RICHMOND, Va. – There were some people who scoffed at the notion presented by Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin this summer, that VCU can win a national championship. But Men’s Soccer Coach Dave Giffard has always operated with that understanding. He talks about winning a national title so naturally in conversation that it doesn’t seem like a matter of if VCU can win one, but rather when.
Giffard was an assistant coach for Akron in 2009 when it reached the College Cup Final against Virginia, and has matter-of-factly approached his job at VCU the last three years a continuous chase for a national title.
On Sunday, he’ll get his first legitimate crack at fulfilling that goal when VCU (12-3-5), the No. 14 overall seed, takes on Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA College Cup at Sports Backers Stadium at 7 p.m. The match will mark the Rams’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight.
“When it was announced, it was a little bit emotional,” Giffard said. “This group of players has never been there. They’ve never been through that. Even for our staff, our group’s been through an awful lot.”
But the team that will meet Syracuse Friday is much different one than Giffard presided over when he arrived after the 2009 season. VCU, once a nationally recognized power, sank to 5-10-2 in 2009 and finished the year 161st in RPI. From 2005-09, VCU advanced to the conference tournament semifinals just once.
Giffard, who cut his teeth at some of the best soccer schools in the country, including Indiana and UAB, set out with his staff to rebuild VCU from the ground up. They changed the culture and tone of the program and sought greater attention to detail and accountability.
“Heads rolled,” Giffard said. “We immediately demanded so much of the guys in every aspect of their role, whether it be in school, in the weight room or on the training field.”
That also meant he’d pursue specific qualities in future student-athletes that went beyond their abilities on the pitch.
“To me, people that do things right in all areas of their life are the people you can count on in the biggest moments,” he said. “The person you can count on at 8 a.m. Tuesday to go to his class and perform well is the same guy you can count on at 7:30 at night in the national semifinal in front of 10,000 people.”
Current senior Brad Seymour is one of four players from that 2009 squad that will suit up for the Rams on Sunday.
“We honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Seymour said. “His ability to communicate as a person struck me the most. He’s an incredibly honest guy. He’ll tell you how it is. I think it’s made myself and everybody on the team better.”
In the spring of 2010, with a roster of just 11 holdovers from the fall, VCU won a 7-on-7 tournament hosted by defending Colonial Athletic Association Champion UNC Wilmington. Although a small victory, it was an important one for the program and Giffard’s system.
“That, for our guys, was a validation of what we were doing and how we were doing it,” he said.
In the meantime, Giffard and the VCU coaching staff hit the recruiting trail hard. In three months, they put together a 19-player class for 2010, a group that included current standouts Nate Shiffman, Jason Johnson, Romena Bowie and others.
Although it was an uncommonly large class, this wasn’t a case of Giffard just filling out a roster.
“That first class we put together in those first three months, that’s as good a class as I’ve ever recruited, and I’ve had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country three times,” Giffard said. “I’m not sure I’ve had a better recruiting class than that class. In one class we basically recruited a program.”
In that class and subsequent recruiting classes, Giffard and his staff have excelled at finding players in underdeveloped countries like Jamaica and Costa Rica. Instead of settling for safe bets, the VCU staff trusted their ability to identify and develop players with higher ceilings.
“A lot of people get kids from Western Europe and places where the game is really developed,” Giffard said. “Those guys have already hit a certain point in their development. If they were going to make it, they already would’ve made it where they are. So we went the route of finding guys…who have top-end abilities and tools and bring them into the same environment and allow them to grow and flourish.”
In 2010, a year after finishing 10th in the CAA, the Rams placed second. But after an 8-3-6 start, VCU dropped its final two matches, including a 2-1 decision in the CAA semifinals to Hofstra. The Rams held a 1-0 lead late in that match and were up a man, only to watch it slip away.
The following season, the Rams stormed to a 5-0 start and their first national ranking under Giffard, but followed with four straight losses. VCU finished 11-9 and missed out on the postseason.
Seymour says the while painful, the disappointments from 2010 and 2011 had their benefits.
“I think it’s really made us more mature as a team,” the senior defender said. “The other years we’ve been a fairly young team, even before Giff got here, and he brought in even more young players. Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way. It goes to show you what happens when you get all those little details right.”
Despite the heartbreak, there was real improvement going on across the board. Giffard brought in another oversized recruiting class of 16 players prior to the 2011 season. Slowly, he was able to develop a deep roster and institute his system. In 2010, VCU finished 82nd RPI. The following season, the Rams were 59th.
In the spring of 2012, there was evidence that VCU was ready to break through. Amid a challenging training schedule the Rams fielded two spring teams and played 10 matches over a 10-day period against a slate that included a Richmond Kickers squad, Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland, Furman and Davidson. Giffard was encouraged by the results.
“We try to put our players in positions where they see there is no level higher than this,” Giffard said. “And for a lot of the guys, I think the spring really helped some of the guys’ confidence to understand that there’s not a level higher than the level we play at every day. That’s the level. The difference is the details and the discipline to get those results.
The Rams were primed for a big year, but were dealt a devastating blow on June 9 when rising senior Yoram Mwila, VCU’s leading scorer from 2011, died from injuries suffered in a car accident in his native Zambia. Mwila had followed Giffard from Akron in 2009 and was extremely popular with teammates, the coaching staff and other student-athletes.
Mwila’s loss rattled the VCU community. Despite the success of the Akron program, Mwila jumped at the chance to earn a starting role for Giffard at VCU. He was a major part of the turnaround taking place on the field, as well as in the locker room. He wanted to help Giffard usher VCU back to prominence.
There were no grand proclamations, but the Rams helped fulfill Mwila’s dream this season. On Oct. 6, VCU blew out 13th-ranked and national runner-up Charlotte 4-1 at Sports Backers Stadium, VCU’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2006. A win over a ranked Xavier squad followed a short time later. The Rams later advanced to the A-10 Tournament Championship Match before falling to Saint Louis.
The Rams, 14th in RPI, were rewarded with one of the coveted 16 national seeds for the College Cup. Seeds come with the benefit of a first-round bye and a guaranteed home game.
“We’re really looking forward to Sunday,” said Seymour. “There’s a really good buzz around the locker room. We had a good hard week of training. We’re still confident and we’re ready to come out hopefully with a good performance.
Giffard hopes it’s the start of something special at VCU.
“I knew it was only a matter of time and this certainly isn’t the destination,” he said. “Step-by-step, this is just one of the steps and the byproduct of where we are. There will be a time in the future where we aren’t real excited about getting a 14 seed, that we’re disappointed that we’re not getting two or three home games to get to the Final Four.”