After an emotional win on Senior Night against Penn State last Saturday – a victory that ended the Michigan men soccer team’s nine-game winless streak and four-game scoreless skid – the team seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

But for one man, the game was just proof of the mantra he has preached all season: “belief.”

Enter the team’s biggest motivator, patient teacher, metaphor king and eternal optimist – Michigan coach Steve Burns.

Though the Wolverines (1-2-3 Big Ten, 6-9-4 overall) signed off on their regular season with a “W,” the past two months were arguably some of the most disappointing and frustrating times in the program’s history.

The team’s nine-game winless streak that extended from Sept. 24 until Oct. 22 is by far the longest skid since the birth of the varsity program in 2000. The Wolverines’ 18-goal total through the regular season marks their lowest offensive production since the team’s inception. Playing in a program-high five double-overtime games this season, Michigan failed to pull out a victory in a single one.

But through each bitter loss, each scoreless day and each heartbreaking overtime result, Burns never lost confidence in his freshmen, faith in his senior leaders or the belief that the goals would come.

On Saturday, they did. And much is owed to Burns’ optimistic attitude.

“It’s very important to have a coach who believes in you,” senior tri-captain Kevin Savitske said. “It keeps you going. When you’re playing well, Burns doesn’t let you get too high on yourself. When you’re playing bad, he tries to lift you up. That’s the biggest role of the coach.”

When Burns hangs up his coaching cleats someday, he may want to consider teaching English. He’s known for employing metaphors and analogies to bring his team’s on-field struggles to light.

Burns once used the image of walking across a two-by-four 80 feet above the ground to talk about the fear of failure. Another time, he compared playing with a one-player disadvantage amid the elements to learning to play with the hand you are dealt, as in a game of euchre.

Burns imparts wisdom to his team not only about working through failures in the game of soccer but also disappointments in the game of life.

In years past, Burns has coached soccer legends – see Knox Cameron – who stamped their names in the Michigan record books and went on to play at the professional level.

Though talented, this year’s team roster does not boast a soccer prodigy like Cameron. There is simply no single Michigan magician to whom the rest of the team can give the ball, sit back and enjoy the show.

And the coach was first to admit this very early in the season. Burns is no doubt an optimist, but he is also – and perhaps more importantly – a realist.

“We don’t have the same level of special players that can break a game open (like years past),” Burns admitted in early September. “But we do have great team chemistry and great understanding for how we want to play.”

Burns’s emphasis on the team rather than a single player translated to this year’s group of relatively unselfish players. Seven different players have scored Michigan’s goals this season, from forwards to midfielders and even to defensemen.

Though Burns has truly been a motivating force, he sees the road to confidence as a two-way street.

“I think, more than anything, the players have that belief in themselves,” Burns said. “It resonates from the coaching staff through them and right back up to us.”

After netting the game-winner on Saturday, senior tri-captain Kevin Hall echoed Burns.

“(Burns’s confidence in us) means a lot,” Hall said. “Everyone on the team believes we are a good team. It’s just hard coming out of games without goals. We’re doing all the right things on and off the field. We were just unlucky for awhile. But this win will spark us. We’re excited.”

As the No. 6 seed for the Big Ten Tournament in Columbus, Michigan will take on Wisconsin in the first round at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Wolverines suffered a devastating 2-1 overtime loss at the hands of the Badgers on Sept. 17.

If Michigan earns its revenge against Wisconsin, it will face the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State contest. That semifinal match would take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Burns hopes to ride the momentum from the shutout against Penn State and expects to compete for the conference championship.

It’s difficult to know what kind of tournament results to expect from the Wolverines. They played with undeniable confidence and hunger last Saturday that they lacked for most of October. But finishing goals has undoubtedly been a problem that has plagued Michigan, and the recurring nightmare could very well resurface in Columbus.

Whether or not Michigan makes it to the finals or exits early in the first round, one thing is for sure. Win or lose, rise or fall, coach Burns will most likely gather around his troops at the end of the game and speak to the pride he has in his team.

And, somehow, the great orator will probably conjure up yet another profound metaphor for the bus ride back to Ann Arbor.

I for one will never play another hand of euchre without thinking of “Burnsy.”

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