Sept. 13, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Two head football coaches at Marshall have a somewhat different take on their teams’ defensive performances early this season.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re playing great defense right now,” Thundering Herd football Coach Doc Holliday said earlier this week, “because we have to be better in that area.”
As for MU men’s soccer Coach Bob Gray, his defense can’t get any better, at least on the scoreboard.
Among 204 NCAA Division I men’s soccer teams, the Herd (4-0-1) stands alone as unscored upon this season. Senior goalkeeper Daniel Withrow, picked as the 2012 preseason Conference USA Defender of the Year, has five consecutive shutouts. That’s a team and individual season record.
“You cannot, in your wildest dreams, think you’re going five games in and not giving up a goal,” Gray said Thursday morning after his team’s practice at Sam Hood Field. “The ball bounces a lot of different ways and we’ve been fortunate keep it out of the net. It’s been a lot of hard work."
“Part of our success is because we’ve been able to keep the ball as well. We’ve gone on offense a bit more, and that keeps little pressure off defense. But to see the stats the other day and see Marshall No .1 in the country in defense, the only Division I team to not allow a goal, that’s really special.”
As the Herd heads to Radford, Va., for matches with UNC Asheville (1-4-0) on Friday and the host Highlanders (2-1-1) on Sunday, Gray’s team is 9 minutes, 17 seconds away from the school record for consecutive shutout time (479:17), set in October-November 2005.
As he said, however, it hasn’t just been defense. A 7-0 rout at VMI last Sunday gave Gray’s team the largest margin of victory in a major college game this season.
Gray, in his 18th season at Marshall – he’s the longest-tenured head coach with the Herd following the retirement of four-decades golf Coach Joe Feaganes – never has seen anything like this to start a season … and Friday’s game will be his 687th as a college head coach, dating to 1977. He’s 415-223-48 in his career.
“It’s really been a combination of things,” Gray said of the Herd’s fast start. “Our offense is much better than it was last year. At this time last year, we had played five games, we were 1-4, and we’d only scored one goal. We’ve scored 12 in five games (spread among seven players) this season.
“It’s a pleasant change-around, but we know tougher things are yet to come. I do really like this group. We’ve got a real nice mix of older guys with younger guys, and we’re getting some good play off the bench, some depth we didn’t have last year, and that really helps us.”
Marshall also is doing it on the road.
With the school’s new $6.5 million soccer stadium about to be bid out for construction (it will open next season) and with early site preparation for a planned indoor practice facility having a footprint engulfing the Sam Hood site, the field is available only for practice.
The Herd is playing its few home dates mostly at area high schools.
Gray’s team is in the midst of eight straight road or neutral site games.
“It’s unbelievable, we haven’t been home for the whole month of September,” said Gray, whose team had its only “blemish” in a Sept. 1 nil-nil match at Bowling Green. “I didn’t move my suitcase in my house. I leave it right in that one corner because I know that every Thursday I’ll need to repack it to go back on the road.
“It has been tough, but it helps in a way, having away games, facing adversity, and mentally we’ve prepared for that. Baseball had to go through it (with no Herd home stadium) for several years now, and it’s frustrating only to people like myself who like to sleep in their own bed once in a while. But these guys, they get on the bus, get into a routine, and so far, so good.”
Gray credited his three senior captains with keeping the team focused.
“Withrow has been phenomenal,” Gray said of the keeper who owns the Herd career shutout record with 16. “(Forward) Tom Jackson is a real sparkplug out there. He scores a lot of goals for us, and big goals (Jackson ranks fifth all-time in MU history in goals and points), but just his work rate and competitiveness are special.
“And probably our heart and soul, (center midfielder) Devin Perkins, the littlest guy (5 feet 6) out there, but he has the biggest engine and the biggest heart. Those guys have loads of experience, and they’re all hungry.
“On the opposite side, we also have gotten some very good play from some young freshmen, Matt Freeman, Jack Hopkins and Andrew Ferguson, so that just gives us that little spark with depth off the bench.”
At last weekend’s Jay Sculley Memorial Tournament at VMI, Herd sophomore midfielder Jahvon Allison of Jamaica was named the tournament MVP.
Gray knows the day will come when the no-goals streak will end, and he’s trying to prepare his team for that moment.
After the Radford Tournament, the Herd has a 10-day break before beginning its eight-game Conference USA schedule on Sept. 26 at Memphis, then continues the trip three days later at Tulsa, ranked 23rd in the national coaches’ poll this week.
“It’s ironic you ask about how long we can do this,” Gray said. “When we were up 6-0 at VMI last Sunday, I was saying to myself, ‘Hey, I hope they get a goal against us,’ just to take the pressure off, you know… everybody is aware we’ve got this unscored streak.
“What’s important for us is wins, and I think the guys understand that. Would they love to continue not giving up a goal? Of course, but we’ve talked about it: How are we going to react when we finally give up a goal, and what do we do if we give up a goal, and what if we give up a goal and we go down?
“We’re going to have to manage the game that way as well, but I think they’re ready for that, so we’ll see. You just hope the ball keeps bouncing our way.”