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Success in soccer no accident at St. Mary’s

Putting all the team gear away Monday at St. Mary’s High, girls soccer coach Dave Potter admitted that he’s still working through the depression of coming up shy during last Tuesday’s Class 3A/2A/1A state semifinals at Oregon Episcopal School.

A veteran of the situation, Potter said the hardest part was he felt like he had the kind of team that was worthy of reaching the state championship finale. The easiest part? There’s nothing more he could have asked from his team after they came up short to eventual state champion OES — the Crusaders’ nemesis for years — in a 2-0 loss in Portland.

“We played as well as we could’ve played,” said Potter, giving all due credit to the Aardvarks, who have won four state titles and placed second once over the past five seasons. “I thought we outplayed OES and we lost the game. I feel bad for the kids but they know they played well and there’s some solace in that.”

“When you can put a game out on field like we played and not win, you still have to feel good about what you did,” he added. “You can’t win every game.”

The funny thing about that, though, is that St. Mary’s has come awfully close to such success since Potter took over the program in 2007. The Crusaders have reached the state semifinal round in six of the last seven seasons, including a state runner-up showing in 2010.

In all, the Crusader girls have posted a whopping 119-20-9 record under Potter and enjoyed consistent success like their male counterparts at St. Mary’s, who have played in six semifinals and three title games since 2006 under Paul Coughlin and now Eric Pyka.

What does Potter credit for the continued success of his program? Well, that’s not exactly a light topic to tackle but he folded it into a few areas of importance — the last of which focused on himself, although the reality is that’s probably the best place to start.

Potter began coaching boys soccer at North Medford High in 1991 before moving over to South Medford to guide the girls program from 1992-97. He shifted to the Panther boys from 1998-2004, where he eventually earned his only state championship (2003).

“A quality program depends upon competent, knowledgeable coaching,” he begrudgingly admitted among reasons why St. Mary’s has enjoyed continued success. “There’s a lot to coaching soccer. It looks like a real simple game to coach, and it can be, but the fact is once you get into the state tournament or get into playing top-level opponents, there’s so much strategy and so much to understand about players’ roles and how players fit. If you can put the right player into the right place, that’s a coaching decision and strategy. I feel comfortable doing that and I know at St. Mary’s in the boys program, Paul was very good at that.”

“When we go into a match, I’ll guarantee you I’ve watched that opponent and taken them apart position by position,” added Potter. “I don’t say anything to the kids because that gets into their heads. But part of my job is understanding what makes opponents tick and finding a way to play strong to shut down their strengths while playing to our strengths to create an advantage.”

Potter’s coaching was enhanced in 1992 when he attended the U.S. National Coaching School.

“I was coaching wrestling and soccer in the ‘80s, and when I went to the national coaching school for my national ‘C’ license, I got my eyes opened wide,” he said. “I really saw the importance of putting our training sessions together so they were appropriate for the age level and for the kids and didn’t try to overdo by getting too far ahead of ourselves.”

“A perfect example is everyone wants to play a really good passing game and have players that pass and receive the ball well, but there’s a lot to that. In passing alone there are four components, and if you leave even one out, something’s going to break down in a match. Before you have a great passing game, you better have really solid technical skills, and you don’t go on until the technical skills are solid enough at the level you’re at.”

Potter said this season he felt like he had the best passing team he’s ever had, regardless of gender, in his high school coaching career and that was a source of tremendous pride.

“It’s hard for a team to compete with you when they don’t have the ball,” said Potter. “I love that philosophy.”

His team had the aforementioned fundamental keys to success. Potter said main ingredients include:

1. The development of young talent through the local youth soccer programs like the Rogue Valley Timbers (of which Potter has played a key role in over the years).

2. The commitment from players to hone those skills from a young age and their corresponding family support, especially financially, along the way.

3. School pride and the support system generated by administrators and peers.

4. An increase in proper training and playing facilities, specifically a boon in soccer stemming from the creation of the U.S. Cellular Community Park complex.

“It’s an evolving process all the time and it’s always getting better. In our area here I just keep seeing soccer getting better and better,” said Potter, who retired from teaching at Abraham Lincoln Elementary in 2011.

“The fact is, as coaches, we are privileged to receive players with a foundation of fundamental soccer skills that we get,” he added, “and we have an opportunity to enhance those and opportunity to work with them and, if we know what we’re doing, hopefully take them in the right direction and work with them and things turn out really well.”

Potter said the best feeling for a coach is the one like he had toward the end of this past season, where his players were saying and doing all the right things so he really didn’t feel needed.

“Here’s the beauty of the game of soccer,” he said, “when it starts we coaches, we’re out of it. There are no timeouts, we don’t signal in plays and it’s a waste of time telling players what to do because by the time they perceive your words and what the message is, the situation has changed because situations change every 3 to 5 seconds.

“Players have to be thinking for themselves, that’s the first thing I tell my players when I work with them. In this game, you’re the most important people involved and you’re the ones who have to make all the important decisions in the match. The training is my time to impact the kids but in the game it belongs to them and they have to make all the important decisions except subbing.”

That said, there’s nothing quite like being on the sidelines for Potter and, although he flirted with the notion that he could step away, he realized that’s simply not the case yet. His ever-supportive wife Karen, however, suggests he’s just not willing to submit himself fully to the “honey-do” lists she has waiting. For the record, Potter refutes that notion.

“Every year is a new opportunity to achieve something special,” he said. “I have the same joy and satisfaction in coaching at St. Mary’s as I did over at South all the years over there. My sense of pride in what players have accomplished is the same.”

“I can’t imagine myself watching from the sidelines and not wanting to be involved,” added Potter. “What a privilege and an honor it is to work with kids.”

Even if it brings about some post-season depression, there’s always hope for next year.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry