Sept. 26, 2013
The Women's Soccer team is making history.
At 6-2-2 thus far, including a big victory over Mississippi State in front of 563 Golden Eagle fans, Coach Mohammed El-Zare, or "Coach Mo" as his players call him, has led the team to their best start since 2004. The women's soccer squad opens Conference USA play Friday at North Texas at 7 p.m.
The aggressive and high scoring play of the team has helped them develop a devoted fan following. SouthernMiss.com recently spoke with Coach Mo to hear, first hand, about his team:
SouthernMiss.com: What is it about this year's team that has made it possible to have such a great start?
Coach El-Zare: First and foremost, the student-athletes are a wonderful group of ladies. Going back to when we started in late January, we sat down and started to identify what we needed to do to get better. We focused a lot on how we train, how we communicate with each other and with everyone in our community.
When I say community I mean our professors and with the staff. We worked on the way we trained, the way we conditioned, and the way we practice, how the coaching staff communicates to the players in terms of what is expected. All these little intangibles really helped out in getting us focused on getting better this spring.
The players continued to focus on the process of improving their game and their technique and this summer the ladies did a good job staying in shape and coming in at a good level to start off in preseason. We're continuing to get better and we are focused on enjoying each other and the process of playing the game and getting better.
SM: The match vs. Mississippi State broke an attendance record with nearly 600 fans in attendance, does that energize the team to play harder?
EZ: Absolutely! The fans have been great. The coaching staff and the ladies have done clinics throughout the community to help grow the game at the grass roots level. We host free clinics for the youth and we had several youth club teams that came to the game. We enjoy giving back to the community and really connecting and being a part of the process of growing soccer in the community. That is huge and it helps to increase our fan base.
SM: You have a very aggressive and exciting style of play. Which of your previous playing or coaching experiences was the most influential on your style.
EZ: I was very fortunate to have a youth coach that really focused on teaching his players how to play the game using technique, and solving problems in a skillful way.
You want to attack because it's ultimately a game and you want to have fun and there's nothing more fun than scoring goals and playing in high scoring games and that means we're going to be assertive and aggressive. We play with the mindset of "the will to win exceeds the fear of losing".
We have fun and play in a manner that involves everyone on the field. It makes it a lot more exciting and entertaining for the fans, a lot of goals being scored and a lot of attack. As long as we score more than the opponent, that's good.
SM: How much responsibility do you give away to your players to lead the team?
EZ: This is ultimately their team. They have to solve the problem on the field. Our job is to prepare them and then on game day they have to execute what we've worked on.
Our team captain, Kim Belmont, I meet with her on a regular basis and give her ownership over some decision-making. I take her input. The players designed the uniform. When we travel, they make the decisions on which restaurants we go to.
The staff has done a good job of educating them about nutrition. What we wear when we're on the road, they have a lot of ownership of that. I have a group of players that I consult with in terms of things I'd like them to do. There are some community service projects that we're doing, and the players get together to decide which to do. Right now we are involved in a fundraiser and the team is designing the t-shirts. Every line on our the field, from goalkeeper to defenders to midfielders and forwards, there is a communication style; there are players within each line that have to communicate with other players on the line.
SM: As a head-coach developing student-athletes, how much importance do you put on these players to excel in the classroom as well as on the field?
EZ: A lot of the players on our team maintain over a 3.4 GPA. That makes it easier for me as a coach, because if they asserted a high GPA it says a lot about your attention to detail, it says a lot about time management, it says a lot about the maturity of the players and what they are trying to get out of their experience and the four years here at the university.
As we work with the ladies we want them to know that their four-year journey here at Southern Miss should be a meaningful one and a rewarding one. That doesn't mean just only going out there and playing soccer, we want them to be involved in the community of the University and the community of Hattiesburg. We want them to not only grow as athletes but to grow as leaders and students. We educate them and at the end of their four years we want them to have had a balanced life between athletics and academics.
SM: Having posted such an impressive start, how do you keep up the level of intensity through the rest of the season?
EZ: Right now when we talk to the players, they understand there's going to be some challenges ahead, some roadblocks, some tests. They're handling it with a lot of humility and focusing on what matters and what they need to do today: to go to class, going to treatment, get the proper nutrition, and put themselves in the best position for training, and make sure classwork is handled.
Since spring training, we have been focusing on things we can control and staying positive because we choose to be positive. We are in control of that and in control of our attitude.
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