Enduring defeat a part of most Championship Runs

Denver men’s soccer (3-3-0) and women’s volleyball (6-2) both went undefeated in August and looked to continue their dominance on the pitch and on the court in September.

Then, DU volleyball lost twice and men’s soccer dropped 3 out of 4 matches. Granted, both programs were felled under vastly different circumstances. Men’s soccer is considered a national Top-10 ranked power while Denver volleyball is an emerging program trying to make a statement after a 6-0 start.

Pioneer athletes and fans had a sense of invincibility, especially at CIBER Field, when on Friday, September 1st, the DU men’s soccer team fell to then-unranked Furman 1-0, ending a 37 game regular-season winning streak. Normalcy returned two days later when DU rolled Drake 2-0 at home. But this past weekend, unranked UC-Irvine shocked the Pioneers 1-0 in Albuquerque before the Pioneers stumbled late to a 2-0 defeat against unranked California State University on Sunday. In short, this was a series of events few could have anticipated.

The DU volleyball team’s weekend losses to #1 Minnesota (3-0) and #5 (3-0) Texas weren’t exactly surprises. Most fans viewed this Austin, Texas tournament as a measuring stick for DU to learn just how far they need to go to be a legitimate contender against the nation’s best programs. After falling to a dominant #1 Minnesota side, they learned that there is still much work to do – but the Pioneers showed improvement against Texas (19-25, 23-25, 17-25) in match two and then, won their match against Texas A&M Corpus Christi (W 3-1) in Austin, Texas.

“It is great when you can struggle, learn and grow, and still be able to pull out a win,” said head coach Tom Hogan. “Tonight’s match (against Texas A&M Corpus Christi) against a very good NCAA tournament team taught us a lot.  We learned that we need to be consistent throughout each play, on every rep of every skill.”

The good news is that both teams rebounded following their initial losses but soccer followed that with another 2-game slide. Now the mental game begins as both teams realize that they are vulnerable. According to sports psychologist Alan Goldberg (Dr. G) in an article on losing, “Mentally going back and forth from the past to the future is what keeps the slump or losing steak ‘alive and well’. This is because the tension the athlete or team feels, combined with the faulty focus (worrying about the outcome of this game) insure that another bad performance will happen. The best way to break out of a slump is to discipline yourself to stay in the moment and NOT string the past and future into the NOW.”

Interestingly, the losses in Texas against top-tier programs may actually motivate DU volleyball while the soccer losses against unranked opponents may pose a greater mental challenge.

Psychology aside, the season is still young with nonconference games in front of both programs before conference play begins. Realistically, both programs will need to win their conference tournaments to earn bids to their respective NCAA tournaments – the typical course most ‘mid-major’ programs take to the post-season. Later this season, Denver volleyball will be defending their Summit League title in Denver while Denver men’s soccer must travel to Omaha and defeat a solid Maverick squad on the road if they are to earn another NCAA Tournament berth. Clearly, Denver men’s soccer now has the more challenging path.

With the departure of key players from both programs, it will take a collective effort between returning athletes and their new teammates to build confidence and momentum as they work toward their conference regular season tournaments. And head coaches Jamie Franks (age 30) and Tom Hogan (37) will be looking for answers. So, the key is not just winning now – it is getting better and peaking as the season progresses. It will be interesting to watch these young coaches make changes on the fly.

The legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summit once said, “Sometimes you learn more from losing than winning. Losing forces you to reexamine.” So, both teams leaders will be looking at various tweaks, long term, and short term, to improve on some of their recent performances.

There is absolutely no reason for Pioneer fans to panic – championship teams actually lose games before gaining season ending momentum through their playoff runs. The championship Stanford men’s soccer team last year lost 3 matches and was tied 5 times before they went on their championship run. The championship Stanford women’s volleyball team dropped 7 matches during their championship run last season but got hot at the right time behind their freshmen superstar Kathryn Plumber.

And let’s not forget that DU hockey fell to archrival North Dakota in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals last year, ending a 14-game winning streak, before making a run to their eighth national title. Defeat is part of sports and it’s an absolutely integral piece of a championship puzzle. We’re going to soon find out what these two programs are made of as their seasons wear on. The pieces are there to contend. Now, they just have to execute.

We’ll have a separate piece on DU women’s soccer later this week as they prepare for a critical match against the University of Colorado in the Colorado Cup.