May 8, 2010 11:50:00 PM
Junior Noel was stunned.
For the past two seasons, Noel worked to make the East Mississippi Community College men''s and women''s soccer programs respectable.
The results weren''t eye-popping, but Noel and those in the area who follow soccer believe EMCC was improving.
That progress was put on hold earlier this week when the EMCC Board of Trustees voted to suspend the men''s and women''s soccer programs for one season.
The Board of Trustees also voted Monday not to renew the contract of Noel, who was in his third season as the men''s soccer coach and second as the coach of the women''s team.
Noel''s contract expires June 30.
"It was a total surprise," said Noel, who learned of the decision Tuesday morning. "All that was said was we made a decision to suspend the soccer programs with no clear indication of why."
EMCC athletic director Mickey Stokes said Friday the school plans late next year to re-evaluate the prospects of having soccer programs at EMCC. He said the schools plans to re-establish the programs and to hire a new coach if the Board of Trustees approves that move. He said the hope is the programs will return to play for the 2011 seasons.
Stokes said EMCC will honor all soccer scholarships for student-athletes who were on the teams this season and for all student-athletes who were recruited to come to Scooba in the fall to play soccer.
"There were a lot of different factors that came into play that made us feel like this was the best decision," Stokes said. "Our program has had its struggles and has not had a lot of success. But we''re building a new athletic facility that is designed to accommodate football and soccer. We hope the new facility and the new things that are coming on line at the school will make recruiting easier so we can get athletes here and bring in a new coach."
The decision came in a week filled with news from the EMCC athletic department. The Board of Trustees also voted Monday not to renew the contract of baseball Tony Montgomery. On Wednesday, the school held an informal gathering in West Point to introduce the student-athletes it had signed to its new rodeo program.
Construction also continues on the $4.7 million multi-sports facility on campus. Stokes said the facility, which is being funded with local and private monies, is projected to be ready by late October 2010. He said the hope is the football team will be able to play on the field for one or two regular-season games in the fall. The field will feature a synthetic turf surface.
The EMCC men''s soccer, which was established in 1998 by current Starkville High School Assistant Principal Sean McDonnall, went 5-11 and 0-8 in the MACJC North Division in 2009. The five wins were the most since 2001. The Lions went 1-12-1 and 0-8 in 2008 and 3-12 and 0-8 in 2007.
The EMCC men''s team had eight wins in the five seasons prior to Noel''s arrival.
EMCC women''s soccer, which was established in 2000 by McDonnall and first coached by current Starkville High boys soccer coach Brian Bennett, went 2-10-1 and 0-6 in 2009 and 4-7-2 and 1-5 in 2008.
The EMCC women''s team had three victories in the six years prior to Noel''s decision to coach the squad. Noel was hired to be the coach of the men''s team. He then agreed to coach both squads. The four wins in 2008 were the most since 2001.
That incremental progress was one of the reasons Noel was so shocked when he was informed of the decision to suspend the soccer prorgams. He said the only thing he was told Tuesday when he met with members of the school administration was that the programs had not reached the desired levels and that the school wanted to suspend them and then see how things developed.
"It is difficult for me to gauge (how long the programs will be suspended)," Noel said. "From my perspective, the sport at East Mississippi was improving. The college, at this point, is on the upswing, but I can''t really say if (soccer) is going to come back or when or how it is going to come back."
Noel said the location of EMCC''s main campus in Scooba, which is in Kemper County and is about an hour from Columbus and Starkville and 43 minutes from Meridian, was the biggest challenge he had to deal with as coach.
The Mississippi junior college system is based on schools recruiting from districts that are assigned to them, and Noel said the strength of the soccer programs in EMCC''s districts don''t have soccer or traditionally haven''t been or aren''t as strong as other areas of the state like Jackson, Tupelo, and the Gulf Coast.
Still, Noel felt he had started to make alliances with high school coaches in those districts so EMCC could have "a more ready supply of players."
Noel also said the lack of development in Scooba also contributed to a sense that many recruits had that there isn''t anything in Scooba, which compounded the difficulty he had recruiting players to the school.
"That was a big challenge to convince kids to come to a location to play where there isn''t anything outside of the school to attract their attention and where there ain''t much excitement going on, if any," Noel said.
Noel said in the three years he was at the school he had not been involved in discussions to move the soccer program from Scooba to Mayhew, one of the school''s branch campuses. Mayhew is about 20 minutes from Columbus and Starkville. He doubted the soccer programs would be moved to Mayhew because he said there is a big push to develop the Scooba campus and to improve the athletic facilities there.
Noel wasn''t sure how the addition of the new multi-sports facility would enhance the soccer programs. He said the project is an indication EMCC could be serious about the sport, especially after the men''s and women''s teams played on facilities that lacked the amenities of other programs in the state for years.
But Noel, who said he wasn''t sure what he would do next, declined to say the school was sending "mixed signals" with the construction of the new multi-sports facility and the decision to suspend its soccer programs. Instead, he preferred to talk about the progress the programs had made.
"We were moving forward and developing to the point we were gaining the respect of the entire state," Noel said, "and where everyone recognized we had something to offer. The fact that we are developing a new facility leaves some sense of regret and some sense of disappointment (that he wouldn''t be a part of it)."
Stokes said the state of the economy figured "somewhat" into the decision to suspend the soccer programs, but he said it wasn''t a "deciding" factor.
"It was not a budget-cutting move," Stokes said.
Stokes also thanked Noel for his work with the programs and said the school would help him in any way it could.
"He worked hard and, to be honest, he didn''t have probably the best facility to work with," Stokes said. "But he is a good person and he did a good job while he was here. He knew a lot about soccer."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.