Jay Martin has been coaching college soccer for a long time. He is in his 38th season as the head coach of Ohio Wesleyan, which is headed to the NCAA Division III Final Four this weekend at the Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City.
In that time, he has seen it all, winning national championships in 1998 and 2011, and winning 657 games along the way, a victory total that ranks as the most by any coach at any level of NCAA soccer.
But when this 2014 season began, Martin admits he underestimated the impact of losing 11 seniors would have on a team.
“The roles for a lot of players changed, and we weren’t ready for it,” Martin said. “I would have done the preseason differently had I known how things would go, but we eventually figured things out and got on track.”
It was in early September where the fate of the Battling Bishops changed. They were beaten 4-1 by Otterbein on Sept. 10th and had to settle for a 1-1 tie against Centre. Twenty-one days later, Ohio Wesleyan was knocked off 2-1 by Capital.
“We lost games against teams we normally don’t lose to,” Martin said. “That was rock bottom for us. It was also a wake-up call. We have gotten better every week since that stretch of games.”
Ohio Wesleyan went unbeaten in its next nine games, winning eight times, before stumbling 2-1 in overtime to Kenyon in the North Coast Athletic Conference championship game.
Bur rather than dwell on the loss, the Battling Bishops got back on track in the NCAA tournament. They have lived on the edge during the run, winning in overtime three times. They also earned revenge against Kenyon, defeating the Lords 2-0 in Sweet 16.
“I would say perseverance is a good adjective to describe our team,” Martin said. “We have battled every week and have found a way to win some tough games.”
Now comes the next challenge for Martin and his Battling Bishops (17-4-4). Ohio Wesleyan takes on Tufts in a national semifinal on Friday. The Jumbos (14-2-4) are in the midst of one their best seasons in program history and their list of tournament wins includes a 1-0 win over two-time defending champion Messiah in the Elite Eight.
Taking a team to the Final Four is nothing new for Martin, who has led the Battling Bishops here seven other times in his career. They were the national runner-up in 1990 and 1992.
Martin said he has kept practices a little shorter this week and told his team that the usual routine they have gone through during the year doesn’t apply at this point of the season.
“The thing I told them is that at the Final Four, you have to expect the unexpected,” Martin said. “You can throw your usual routine out the window. You have to go with the flow. The key for us is to continue playing at the level we have been playing at in the tournament.”
Although the stakes are high, Martin said he wants his team to treat the national semifinal as any other game. He also wants his team to savor the moment, something that isn’t always easily done at a school where success is expected. The Battling Bishops have made the NCAA tournament a record 37 times.
“We’re spoiled here because of all of the tournament appearances,” Martin said. “You are expected to make it, and there is pressure on every team because you don’t want to be the team that doesn’t make it. I told the guys to enjoy this time and make the most of the entire experience.”