For Bridge­port soc­cer coach, jour­ney ends with na­tional ti­tle

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - SPORTS - JEFF JA­COBS

The state po­lice were wait­ing for them at the Con­necti­cut line. The Univer­sity of Bridge­port women’s soc­cer play­ers, on the long bus drive back from Pitts­burgh, didn’t know what was hap­pen­ing.

How could they?

Af­ter all, this was the pro­gram that went 0-15 in Mag­nus Nilerud’s first-year as coach in 1999.

And this was the team that went out for a two-game trip to Michi­gan in Septem­ber. Against the ad­vice of his wife Sharon, Nilerud took his team into Grand Val­ley St. and got smoked, 6-0. The shots were 28-2.

And now here they were on Sun­day, 30 miles from the end of their jour­ney.

It is one that starts with a fresh­man ar­riv­ing at Bridge­port from Karl­stad, Swe­den, in 1995. A Swede coach­ing the men’s team heard about Nilerud, re­cruited him and promptly left a month be­fore he ar­rived. This didn’t stop Nilerud from be­com­ing a four-year starter and twotime All-New Eng­land Con­fer­ence se­lec­tion.

Joe Bar­roso, now the Sa­cred Heart men’s coach, coached Nilerud his fi­nal two years at Bridge­port. Bar­roso also coached the Bridge­port women. As Nilerud grad­u­ated in mar­ket­ing in 1999,

Bar­roso ac­cepted the Sa­cred Heart’s women job.

Nilerud was plan­ning to work at a mar­ket­ing firm in New York City.

“I had grown pretty close with the AD (Joe DiPuma),” Nilerud said. “He was like, lis­ten, I’m a Man­hat­tan guy, I know the en­try level po­si­tion you’re go­ing into and I’ve got­ten a job through a friend of ours. That com­pany is not go­ing to go un­der if you don’t go there now.

“Can you just do me a solid? Get me through the sea­son and go into Man­hat­tan when the sea­son’s over. I went to the guy who em­ployed me, and he said no wor­ries.”

Just like that, Nilerud was a col­lege soc­cer coach.

“We had four kids turn up for pre­sea­son,” Nilerud said. “I ba­si­cally spent the en­tire sea­son walk­ing through the dorms and din­ing hall, ask­ing kids, ‘Can you jump on the bus and go to Al­bany to play?’

“Men’s and women’s bas­ket­ball were very, very good and if women’s soc­cer didn’t go through with the sea­son, in re­turn, the bas­ket­ball teams wouldn’t qual­ify for the NCAA Tour­na­ment.”

The Pur­ple Knights scored five goals. All sea­son. They con­ceded 163. First game they lost to St. Rose, 19-0.

“I went into my AD and said, ‘When I’m sit­ting in my rock­ing chair and my grand­kids say, grandad, I heard you were a col­lege coach, this isn’t the le­gacy I want to leave be­hind. Give me one more year.’ (DiPuma) said go for it.”

Nilerud went 7-12, then 10-8 and hasn’t had a los­ing sea­son since. He never took that job in New York. The

Pur­ple Knights have be­come a sta­ple in the NCAA Tour­na­ment. Nilerud has been na­tional coach of the year.

Yet Bridge­port — let alone women’s soc­cer — had never won a NCAA team cham­pi­onship.

“I’ve al­ways said it’s easy to go from aw­ful to av­er­age,” Nilerud said. “We sold kids that we’re build­ing the pro­gram around them. We turned it around pretty quickly. The chal­leng­ing part was go­ing from good to very good. You didn’t only have to change play­ers, you had to change a men­tal­ity.”

A turn­ing point came in 2004. Bridge­port beat Adel­phi on the road. Adel­phi went on to the na­tional fi­nals.

“Our first re­ally big win,” Nilerud said. “The kids started to be­lieve.”

Bridge­port would go on to to qual­ify for the NCAA Tour­na­ment 10 of 12 years, although 2017 had been a re­build­ing year of 8-8-2.

“This year’s team is not the best play­ers we’ve had,” Nilerud said. “Our 2009 and 2016 teams had bet­ter play­ers by far, but the group that wins nor­mally is the team with the best chem­istry. The in­tegrity of this locker room, these kids were so united, the stars were aligned.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some un­be­liev­able play­ers, but when you look on pa­per, UC San Diego and Grand Val­ley St. had bet­ter play­ers than us. But not on the day we played them. We de­served to win.”

The Bridge­port ros­ter in­cludes three from Con­necti­cut, seven from Swe­den, four from U.K., three from Brazil, two from Nor­way and one from South Africa and Nether­lands. Mae­gen Doyle of Har­wich, Eng­land, scored a school­record

28 goals. Goal­keeper Jen­nifer Wen­delius, of Lidingo, Swe­den, would be Most Out­stand­ing De­fen­sive Player at the Fi­nal Four. They are both Aca­demic All-Amer­i­cans.

“You have so many dif­fer­ent cul­tural and re­gional back­grounds, it’s amaz­ing how close they get,” Nilerud said. “But there’s a com­mon lan­guage, and no mat­ter if they come from Seat­tle or Stock­holm, they’ve got the same goals in soc­cer and in the class­room.”

Re­mem­ber the 19-0 game? The Pur­ple Knights would beat St. Rose in the sec­ond round of the 48team NCAA Tour­na­ment. They’d beat LIU Post and host Blooms­burg St. to ad­vance to the na­tional semi­fi­nals for the sec­ond time in four years. They would beat UC San Diego, 2-0, on goals by Amanda Ebbesson and Doyle. Only Grand Val­ley St. re­mained.

“We take a trip ev­ery year to kind of mimic what a Fi­nal Four would look like,” Nilerud said. “This year hap­pened to be Grand Val­ley. My wife said, ‘You’re ab­so­lutely off your rocker, go­ing out there.’” Sharon was right. “We were hand­somely beat,” Nilerud said. “It was 6-0. If it had been 15-0, I wouldn’t have raised an eye­brow.”

But, now, it was dif­fer­ent. Lak­ers coach Jeff Hosler, whose No. 1 team was 250-1, had the chal­lenge of con­vinc­ing his play­ers this would not be a rout. Nilerud had a game plan. Stay or­ga­nized. Stay com­pact. And while they were out­shot, 18-5, and Grand Val­ley had a 11-3 ad­van­tage in cor­ner kicks, the de­fense and Wen­delius stood tall.

“I had told them, ‘You play Grand Val­ley, you’d prob­a­bly lose eight or nine

of 10. But to­day is not eight or nine,’ ” Nilerud said.

Not Sat­ur­day. Not at High­mark Sta­dium. With a lit­tle more than 12 min­utes re­main­ing, Elin Ek­lund’s shot beat Grand Val­ley’s Jes­sica Radice, but hit the cross­bar. Nara Da­Costa was there to head in the game’s only goal.

“You couldn’t have writ­ten a bet­ter script,” Nilerud said. “It was fan­tas­tic.”

So here was the team bus cross­ing into Green­wich on I-95 Sun­day. Nilerud let the bus driver in on the se­cret, so he wouldn’t pull over in a panic. The state po­lice be­gan its es­cort.

“The kids had no clue,” Nilerud said. “We get off Exit 25 in Bridge­port, the state po­lice are wav­ing us on, they started to pick up on it. The kids are like why are we get­ting off here? The bus driver said, ‘My wife called and I’ve got to pick up milk.’ ”

They pulled into the Stop & Shop on Fair­field Av­enue. There were four po­lice cars, lights flash­ing, with Mayor Ganim wait­ing to get on the bus to say a few words.

The bus headed for cam­pus, sirens blar­ing, run­ning red lights.

“When the play­ers stepped off the bus, they started see­ing peo­ple cheer­ing, the cheer­lead­ers, but the lights in the gym was still turned off,” Nilerud said. “They walked into the lobby. All of a sud­den the lights went on. There must have been 1,000 kids go­ing crazy. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence they will re­mem­ber the rest of the life.”

The jour­ney Mag­nus Nilerud started in 1999 was com­plete. Bridge­port had its na­tional cham­pi­ons.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.