able to add a group like that.
Looking at the players we were able to recruit and bring in, whether it was transfers or freshmen, those guys came in and did very well. Our hope was that the culture and foundation we laid in the spring would carry over through the summer and into the fall as new guys came in and understood what the program was all about. We're here to compete for a national championship. In order to do so, there has to be an approach on a daily basis of pursuing excellence and being the best in all areas of life. The new players, as well as the guys that were already here, have really done a great job of embracing that.
Unfortunately, our season ended a lot sooner than what we would have liked as this group certainly had the talent to be an NCAA Tournament team. But in year one, for us to go through the schedule and finish second in the CAA, which probably had its best year as a conference from top to bottom, we take as a positive. It's just step one in the process and the beginning of the direction that we're headed as a team and as a program. We expect each year to be the top team in the CAA, to compete for a seed in the NCAA Tournament and play with the best teams in the country. We've taken a good strong first step this year to ultimately accomplishing that goal.
VCUAthletics.com: At the start of this season, you had 18 new players, 11 returners and were picked to finish seventh in the CAA. Talk about the process of meshing talent and ultimately building a squad that was moments away from appearing in the CAA Championship match.
DG: Anytime you have a large group of players and a super competitive environment, you're going to have challenges day-in and day-out. As a coach, if you're honest and fair about the way you do things, if you create a culture of competition where a player's performance is rewarded in training every day, you're going to have a group that becomes cohesive. It doesn't happen immediately but we have a lot of really good kids in this program who are competitive and hungry, and want to reach their potential individually and, on a larger scale, as a team. When that happens, you have a lot of people pulling in the same direction, so I credit those guys and the coaching staff as we very quickly became a team and a family.
There has been a long tradition of players and teams here at VCU that have been successful and our team is just a part of that tradition. Our hope is that we set the wheel rolling to compete at an even higher level. Being a few seconds away from playing in the CAA Championship game, it's disappointing that we weren't. We certainly expected to win and to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. As that becomes your expectation of everyone in the program, and you believe that's what is going to happen, then those things start to fall into place. As you add more talented, quality players, it becomes even more competitive and enjoyable for everybody involved.
VCUAthletics.com: VCU posted eight shutouts, second-most in the CAA and highest VCU total since 2004. The team allowed 15 goals all season, second-fewest in the league. Can you talk about the defensive presence and how it fits into your overall philosophy?
DG: Our brand of soccer is a very honest brand. I wouldn't necessarily call the way we play defensive-oriented. We like to attack and do a lot of things on the offensive end that are fun to watch. That kind of dictates who we are but the reality is, in top championship-type programs in any sport, teams that are honest and defend well as a unit are successful. A little bit of success that we had in our defensive numbers and statistics is really attributed to 11 players attacking and 11 players defending. When everybody works on both sides of the ball, and the more we're on the ball, the less defensively you have to do. Because our forwards defend just like we ask our backs and midfielders to defend, you really limit chances your opponents have on your goal. We didn't give up a whole lot of chances throughout the course of the year and that's a big part of our style. It really speaks to the commitment from front to back as a team, and to attack and defend as a group.
VCUAthletics.com: Six players received All-CAA honors. Aside from league champion William & Mary, VCU was the only school to have multiple first team selections. Talk about the contributions from this group of guys.
DG: Anytime you vote on things you're going to have people's opinions. Sometimes as a coach you agree with those opinions and sometimes you don't. Those six guys certainly represented VCU well and were a big part of our success, but there were other guys who were very deserving and it's just the way that it goes. The fact that we had six players named really speaks volumes to our team's success more than anything else. Each of those guys are very good players and all have a bright future.
When your team is successful you receive awards. Individual accolades, a lot of times, are a byproduct of your team and program's success. One of the things that was great for me was to have our senior co-captains [C.J. Gehin-Scott] (pictured, right) and [Thomas Hupper] both be named all-conference. A year ago we only had one guy on the all-rookie team and this year we had six guys on All-CAA teams, including two on the first team. After all of the leadership they brought us, it was a very nice gesture to be recognized by the conference. [Jake Van Yahres] and [Lucas Paulini] certainly deserved it as well. Lucas was probably one of the top one or two players in the league and has the potential to have a long future if he wants to continue playing the game. Obviously [Jason Johnson] and [Romena Bowie] being freshman are two pieces of what is a very bright future here at VCU.
This is the beginning for the program and the direction we are headed and we're starting to see the very initial stages. A lot of credit goes to those guys. They were able to be a part of the group that really flipped the program around, and when you look back as we have success in the future, those guys are a big part of why we were able to make the change. I can't thank them enough for that.
VCUAthletics.com: With such a young group, how did the team's leadership evolve throughout the season?
DG: The biggest thing is that a lot of our players became more comfortable as the year went on. At the beginning, the team was new; the program was new, especially for a lot of the freshmen, and the expectations were new. Throughout the course of the year, one of the biggest changes and developments we had was simply that players were getting more comfortable. As we progressed, individual personalities came out more and our leadership started to grow as a part of that. Looking back at the team last year, there wasn't one guy who was in the same position as he was a year ago, even guys that returned here. So, there were essentially 11 new guys out there and it was the same for the guys off the bench. Before you can start to have that leadership factor, you have to have some comfort. Our team became more and more comfortable as the year went on and you saw that in the way our team played. By the end of the season, we were a very difficult team to beat.
VCUAthletics.com: We're now less than nine months away from the start of the 2011 campaign. What can we expect from this team next season?
DG: We are going to be much more prepared. For me, this time of year is essentially preseason. We've already turned it around and hit the weight room. The guys coming back are hungry because they tasted the beginning of what this program is going to be and it just wasn't enough. Anytime you have expectations and goals that are above average, it's disappointing when you don't reach them. Now we have a group that is very disappointed, coaches included, and we're going to spend the next nine months doing everything we can in our power to prepare ourselves to not be in this situation again next year. You're going to see a group of returners much more confident, fit, stronger, faster, cohesive, and organized. We're just going to be better in all areas. We'll add some new talented players into that mix as well, some of which will be here at the semester break, and start to really begin to lay the foundation for the 2011 season and beyond.
This time of year is really where you make the most gains. I think you're going to see players who had good seasons this year really raise their game quite a bit. You're also going to see some players who weren't on the field this year, which will be surprising to some people, but we know they've been around waiting in the wings, really growing and working hard to develop. We have a lot of work to do but we're approaching the start of next season with a very positive outlook and we'll have a lot of expectations.