Coaching a Championship Team

The only person to stand at the helm of the William Smith soccer program, Aliceann Wilber P’13 is without question one of the top coaches in collegiate soccer. In 34 seasons, her teams have compiled 480 wins, 125 losses, 54 ties, 11 Liberty League Championships, 24 NCAA tournament appearances, and two national championships. The five-time NSCAA National Coach of the Year has more career wins than any of her peers in Division III women’s soccer and trails only North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance and Connecticut’s Len Tsantiris in career wins in all levels of NCAA women’s soccer. Shortly after guiding the Herons to the 2013 NCAA Championship with a school record 23 consecutive wins, including 16 consecutive shutouts, Wilber sat down with Director of Athletic Communications Ken DeBolt to discuss William Smith’s historic season.

Q/A: Coach Wilber

President Mark D. Gearan and the Geneva and HWS communities turned out in
droves to welcome home Head Soccer Coach Aliceann Wilber and the national
champion Herons.

Q: Describe what it was like to win a second national championship.

AA: Having been on the national committee for the last four years, I’ve watched other teams put those hats on. I remember thinking last year, “I just want my team to be able to put those hats on.” That kind of euphoric moment, when they all celebrated was pretty cool. The coaches, however, we were just exhausted. Probably relieved, and exhausted, and excited.

When we got to Geneva and there was that outpouring of support from the HWS and Geneva community with the police and fire department escort from the Thruway to campus, that was just fun. And the hundreds who welcomed us back singing, “We are the Champions” in Scandling… just having the entire team on the same level of excitement and thrill ride, you can’t ask for more than that.

Q: Which season was more challenging for you as a coach, 1988 or 2013?

AA: There are real parallels. Both teams were on autopilot for much of the season. The team carried the team. The coaches didn’t have to carry the team. There were a lot of very, very good teams this year in DIII women’s soccer. So probably, the depth and the parity and the level of really good teams were harder this year.

Q: You just won your fifth National Coach of the Year Award. What does that award mean to you?

AA: It means that I don’t want to tell anybody, because it sounds like it’s all about me and it’s not. I feel really embarrassed by that. I don’t feel comfortable having it all about Wilber is this or that because it really is the six of us. We’re in it together. We’re a team. Chas [Allen], Keith [Perrigo], Dave [Karweck], BreLynn [Nasypany ’11], and Chris [Teerlinck ’93], we’re a team of coaches. No one individual accomplishment supersedes what everybody else has put in to make it happen.

Q: At the start of this year, you had to replace defenders Kelsey Hill ’13 (graduation) and Jocelyn Rapp ’14 (injury) and then in the preseason you lost Emma Bracken ’16 and Zoe Jackson Gibson ’16 to injuries. With those losses, did you anticipate being able to put together one of the best defenses in NCAA history?

AA: Absolutely not. Jocelyn was at the top of her game when she got hurt in Barcelona and Zoe and Emma were playing so well at the end of last spring. When you factor those three plus Kelsey, that’s a ton to absorb as a team. We set this very difficult schedule to bump up our strength and we had to start all over in the back. Given the huge turnover and disappointment that we weren’t going to be who we thought we were going to be in terms of maturity, no. I never. I’ll say this: that was Dave Karweck’s main focus. He’s not the only one with input in the defense, but that is his specialty. I give Dave a lot of credit. He pays attention to the little things. He was a football coach before he was a soccer coach and I think that ability to break film down and break movements down was critical. It’s a compilation of the little things that made it an airtight defense.

Q: Offensively there was a lot of balance this year with 16 players scoring at least one goal. Would you rather have an offense like that where you don’t know who or if you’ll get goals from, or 1988, when you had Ann Haggerty who was the main focus of opponents?

AA: Since 1988, the general style of defending has changed from stopper-sweeper with more space to zonal defending where you can use a lot more team defending to stifle an opponent’s weapons like that. I think one of the strengths for us this year was that we couldn’t be so keyed in on one individual. Kara Shue, early on, took a lot of opponents by surprise because she’s so quick. Once people figured out how Kara liked to play, they could focus on neutralizing her attacking attributes. We needed to have other options. We got big game-winning goals from different kids, Shay, Ella against Ithaca, Dineo against Vassar. Maddie was steady all season. I was really happy with her final game. She was very strong in the final. Krista the same way.

Q: For the second time in your career, you have the national player of the year on your team in Olivia Zitoli. She spoke at the NCAA Championship banquet about doing away with the “I and the me” and embracing the “us and the we,” so this is a tough question, what was her role on this team and its success?

AA: Immense. I don’t think she led from a position of power, by saying “I’m a senior. I’m the one.” She’s a very intelligent individual and she knows that you have more to gain by having everyone invested and bringing people in. She’s very good about that. She has a powerful persona and a lot of balance in her perspective. She conveys that with poise and equanimity. She has a commanding presence and is commanding in a way that people want to follow. She got people moving in the right direction.

Q: You’ve said this team felt like it had a nation behind it.

AA: I think one of the most profound effects for me was the support on social networking. Heron Nation became a hashtag. Social networking builds this connectedness that we didn’t have before. It marshals people’s attention and emotions and puts things in motion. We had all of this weight behind us. It has been unbelievable. We cannot for one second say that we got that national championship alone. In the team room before games, we were reading quotes from Facebook and Twitter, texts and e-mails. This was a nation’s, the Heron Nation’s, championship.


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