In this exclusive interview we talk to Oige Kennedy Head Men's Soccer Coach for Fort Lewis College (NCAA D2) to get an insight into a highly competitive Division II soccer program, his coaching methodologies, how important academics are and how he recruits from international markets. Fort Lewis is a nationally recognized program, who have won 3 NCAA D2 National Tournaments (2005, 2009 and 2011) with 9 league titles and 11 league cup titles. Many of the players who have come through the Fort Lewis College Soccer system top youth academies in Europe including Valencia CF (La Liga), FC Dijon and Stade Rennais in France and Nottingham Forest in England to name a few. MLS Drafts such as John Cunliffe and Fabian Kling (Chivas USA) came through the Fort Lewis College soccer system.
U90: Last year saw a strong performance both on the pitch and academically in a very tough conference, the RMAC. Now 2015 has begun, and you are two points shy of making the NCAA D2, National Top 25 rankings. How have you prepared your team physically and mentally in pre-season for the year ahead?
OK: We have been working extremely hard with the guys since their return to Durango to be ready for what we knew would be an extraordinarily difficult mental and physical challenge in the 2015 fall season. Our conference is the most competitive in the nation with some tremendous soccer teams so we know how hard we must continue to work to have success this season. The players continue to come to training with a great attitude toward working hard and having an enthusiasm to get better with each session. I think this will be the defining factor for us this season in having success.
U90: What key training approaches and methodologies do you bring to the Skyhawks program, that you feel will transition the team to become even more competitive in the coming season and beyond?
OK: Fort Lewis is a program that has a wonderful soccer tradition and history of winning trophies. The team has had unprecedented success in winning three national championship trophies, two runners up spots, nine league titles and thirteen conference tournament championships. However I feel strongly that what makes us a little different to some of our competitors is our commitment to play an exciting brand of football. We recruit the most technical players we can, with a burning desire to be winners so they can make the transition to our style of football quickly. Our teams are committed to retaining possession of the ball in all areas of the field and then working as hard as possible to win it back immediately when it’s given away.
U90: Given you recruit players from international markets, how do you feel that the US college soccer environment develops a player for life after college from an academic and professional playing perspective?
OK: I feel extremely lucky to get to work with these student athletes that are spending some of the best years of their lives playing the sport they love on a daily basis while also being allowed to gain a first class education. The US system really places a high value on education and sport working simultaneously together which is not always the case in other countries. Many of our international players would have spent their youth with some of the top academy’s in the world and when it came to making a decision on whether they should concentrate solely on football or continue with their education they were not provided for, which is not the case in the US system, here the balance is the right one. And what is really great is that once the players have attained their degree if they have an ambition to try and play professional soccer that is also catered for here. We have been lucky enough to have several players achieve a degree from Fort Lewis College and have then had the chance to go and play professional soccer.
U90: How do you help your players balance playing with their study. What pathways do programs like Fort Lewis help student athletes continue a professional career post their collegiate playing career?
OK: The players education is paramount to us and we do all that we can to make sure that they are able to compete on the soccer field and not suffer in the classroom. The players have various study aids provided to them on campus which they can avail of to stay on top of their academic schedule. Our players all practice in the afternoon on a daily basis so they tend to be done with classes by the end of the morning giving them time to get homework and study complete before coming to train hard on the practice field. Our student athletes also have a lot of travel to do when representing the school so they will spend time on road trips doing homework as not to fall behind the rest of their classmates. One of the major advantages to us is the fact that we operate with small class numbers so our students are allowed to build very strong personal relationships with their professors who have a real appreciation for the time commitment our players make in playing for the school.
U90: Fort Lewis have another big season ahead for 2015, what are your goals for the team, and how will you be preparing them for the best possible shot of consistency in the RMAC conference, and the potential to hit it out in the NCAA tournament?
OK: The goal for every Fort Lewis player will always be the same and that is to compete for silverware every season. Our player’s first goal will be to take care of business in a tough conference and retain this programs tenth RMAC conference championship. Once that goal is complete we will host the conference championship and another opportunity to win another trophy. Achieving both of these goals should allow us to have the ultimate opportunity to compete in the NCAA tournament. In my time here we have been fortunate enough to do this twice and to finish the season as the best soccer team in the nation which is a tremendous accolade for any soccer player to experience. Our goals will always remain the same here and I think that is one of the many contributing factors to making Fort Lewis College one of the best four year soccer experiences in the NCAA.