The NCU Rams Men’s Soccer Team claims a roster of 12 in an 11-man game but they are never disqualified for it.
According to Coach Jake Smith ’94, “For the 12th” is a rally cry the team shouts after every huddle and impacts every aspect of team play: how they act at practices and games, how they relate to others and even how they treat their playing facilities.
Smith, who was recently selected by his peers as the Coach of the Year for men’s soccer by the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC), notes the 12th player is a component of a two-part philosophy, or what he calls a theology, of soccer.
The first part is the omnipresence of God. The second part is the belief that every person you see is worth dying for—because Christ died for everyone. “We try to play with this in mind, “ Smith explained.
“Some days we do great at this, other days we don’t,” Smith reflected. He added with a smile, “Some days we’re just a bunch of knuckleheads doing the best we can.
“But our hope is that after four years together, we’re more like Christ by being together on this team.”
Time for a reboot
It took more than philosophical agreement, though, and even more than a brand-new field, to move the Rams from dead last in their conference in 2014 to a 7-10-2 fourth-place finish that included the team receiving the 2015 UMAC Sportsmanship Award. It took a complete team reboot.
Just as one of the best things to do when your computer is stuck is to reboot and start over, Smith realized that his team needed something big to turn the tide from several seasons of under-performing. “I wanted to inspire the next step in attention to detail,” he said, “to be more demanding.”
The team charted a course to create a culture of excellence in a variety of ways. “We stepped up the devotional part of the game,” Smith explained. “We wanted to look after each other better, to be more fully present, to be a better fan when you’re on the bench and put forth more effort in details.”
Smith knew it was critical to help his players understand that little things add up and often become the difference between winning and losing.
One of the little things that the team focused on was how they related to one another and encouraged each other through the ups and downs of soccer and life. Junior Tyler Maag, one of the team’s co-captains, explained, “I think our belief in one another—unlike any other year—helped us persevere.”
The focus on taking care of little things extended to the coaching staff, too. Assistant Coach Nate Kemper ’03 observed, “Jake makes me a better leader. His quick handling of small problems prevents the big ones. I’ve learned to be more comfortable confronting issues and more willing to delegate leadership because of my work with him.”
In his communication with players at the start of the season, Coach Smith outlined what the season’s reboot would be about. “We need to identify, establish, and maintain a new version of our program,” Smith wrote. “We have not been excellent in all the ways we can be and it is to this end that we need a reboot. We need to define a new set of expectations that will both complement our priority of playing “for the 12th” and move us more fully toward that objective.”
The way the team rallied around the reboot concept surprised even Smith. “My team leadership caught hold and spread out to the players,” he said. “That was why this season was different.”
The focus on excellence adopted by the team applies to soccer and life itself, and the approach makes sense far beyond the world of soccer. These were the key components of excellence articulated by Smith to his team to serve as the foundation for the season’s efforts:
- Excellence in attention to details and standards
- Excellence in attention to effort and passion
- Excellence in attention to commitment and presence
- Excellence in attention to each other and the team
These areas were undergirded by the encouragement of “Better today—make every effort to improve at something, some skill every day.”
Smith’s willingness to reboot his team and himself as a coach stems from a deeply held value of continuous learning.
Unlike many coaches, Smith did not have a long history as a soccer player. He played recreational soccer until he was about 12 years old and then played once for a half season when he was a senior at North Central.
Not having years of playing experience to build upon, his approach in his 10 years as NCU’s men’s soccer coach (he also coached the women’s team for five years) has been to acquire as much knowledge as he can about the game.
“I approach the game as a student,” Smith said, “always learning, always trying to develop myself. I learn from coaches, players, and even opponents.”
He also watches lots and lots of soccer. “I call it research,” he commented, adding in jest: “my wife calls it annoying.” For Smith, it’s both hobby and profession and he’s acquired a deep respect for the game.
“Soccer is the most important game in the world,” Smith noted, speaking of statistics and not general U.S. sentiment. “More people play soccer than any other sport; more people watch it than any other sport.”
Leading by example
His focus on learning from others does not go unnoticed by those who work with him. “I’ve always appreciated that Jake is open to input from others,” said Kemper. “He understands his own skills and the unique things others can do effectively and is comfortable giving other people the authority when necessary.”
Kemper is enthusiastic about Smith’s accolades as Coach of the Year but noted that this year was a culmination of a long-term effort. “Jake has always made sure that the player experience was positive,” Kemper said. “That was an emphasis when he took over a program that was struggling…. His emphasis on each player’s experience… was an initial goal. This has never left, and as the retention rate of players and recruiting has strengthened, it has had significant impact in our on field experience as well.
“His unique ability to craft that positive experience—even during losing seasons—still has significant impact, not just to those students, but to the program now as it has found better form. He’s being noticed not only for the work he has done this year, but also for the foundation he started building years ago to make a year like this possible again.”
As for Smith, he’s grateful for the recognition he’s received but refuses to claim it for himself. “It a huge shot in the arm for our program and for North Central,” Smith said. “Our whole team deserves this award. I love what it says about where we’ve come as a program and the goals we can set for next year.”