To keep his players from reflecting too
much on their miraculous trip to the Elite Eight, Michigan men’s
soccer coach Steve Burns took a page out of Lloyd Carr’s
playbook.

Kate Green

During the football team’s run to the national championship in
1997, Carr used a book called “The Precious Present” as a guiding
force to motivate his players and keep them focused week in and
week out. Burns introduced his team to the book in the preseason
and dusted it off last Monday at practice.

The book is a parable about the journey of a young child growing
up into a man. As the years go by, the child has trouble enjoying
the present and constantly searches for happiness through thinking
about the future. That is, until he meets an old man who is content
with his life.

“He’s content because he’s learned that staying in the present
moment is one of the special things of life,” Burns explained, “not
dwelling on past failures or looking ahead to future outcomes.

“(My team has) taken that to heart.”

But after Michigan’s 3-1 loss Saturday night to Santa Clara in
the NCAA quarterfinals, it would be easy for the Wolverines to let
the present, suddenly frustrating and painful, overshadow what
they’ve accomplished in the past and how they’ve laid out their
potentially bright future.

There is not a program on this campus that has gained more
ground in the past four years, and while the Wolverines may not
accept this silver lining right now, we, as students, should
applaud them.

I remember attending Michigan’s first-ever varsity game against
Dayton Sept. 1, 2000, at a sun-drenched Elbel Field. I was one of
many freshmen who had gotten in free as part of a Welcome Week
gimmick, and I didn’t think about the men’s soccer team again –
until this fall.

Four seasons later, the Wolverines finished second in the Big
Ten with a 5-1 record and now can consider themselves one of the
top eight teams in the country.

Michigan (14-7-1 overall) received a first-round bye, virtue of
its high RPI rating (No. 12 out of 199 teams). Schools around the
country – including Santa Clara – felt the Wolverines did not
deserve it. But Michigan made quick work of Saint Peter’s, 6-2, in
the second round and shocked the college soccer world by upsetting
No. 3 Notre Dame in a third-round shootout.

Not bad for a team everyone expected to be “one and done” in its
first NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Wolverines won just four Big Ten games total in 2000 and
2001 before making an improbable run to the Big Ten Tournament
championship game last season. Michigan lost to Penn State, 2-1,
and did not make the NCAA Tournament, despite a solid 11-7-2
record.

“What we used as fuel for our fire was that last year really
should have been our first year in the NCAA Tournament,” Burns
said. “We had a lot of motivation to prove to the college soccer
world that we’re better than a one-and-done team.

“The saying is you have to lose before you can win.”

The Wolverines learned that lesson again this season. After
cruising into the Big Ten Tournament seeded No. 2 with a 13-5
overall record, Michigan was stifled offensively by No. 7 seed
Northwestern, a perennial Big Ten doormat, and fell in the first
round, 2-1.

After the game, the team lingered in the lockerroom with its
gear on, paralyzed with shock over what had just happened.

“It was bad, probably worse for me than anyone because I know
the potential we have,” recalled senior tri-captain Kevin Taylor.
“Everyone was kind of stunned. No one really knew what to do.”

“Normally after a loss, everybody is taking their stuff off and
doing their own thing,” Burns said. “I walked into the lockerroom
after the loss, and everybody was sitting there not doing anything,
and I realized we need some leadership here.

“They were gutted.”

Burns and his team gathered around the TV the next Monday in
Crisler Arena’s studio to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show,
their fate again firmly out of their hands. When Michigan popped up
on the bracket, the Wolverines received a new lease on life.

“Every one of our guys looked at (the loss to Northwestern) and
said, ‘Our season could be over right now. That could be how my
senior year ends. That could be my last game. Was I pleased with
how I played in my last game? Did I play like it was the last game
of my season?’ ” Burns recalled. “We’ve really used that to kind of
jar everybody and wake them up. That’s what we’ve rallied
around.”

During the past four years, we seniors have had the pleasure of
watching our own journey – that of a young program growing up into
one of the nation’s elite.

But unlike the young man from “The Precious Present,” it would
do the Wolverines some good to look at their past as they deal with
their not-so-precious present.

Odds are, they’d feel content too.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
“mailto:bradymcc@umich.edu”>bradymcc@umich.edu.

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