"The life of a Graduate Assistant for a sports team isn't always glamourous..."
Ronan O'Rourke G'11, CAGS '13 reminisces about what made his years at Springfield College some of the most important in his life. From lessons learned, friends made, and teamwork built, O'Rourke describes working with the Springfield College men's soccer team on their journey toward victories both on and off the field.
The life of a Graduate Assistant for a sports team isn't always glamorous...
The days are often long, draining and you frequently spend weekends on the road recruiting while trying to juggle your academic and athletic responsibilities. Yet it is a role that should always be cherished and I wouldn’t have changed for anything. After all, there are few positions that allow one to be a part of so many memorable moments while getting a fantastic education. Without a doubt, I learned that hard work does indeed pay off and anything is possible with meticulous preparation and operating effectively as a collective unit.
I became part of something larger. Something that truly made a difference and meant the world to anyone who was a part of it. You establish meaningful connections with players, parents, and colleagues that will last a lifetime. Assistant coaches don't often get much praise from those on the outside but their contributions are truly valued by those within the inner circle which is all that ever really matters.
Little did I know when I arrived at Springfield College for what I thought was just a two year Master's degree that I would end up spending the best years of my life there. Springfield College became more than just a college. It is almost impossible to explain the impact to those who didn’t personally experience the Spirit, Mind and Body lifestyle but for me, Alden Street very much became a second home.
So how exactly did I come to this realization?
Well, I like to live my life by a simple and popular philosophy that everything happens for a reason. Reflecting back on my first day as an Athletic Counseling graduate student, this worldview couldn't have been more true. I sat down next to a German lad called Steffen, and it quickly became clear that we shared an indefatigable passion for both football (soccer) and the power of psychology in sports. The rest, as they say, was history.
It was immediately clear that this man was going places. There was a steely determination that followed his every move, his every decision. There was a plan for everything he wanted to achieve and a progressive way to go about it. It was impressive stuff. He was just starting life as a Graduate Assistant for Men's Soccer under Springfield Soccer legend: Head Coach Peter Haley. Steffen was about to have a profound impact on the program that would be felt for years to come.
It was in 2011 that Coach Haley and Steffen brought me on board as the second assistant coach and I felt like the luckiest man alive. It was the start of a 5-year rollercoaster ride of emotions that I still have a constant yearning for. Not many days go by where I am not reminded fondly of the ‘Springfield Years’ in some way or another. The team was starting to come of age with a young squad that had just two seniors in the ranks. We were in search of an elusive first NEWMAC title since 1999 and despite the progress already made we knew it wasn't going to be easy.
Steffen and I were both advocates of the 'Iceberg' phenomenon of what coaching is all about. This, in short, means that the majority of the essential work that goes into a team is not seen and is hidden underneath the surface/behind the scenes. The long hours of preparation to achieve goals mostly go unnoticed. The team that everyone sees on game day was only the much smaller tip of the iceberg. People think they know but generally, have no idea.
It is somewhat fitting that the Titanic was mostly crippled by that pesky portion of the iceberg which was out of sight to the naked eye because within the conference we had several "Titanics" that needed sinking before we could even think of reaching the top. First, we had national powerhouses Babson College and Wheaton College while MIT, WPI and Coast Guard were rising fast. The task at hand was indeed daunting. The work by all involved was going to have to go beyond what any of us had done before.
We nicknamed the team the 'Bushmen' that year, a moniker that was constantly adapted during my time with the program. Initially, it was used because we had a knack for leveling what may have often been an uneven playing field as far as talent goes by being tactically prepared to the finest of details, and doubling down with sheer tenacity and will to win. Now, don't get me wrong, this team had some players who would go to both semi-professional and professional ranks, but their togetherness as a unit trumped any individual.
A surprisingly hot start was enough for us to qualify for the NEWMAC tournament where we faced Wheaton in the semi-finals seeking revenge for defeating them on their field in overtime earlier in the campaign. They even took an early lead but that wasn’t going to deter this team as first-year left-back Drew Sommer galloped up the pitch to score a cracker from distance to win the game late in the second half.
The final against the reigning champions, Babson, was an even more cagey affair. Yet again though, despite being up against a much more experienced side, the lads roared back from a deficit to defeat the Beavers on penalty kicks and seal that elusive NEWMAC title.
I think at the time I didn't fully appreciate the scale of what we achieved. Despite the squad improving every year I was with the team we didn't ever quite manage to win the title again (though thankfully since I left, the NEWMAC trophy has found a permanent home in Springfield again!). It was a truly special day that I felt fortunate to be a part of.
My partner in crime, Steffen went on to become Head Coach Siebert the following year after Coach Haley’s retirement, but the mission stayed the same. We just wanted to keep on getting better every day. In doing that, greatness will soon follow. Despite not winning the conference again for a few years there was no shortage of success to follow. I was privileged to be along for the ride.
With Coach Siebert promoted, there were big shoes to fill in the second assistant coach role and we struck gold in finding Southampton native Mark Risbridger who allowed us to not only continue our upward trajectory but accelerate it as well. It may sound like the start of a bad joke but when you put a German, an Irishman, and an Englishman in a room together good things can definitely happen!
The dynamic duo quickly became a tremendous trio. As all three of us were European, we had already plenty in common, and almost instantly became friends away from the field as well. It got to the point where we were near inseparable. Any individual is only as good as who he surrounds himself with and we really brought the best out of each other. We can only be grateful for a system which allowed us to get an education so far from home while also working in such a professional and welcoming Athletic Department. Fate definitely brought us all together.
We would go back to the NEWMAC Championship in 2012, lift the ECAC New England title twice, and set program records for most wins and fewest losses in a season in the following seasons. Success had become an expectation rather than a pipe dream. The weekend of our victory at the ECAC Championship in 2015 turned out to be my last official game on the sidelines for the Pride and no tournament summed up better the dedication that was often needed to get the job done as Graduate Assistant. It was a weekend that won’t soon be forgotten.
Coach Mark and I began the weekend by heading down to a recruiting showcase deep in upstate New York. After all, to aim to be the best we simply had to spend every spare hour scouting potential talent for the team. It was one of the many ways we went the extra mile to ensure we maximized our potential. At the conclusion of the grueling day, we immediately took off on the lengthy drive to Endicott College in Beverly, MA in hopes of arriving in time for our semi-final against Wentworth.
We made it by the skin of our teeth and it was definitely worth it. What we witnessed was the boys playing in one of the most exciting games I had ever seen. With their season on the line in freezing temperatures, they fought hard against an extremely dangerous opponent and advanced to the final following a shootout in which they converted all five nerve-jangling spot-kicks. It was heroic stuff, but in reality, they were only just getting started.
The issue now was recovery as the team only had about 15 hours to recover before facing the hosts in the final the following day. We made the long drive back to Springfield, arriving well after midnight. It was at this point that the invaluable advice of our world-class Athletic Trainers and Strength and Conditioning coaches ensured we would have the best possible chance to be ready for action in the morning.
Despite their insane efforts, the players still faced a monumental challenge in knocking off our higher-seeded opponents who had already started the recovery process before our semi-final had even begun.
Once again though, the tactical acumen of Coach Siebert shone through. The details make all the difference. His coaching style in investing in all aspect of our student-athletes lives paid off handsomely in these tense situations. He would do anything for the boys and the trust built up meant the feeling was mutual. Most teams say they are close but I like to think our groups were always that bit more special.
Much like the NEWMAC final of 2011, we fell behind but once again we would fight back. The spirit of the Bushmen most definitely lived on in this side. Though none of the players were the same, the leadership and culture were passed down through the classes. The depth of the squad paid back the trust Coach Siebert showed in them and performed valiantly in the first half when we needed them most in getting the score back on even terms.
Winning that trophy was the culmination of hours upon hours of hard work by everyone involved with the program. While I was ecstatic we had won, I felt completely exhausted and drained inside. We had truly worked ourselves to the very last limit to seal this quite memorable achievement. I could not have been more proud of that the work that everyone involved with the program had put in.
There can be no doubt that at the end of the day my work as a Graduate Assistant with the Men’s Soccer team set me up for success after Springfield College. Before joining the Student Recruitment team at UCD, I was working for a company that sent talented young soccer players from Great Britain and Ireland to the United States on Soccer Scholarships. These opportunities arose due to my experience with the Springfield College Athletic Department.
However, perhaps the most valuable lessons were those I learned from my colleagues. Nobody has been more influential in my life than Coach Steffen Siebert. He has been a friend, a colleague, a mentor, and a constant positive influence on me. The values he instilled in me will last a lifetime and I couldn’t be more thankful to him and Springfield College for being such a huge part of my development. My years on Alden Street will be tough to beat!