October 22, 2013 9:53:10 AM
Coaches will use anything they can get their hands on to motivate their players.
In 19 seasons as a coach, Mike Sullivan knows "bulletin-board material" when he sees it. The Itawamba Community College men's soccer coach knew he had what he needed when he saw a preseason poll had his team ranked ninth.
"A lot of things were put on a platter for me," Sullivan said. "The biggest thing at beginning of the year was the poll. The kids loved that. ... There is a lot of motivational stuff out there. It is always easy to find if you look hard enough."
ICC has turned that preseason ranking on its head. A 4-1 victory against Northwest Mississippi C.C. on Friday helped ICC (9-3-3) clinch its first outright Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division title. ICC shared the division title in 2011.
For Sullivan, who is in his 12th year as men's soccer coach at ICC, the championship was the culmination of a long recruiting process that changed the face of the soccer program.
"I knew people knew we signed a good class, but I think they did look at the roster and see 19 freshmen," Sullivan said. "I think they did think we were going to be young, but in this league you're always young with only freshmen and sophomores. Sometimes, like next year, you're going to have a lot of sophomores, so I think more will be expected of us. But I was glad to see us ranked so low in the beginning because it was more motivational stuff I could use. I knew the kids we signed and that it was going to fire some of these kids up. ... I knew when we signed this class we were going to have a special team. What we have done hasn't surprised me at all. The guys have worked hard and earned every bit of it."
The ICC men's team has a local flavor to it. Nick May, Drew Hankins, and Josh Kugel are from Caledonia High School, Ricky Hackler is from Columbus High, Dylan Howard is from Starkville High, and Lee Davis III is from New Hope High. Combined with players from all over the rest of North and Northeast Mississippi, Sullivan knew the players from the Golden Triangle would help create a formidable side. He said the familiarity the players had with each other provided a great starting point the team used to its advantage in the preseason. He said the team had 16 days before school opened to practice two, three, or four times a day to become even closer.
Howard, who was The Dispatch's All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year as a senior at Starkville High, is the leading local scorer with four goals, three assists, and 11 points. He has started all 12 games in which he has played. Hackler, another freshman, has started all 11 games and had four goals and 11 points. May has played in 13 games (11 starts) and has one goal, while Hankins also has played in 12 games and has one goal. Kugel, who is out with an injury, has one goal in eight games. Davis III has played in three games as a goalkeeper.
Howard, who plays midfield, believed the Indians would come together even before Sullivan showed them the preseason poll. He said the ranking provided motivation the players have used all season.
"Coach said to us before the first game that this was going to be the season," Howard said. "I think we have flown under the radar because people didn't know what to expect and that they assumed they would take a win from us because we were so young. But we are so used to playing with each other that we have great chemistry. Some teams are unbalanced with a weak defense and a strong attack, but we are balanced all around."
ICC will try to close the regular season on a strong note at 3 p.m. today when it plays host to Union College. ICC's last loss, a 3-0 decision, came to Union on Oct. 5. The Indians are riding a four-game unbeaten streak and a nine-game streak against MACJC teams. The North Division title gives the team a first-round bye into the state tournament. ICC will play the winner of the game between the No. 2 team from the South and the No. 3 team from the North on Nov. 2 at Hinds C.C. or at Holmes C.C.
Hackler, who has anchored the wing midfield positions, agrees with Howard that chemistry has been a key to the Indians' success. He said ICC set out in its first game -- a 3-1 victory against Meridian C.C. -- to prove people wrong, and they have been doing it all season.
"I wouldn't say it has been such a big surprise because there is not one person who hasn't played with another person," Hackler said. "We all knew how we played in the preseason, and I could tell right away and I wasn't worried about us all being freshmen except for four guys.
"I am so blessed to be in the position. I didn't know what to expect, and I don't think I am better than anybody. I just try to work the hardest I think I should work and things have worked out so far."
Sullivan hopes things continue to work out like they have through 15 games. He isn't sure if he will be able to find any more bulletin-board material as good as what he discovered in the preseason, but he knows where to look and will continue searching. Even if he doesn't find anything, Sullivan feels good about his team's chances.
"Another thing about this group is it is very self-motivated," Sullivan said. "They want to win a state title. I don't think a lot of them have to have (the bulletin board material) to want to play."
The ICC women will wrap up their season at 1 p.m. today against Union. Local players Mary Margaret Swain, Katie Proctor, Lindsey Burton, Sarah Hern, Reagan Hern, Sophia Timm, and Demi Menotti have played key roles for the Lady Indians (4-9-2).
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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