May 12, 2012 11:25:56 PM
As a new coach starting out in soccer, Tom Velek never understood why coaches tended to put stronger players up front and less experienced ones on defense.
Velek recognized that forwards usually received more attention for scoring all of the goals, but he also recognized the reality of a sports cliché: Defense wins championships. It also helped that Velek had a son, Avery, who enjoyed playing defense.
Those examples might help describe how and why the Columbus United Under-14 boys soccer team won the Mississippi Soccer Association Division III State Championship on May 5-6 in Meridian. It is the first time a team from Lowndes County has won at U-14 boys, and only the third championship for a Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority team.
"This is a huge accomplishment for these players and coaches, but also for soccer in Lowndes County," CLRA's Director of Programs Greg Lewis said. "A state title is so hard to achieve."
Columbus defeated Biloxi 10-0 and South Madison Soccer Club 7-0 on Saturday and Jackson Futbol Club 8-0 on Sunday morning in bracket play to earn a trip to the championship. In the title match, Columbus beat Pascagoula Singing River Soccer Club, which had allowed only one goal in district and state competition. Goals by James Longmire and Kobe Van Someren gave Columbus an early lead before goals by Avery Velek and Caleb Gurley put the match out of reach.
Columbus allowed one goal in four matches. Goalkeeper Eli Hemphill received defensive support from Velek, AJ Reed, Daniel Longmire, Andy Blakney, and Sam Young.
"I have always emphasized defense as the key to winning, and this team is the personification of that philosophy," coach Velek said. "In 35 matches this year we have had 29 goals scored against us, on average less than one per match."
Velek said chemistry is another key to the team's success. He said many of the players on the team have played together since 2005.
"All of the players who won the 2010 U-12 district championship are still playing with the program," Velek said. "We have attracted new quality players because of the focus on player development and satisfaction.
The years of experience are important in all aspects of the game. You have players who are just better on the ball -- dribbling, passing, receiving. You have players with more experience together and against tough competition. They develop a sync with each other. They know where the other player will be and barely need to look to play a ball. They know how to provide multiple sides of support to the player with the ball."
Those principles have helped Columbus United compile a 31-3-1 record and earn a No. 3 ranking in the state. The squad is the highest ranked non-select (Division I) team. It will try to win a second state title when it competes May 19-20 in the Division II State Championship in Hattiesburg.
In addition to a stingy defense, Columbus United has relied on a balanced attack on offense that includes Longmire, Gurley, Van Someren, Charles Stanback, and Roger Shilling. Velek said the team also has received strong midfield support from Quad Phillips, Eric Dunaway, McKellar Fishel, and Will Rollins.
But Velek said he has tried to coach players who want to play defense. He said he tried to create a culture where players celebrated and appreciated solid defensive play. He said he is exceptionally proud that this year's team adopted that mind-set.
"It is not just about running drills in training in which you kick on goal," Velek said. "Four of the members of my back line have played together as a unit for two years -- two years of training around 70 matches together. That is incredible. We added Sam Young to the back line this year and it has been a wonderful addition. Our backs are all tall, big, fast, aggressive, and physical. Avery is 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds.
AJ runs a 4.9 40-yard dash. Blakney and Longmire are like pit bulls on forwards with the ball, and Young is tall, swift, and smart. One coach remarked to me that playing against them was like 'playing against a wrecking ball.'
Velek said he and his assistant coaches have worked hard to create a culture of attacking out of the back so backs understand that once they get the ball they can transition to offense and that they can facilitate an immediate transition to the attack. It also has helped that his players recognize the importance of everyone playing defense.
"As soon as you lose the ball, the team immediately transitions to defense," Velek said. "I coach the principle of 'first defender.' You lose the ball, you immediately become the first defender and try to get it back."
Velek hopes this title reinforces the progress Columbus United has made in its brief history.
He said the players work extremely hard in training and in games and should be commended for their dedication. He also praised CLRA for its support and the parents for their involvement in making the team a success.
"Titles are a reflection of taking coaching development seriously," Velek said. "A state championship is made through many different facets of a program. No one magical thing can be done. CLRA and United are doing it the right way: great programs, player development, coaching development, creating a culture of success, and hard work.
"On every aspect of play we put in solid performances, but games are won and lost in the midfield, and our midfield performed so well," said Velek, who is assisted by Chris Hemphill and Roger Shilling. "I take pride in the number of players who are back year after year to play. Most teams and programs don't do that. One of the simplest things I learned in my National Youth license course is they are kids. Soccer is a tough sport. If it is not fun and rewarding, they will go do something else, so I always remember to keep it fun, to keep it rewarding, and they have to want to do it. Every U-14 player from last year is back this year.
That is incredible. Programs scramble to put together teams, especially in the older age groups. Some have to practically rebuild teams each year. What an advantage to retain these players year over year, not just to win, but as a sign that your program and team are doing it right. Parents and players are already talking about our summer team training and the U-16 team for next year."
The Columbus United U-12 boys and the U-16 also competed in the state championships. The U-12 boys won two matches before losing to Pearl. The U-16 girls won one and lost two.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.