CARDEN LEADS VCU ON, OFF FIELD

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Senior goalkeeper Kristin Carden has helped VCU record shutouts in four of the Rams’ last five matches.

By Mike Schuster

For Kristin Carden, soccer is much more than a game. It’s her entire identity. Hooting and hollering from the sidelines during the spring and summer practices earlier this year, onlookers might have assumed she was a coach, not the starting goalkeeper.

Carden was forced to sit out during much of summer conditioning this year after an ankle injury confined her to a walking boot. However, instead of hanging her head, she seized the opportunity to serve as a mentor and solidify her role as the team’s go-to leader on the bench. Her vocal presence is hard to overlook, and her work ethic has drawn high praise from the VCU coaching staff. Carden’s on-field contributions are critical, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. She also sees it as her responsibility to encourage her teammates and keep them focused.

“I think one of her best qualities is just having a presence,” said Women’s Soccer Co-Head Coach Tiffany Sahaydak. “Not only her size and her unique ability, but she cares a lot about this program, and her teammates around her really know that and embrace her for that. The younger ones look at her, being a fifth-year senior, and with how competitive she is, and her strong vocal presence, as someone they can look to for advice and inspiration both on and off the field,”

Carden began her career at Virginia Tech, where she racked up the second-most wins in school history during the 2008 and 2009 campaigns. She transferred to VCU in 2011 and has been nothing short of spectacular during her tenure in Richmond.

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ROBERTS SAHAYDAK’S DARING OLYMPIC DREAM

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Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak says watching the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles inspired her own Olympic dreams.

Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak isn’t afraid to go out on a limb. By the time she was six years old, she had already proudly declared that she wanted to be an Olympian.

It was the summer of 1984 in Northern California, and just about six hours down the pike were Los Angeles and the Olympics. At her family’s home in San Ramon, Roberts Sahaydak became captivated by the athletes on her television. Something about the world’s greatest athletes competing in the world’s most prestigious competition sparked her desire.

“It just lit a little fire or something,” said Roberts Sahaydak, co-head coach of the VCU Women’s Soccer team. “From that Olympics on, that was always my go-to thing. When someone would ask, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’[It was always] ‘oh, I’m going to be an Olympian.”

Roberts Sahaydak says she was wowed by American gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10 and the star power of track and field’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The Roberts family even traveled to the Bay Area to take in a men’s soccer game, feeding little Tiffany’s growing interest. Tiffany was a gymnast. Tiffany ran track. She also played soccer.

In grade school, when asked to draw a picture of what she would grow up to be, Roberts Sahaydak would dream of Olympic glory. One particular school project displayed an oversized gold medal, as well as three little Tiffanys, each competing in a different sport, track, gymnastics and soccer.

“I just wanted to be the best at something, and I wanted to have that gold medal,” she said.

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CAA TITLE HOPES DASHED, BUT BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD FOR WOMEN’S SOCCER

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Across the field, William & Mary staged a jubilant celebration. The public address system piped in canned pop music; light, energetic, joyous. Players grabbed the water cooler and dumped it over their coach. Moments later, CAA Championship trophy in hand, they huddled together to hoist their prize towards the brilliant sunshine above.

Half a field and a seemingly world away, VCU players milled about, expressionless. They would eventually make their way off the muddy field towards the team bus, waiting outside the nearby fence. There was hardly a glance over at the victory party at midfield. No one said a word.

Earlier, they had stood on the edge of the Rams’ first CAA title in seven years, only to watch it vanish in a blur when William & Mary’s Mallory Schaffer zipped a laser shot into the goal from 18 yards away just 2:20 into overtime.

VCU Co-Head Coach Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak was one of the last to leave the field, wearing a tired smile. While she was full of pride, it was tough to hide her disappointment. As she spoke, the strain of 93 minutes of coaching and the weight of the moment were apparent in her voice.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We played very well. It’s going to hurt for a while, but we have a good team and the only thing that I’d like to do is focus on all the positives that happened this year and move on. That’s all you can do.”

For the second time in two weeks, VCU went toe-to-toe with the ranked Tribe. The Rams were every bit as good as William & Mary, and often better, on Sunday, just as they were in a 1-0 victory Oct. 23 at SportsBackers Stadium.

In the second half VCU’s aggressive defensive style wore on William & Mary. The Rams controlled possession and outshot the Tribe 9-1 in the period. Although they did not score, there was a sense that VCU carried a measure of momentum into the overtime period. But Schaffer, who has 17 goals this season, made it a mood point.

What was not lost on Roberts Sahaydak was the remarkable progress the Rams made this season. After three straight non-descript seasons, VCU returned to contention this year. Following a seemingly disastrous 2-7-2 start, the Rams morphed into a defensive juggernaut.

VCU rolled into Sunday’s matchup as a confident bunch. The Rams hadn’t lost since Sept. 25, a span of nine games (7-0-2). They allowed just two goals during that period and were coming off three straight shutouts.

The program appears to be on the rise. Although VCU loses six seniors, the Rams were a young, deep squad in 2011. Top scorers Cristin Granados and Courtney Conrad are both scheduled to return, as are a number of defensive standouts. In addition, VCU proved that its defensive philosophy is for real.

“We’ve come really far this year. I’m nothing but proud to be the co-head coach of this team,” Roberts Sahaydak said. “They gave it everything they had this whole year. Even when we weren’t getting the results earlier in the season, they stayed persistent and believed in what we were doing and put a lot of trust in each other and in their staff and…you win some, you lose some.”

On Sunday, they lost, but there’s reason to believe that the Rams still have some climbing to do.

AND ANOTHER THING…

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Co-Head Coaches Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak and Tim Sahaydak have led the Rams back to the CAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.

I didn’t want to bog down yesterday’s women’s soccer story with a separate tangent on defense and depth, but I did want to comment on their importance this season.

The Rams were still very good defensively when they opened the season 2-7-1, so while that side of the field isn’t necessarily the source of VCU’s midseason turnaround, it’s certainly a big part of its overall success. In addition, depth is a huge element of that.

VCU has allowed just 14 goals in 18 matches this season, including seven shutouts. The Rams’ 0.78 goals allowed per game average is second only to William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Black and Gold’s stinginess is due in large part to a sound tactical philosophy of high-pressure, 11-player defense, but Co-Head Coaches Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak and Tim Sahaydak, make it clear that X’s and O’s aren’t enough.

“We were both defenders and so we take pride in our defense,” Roberts Sahaydak said of her and her husband, Tim. “You don’t’ need talent to be a good defender. Defense is a decision.”

What the Rams weren’t doing particularly well early in the season was scoring goals themselves. In their first 10 matches, VCU scored nine goals. In the last eight, in which VCU is 6-0-2, the Rams have outscored the opposition, 12-2.

But the Rams’ productivity on defense, and offense, for that matter, also has a lot to do with their newfound depth. The size and health of the VCU roster was a problem area the last two seasons. There were a number of matches where the Rams only had two or three available reserves, but this season VCU is carrying 29 players on its roster.

“In a league where teams play Friday/Sunday, it’s very difficult to do that without depth,” Tim says. “Depth also allows us to have more productive training sessions. We can play 11 versus 11 in practice now. We haven’t been able to do that in the past.”

SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

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Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak found inspiration in the book, Soup, by Jon Gordon

On the morning of Oct. 23, Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak received a text message from one of her soccer players, Kristin Carden. The Rams were hours from their biggest match of the season, a contest against 18th-ranked and once-beaten William & Mary, and the senior goalkeeper had a point to make.

Carden had been inspired by a YouTube video called “212: The Extra Degree”. The decidedly low-tech video begins by stating that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but at 212 degrees it boils. It continues, “And with boiling water comes steam. And steam can power a locomotive.” Similar motivational anecdotes follow, but the message remains the same: The margin of victory can be minute, so a little extra effort can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s all in the details.

Carden received permission to play the video for the team prior to the game, and the Rams responded by stunning the Tribe 1-0 to vault into second place in the Colonial Athletic Association. The win also clinched a CAA Tournament berth, VCU’s first since 2007, and punctuated the Rams’ dramatic turnaround.

The Rams are 7-7-4 as they head into Friday’s Senior Day contest with James Madison at SportsBackers Stadium and are unbeaten in eight-matches. VCU’s last loss was a 1-0 defeat at Hofstra on Sept. 25. They’ve managed to string together so much success by stressing the details. They’re sweating the small stuff, if you will. Now, for the first time in years, the Rams are a contender for the CAA crown.

“Almost every game we’ve played this year, the margin of victory was so small, a lot of times it comes down to mentality,” says Roberts Sahaydak’s husband and co-head coach, Tim Sahaydak. “I can recall games that we won and lost this year that have come down to the closing minutes of the game and it’s come down to effort and perseverance more than individual technical ability or a tactical understanding of the game.”

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