BOGACZYK: Simmons' Soccer Success Rooted in More than Goals
The Word on the Herd-September 17, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The difference for Erin Simmons is more than a position change from forward to center midfielder in Marshall women’s soccer.
And it’s also about more than the junior’s return to aggressive play after she was limited by a knee brace last season following surgery to repair a right ACL tear in December 2012.
Last year, Simmons thought she needed to score goals to make the Herd successful. That was only natural, since she had six as a freshman in 2012 … but then Coach Kevin Long’s team got the first conference tournament victory in the program’s history in a 2013 season in which Simmons found the net only four times.
This season, as the Herd (3-2-2) heads to her home state for a Friday game at Miami (Ohio), Simmons has goals in the last three matches, and she’s the reigning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week – and she’s figured out the difference a year can make.
"I’m more confident than last season," Simmons said. "I think last season I was more hesitant to go to the goal. Honestly, I don’t know why. I think I just needed to discover my comfort zone. And I think this year I’m just more aware of my surroundings.
"I’ve heard over and over, ‘Check your shoulder … check your shoulder.’ Well, I always knew to do it, but I never did it. So, I do it more now than I did last year. I would say what I needed to do last year and not do it, where this year I’m doing it."
With 13 career goals in fewer than two and a half seasons, Long and Herd assistant coach Erika Duncan figure Simmons has a shot at Duncan’s school record of 23 career goals. If that’s possible, it might be because Simmons doesn’t dwell on a number.
"The more you go out there on the field and think, ‘I have to score … I have to score … I have to do this to make myself feel better,’ that’s when it gets harder," said Duncan, a Scot who starred for the Herd from 2007-10. "That’s when there’s more stress. You need to let that go and realize when you don’t want it as much, that’s when it comes, because you’re more relaxed. You’re not under pressure then, you’re not putting yourself through that. It just happens for you.
"I think that’s something that Erin has learned, too, especially for this fall. It was like, ‘Erin, you were a goal scorer here as a freshman, and we thought you were going to break records and then she comes into the (2013) fall and not hitting the ball correctly or not getting a lot of power behind it and she’s just dropping and dropping in confidence.
"So, for her, getting fit, knowing what she’s able to do and coming in more confident mentally, she was able to realize that she didn’t have the ability to just score the goals. She just had to wait until the time was right. And she got one and now she won’t stop."
Duncan said she sees some of her own soccer DNA in Simmons, who is from the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, Ohio.
"Absolutely, I feel a lot of grit in Erin," Duncan said. "She works so hard, and with the mental side of it, she has a passion for soccer not everybody has. Not every kid out there can say that. Every practice Erin comes out here and works hard every time.
"We’ve talked about it, Kevin and I, foreigners, internationals, have this different upbringing in soccer. It’s in their life from Day 1. Over here it’s a little different, and there are other sports that come into play. Kids in this country, they’re playing five different sports until they’re 16 years old.
"For me, it was just soccer, soccer, soccer, soccer, and that passion isn’t built in from Day 1 in a lot of players. But Erin is one of those players … she wants it; she loves the game. She’s a leader; she puts that passion into the other players -- an accountability -- and I like to think I kind of did that, too."
For her part, Simmons, 20, said losing something made for big gains in her game. She wore a knee brace in 2013 until the final two games of the regular-season, after she tore her ACL in workouts just after a freshman season in which she made the All-C-USA third team and All-Freshman squad.
"I hated that thing," Simmons said. "It was awful. I felt so restricted I couldn’t move and finally I just decided I can’t play with it anymore. I don’t think it was fear (of getting hurt). I was just so frustrated having to wear it. I probably was a little timid, yes, and it’s something I never want to go through again. "Really, I wasn’t too scared. A lot of people say they come back from it and they’re afraid one bad move and they’ll do something to it. But in my mind, you can’t go into it like that. If you go in hesitant, you’re going to get hurt. You have to go in hard because the other person on the other team is going hard."
Simmons, who had 71 goals in her final two high school seasons at Columbus Academy and led Ohio prep players in scoring in 2011 with 39 goals and 26 assists, said her adjustment to NCAA Division I soccer wasn’t as easy as a six-goal season perhaps made it look.
"I think it took a lot of warming up to it," Simmons said of the high school-to-Herd transition. "College soccer -- compared to high school and club soccer -- is very different. It’s significantly faster and people are a lot stronger. I got pushed off the ball a lot more during my freshman year than I do now.
"I felt like I was all over the place my freshman year. You’re going up against people three and four years older than you, which you did in high school at one time, but it’s just so different. The pace is faster, players are faster; they’re more skilled. Every game is hard.
"I think a lot of what I did as a freshman was probably partly the people on our team. The seniors and juniors tell you, ‘You have to be strong.’ I think it’s just as the season goes along, you learn more and more.
"The upperclassmen help a lot because they’ve been there. Starting out, they know it’s tough; they went through it themselves and they try to help you work through it, and they did with me. I still wasn’t ready coming in my freshman year as much as maybe I thought I was going to be."
Now, part of Simmons’ role is providing that kind of leadership for the eight freshmen on Long’s 2014 roster, even while she adds to totals that find her No. 8 in career goals, No. 6 in career shots (111) and No. 4 in game-winning goals (5) at Marshall.
"For me, it’s about preparation for Erin," Duncan said. "You saw what you did last year, and you just went out this summer and worked to prepare more for this season. She’s one of the fittest on the team, and she’s finally in center of the field for us, a different position than she played in the past.
"She can dominate the middle of the field for us now. Her fitness brought a new level of confidence for her. The fact that she wasn’t starting the season with a brace on that knee, and she was ready to go and she was eager to get after it, that all put her in a very good place."
Simmons and Duncan agreed that the challenge for her isn’t to score goals. It’s to keep playing aggressively and wisely, and those goals will materialize – like her deflection of a Sydney Arnold shot for the game-winner in a recent 2-1 win over Appalachian State.
"I’m not trying to score goals; it just sort of happens," Simmons said. "My teammates, obviously, are the big reason, too. I wouldn’t be able to score without their help. I don’t always make my own goals. They come from other people. The goal against App State, Syd did all the work. I was just there, in the right place."
Duncan talks about a different "right place" for Simmons.
"Erin has confidence, and she’s a good player," the Herd assistant coach said. "We talked about the change (in attitude about feeling a need to score). That puts a significant amount of pressure on you. She’s gone through the injury, the brace, too.
"She’s finally been able to break through those obstacles, and there’s no stopping her now."