For followers of Messiah College soccer, success is as mysterious as it is impressive. “It is a unique, yet fulfilling moment to look down at your chest and see the word ‘Messiah,’ knowing that there is a greater meaning serving as your motivation,” explains senior defender Jordan Sands ’12. This drive — hidden behind 12 combined national championships and 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances — communicates the difference between Messiah College and much of the rest of the Division III soccer world. On this team, success begins with motivation.
For the men and women who compete each fall, the game of soccer follows this principal value: God represents the purpose and the pursuit; winning only serves as a tool to fulfill this mission. “Playing for God gives us the bond of a common purpose rather than simply a common sport,” responds senior Erin Hench ’12, who received NSCAA National Player of the Year honors in 2009. “It’s more than just a soccer team. We strive to worship God through soccer by returning the gifts he’s given to us.”
But for loyal supporters of this celebrated program, a common purpose is not enough to explain the Falcons’ profound success. To truly solve the mystery — and discover what makes these two teams excel — each coach moves beyond soccer. “Winning doesn’t define us,” states women’s head coach Scott Frey ’84, with a noticeable hint of passion in his voice. Instead, Frey identifies his team’s leadership culture as a principal drive toward excellence. “It blows the underclassmen away,” he continues. “They step into an environment where they are immediately loved, wanted and accepted.”
For head coach Brad McCarty ’93, a 12-year veteran of the men’s program, leadership represents an uncompromising quality. “It all starts with the recruits,” he says. “Our players have maturity and a desire to be disciplined.” Upon arriving, these underclassmen experience an unorthodox approach to collegiate athletics. They are not treated as strangers; they are not expected to perform lowly tasks for approval, and they do not ride the bench until their teammates have exhausted their eligibility. “Here I am as a freshman … and it’s the senior All-American who is the first to the water bottles, filling them up and handing them out to the underclassmen,” describes senior forward Danny Thompson ’12, who scored six game-winning goals during his storied Messiah career. For Thompson and his fellow recruits, playing time was earned out of the gate, allowing the future national champions to mature during their first season in Grantham.
Time on the field without integration, though, would impress few observers. These Falcons play for more than individual glory. “We want to make it to the national championship every season, not because we want another trophy, but [because] we want to maximize the length of time we get to spend playing and training together,” says Thompson. Recognition and accolades will continue to pour in, though this group prefers to spread the love around. Sands — a three-time national champion — believes his teammates mean more than any of his three rings. “I enjoy that moment of being able to see the joy on each of my teammates’ faces, knowing that in our hearts, we have been fighting for one another the entire time,” he says.
Here lies the secret of Messiah College soccer. For this program, success does not rely on five-star recruits or innovative training regimes. Instead, these men and women impress with character, an often forgotten trait in the world of collegiate athletics. “You can take away soccer, the field, the fans, the goals, the uniforms,” begins senior midfielder Sam Woodworth ’12. “You can take that all away, and I still have what truly matters: my teammates.”
By Nick Hemming `13. This article was originally printed in the March 5, 2012 issue of Mennonite Weekly Review.