While Tiger football fans fret over the direction of the program, women’s soccer coach Brooks Monaghan has quietly built a juggernaut, one you can see play — and win regularly — at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex. The Tigers have won four straight Conference USA tournament championships and are off to the best start (12-0) in the 16-year history of the program. Memphis is currently ranked 6th in the country by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
Are you pinching yourself these days, with how high the program has risen?
You know, hard work pays off. You just don’t always know how well it will pay off. The group that we have, I can’t say enough about their character. To be ranked 6th in the country, it’s a bit of a surprise, but we knew what we were capable of doing. So it’s not such a big surprise.
You’ve started the season with the longest winning streak in the program’s history. What’s been constant throughout the streak?
Leadership, especially from the juniors and seniors. It’s made it easy for the newcomers. [The Tigers have 12 upperclassmen on their 31-player roster.] This group came back really focused and set their goals high. They’ve done a great job of not letting distractions get in the way. It’s hard to stay focused 100-percent of the time, but how quickly can you fix something?
Your goaltender, Elise Kuhar-Pitters, is breaking every record in the Tiger book. [The senior has eight shutouts this season and 31 for her career. The Tigers have given up a total of five goals in 12 games.] What separates her from your average college goalie?
She’s been tremendous. She’s got it all. She came in super-focused. She’s always had the natural ability. But the ability to focus consistently. She’s as good as anyone out there. Her athleticism; her hands are as good as any I’ve ever seen. You want a strong personality and a great presence back there, and that’s what she has. Your team feeds off that.
For people unfamiliar with your team, who else has stood out this season?
Lizzy Simonin, our center-back [defender]. She’s one of our captains and has stepped up as a major leader. She’s the best captain we’ve ever had in the program. She’s well-respected by her team. She’s just a winner, in every category.
Eleven different players have scored for the Tigers this season. Is this preferred to a team with one or two go-to scorers?
In years past, we’ve had one or two that we leaned on to score all the goals. But for us, it’s an advantage when you’re having a lot of different players score because it’s tougher to get a true scout on your team. You can’t just mark a certain player and take her out of the game. This has been a bonus for us.
With four straight Conference USA championships, can a women’s soccer team capture the attention of a city devoted foremost to men’s basketball?
You know the city we live in; they want to support the winning team. It’s hard for us to compare with basketball and the history they’ve had. We welcome all the support we can get. Soccer’s still a new sport in the big picture. But this is an exciting brand of soccer. Hopefully the support continues to grow. On campus, everyone knows who our kids are, and that’s great for them. They’ve worked hard. Just like the basketball team; it’s just a different sport they play. We all play to be at the top.
Women’s soccer seems to grab the country’s attention every four years with the World Cup. How can it retain attention year in and year out?
It’s going to take time. It’s difficult to compete with football and basketball. But this is a sport where a dad can take his daughter. It’s continuing to grow. The crowds every year are getting bigger.
For us, one of our biggest goals is getting back on campus. Mike Rose is a beautiful complex, and they’ve been great to us. The girls love playing there. But we are a university team, and I think university sports are meant to be played on campus. It’s the next step we want to take. And there are efforts. Hopefully the time will come soon.
You recruit well beyond the Mid-South; seven players on the roster are from Canada. Tell us about your team-building philosophy.
We try not to leave a rock unturned. We don’t have the name of UCLA or North Carolina, so sometimes it’s hard for us to attract the top kids. Our Canadian pipeline started because one of my assistants, Jodi Grant, is from Canada. We began recruiting from Alberta, where she’s from. That grew throughout Canada. We know the national team coaches. With the success we’ve had, recruiting has become easier.
How is the program different today than when you took over in 2000?
The talent has grown, obviously. But everybody here has bought into what it takes to win. And it’s not easy being a student-athlete. It’s about sacrifice. Giving up things, from what you eat to not being able to go to parties. This group has bought into that. We try to get better every year and learn from our mistakes. We’ve got to do what it takes to be at the top.
One major goal still to achieve is winning the program’s first NCAA tournament game. What will that require?
If you look at our games, we’ve had some tough draws. The better team doesn’t always win. We lost once in double-overtime. A little luck with our draw . . . obviously, the higher seed we get, the easier the first-round game. In the big picture, it’s staying focused, and not being satisfied with a conference championship. I’d give up any conference championship to go further in the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers have four more home games in the regular season: October 7 (SMU), October 9 (Tulsa), October 14 (UTEP), and October 16 (Colorado College). Memphis will host the 2011 Conference USA tournament November 2-6 at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.