Upper 90 College APAC was very fortunate to catch up with Coach Mark McKeever of NCAA D2 men's soccer powerhouse Young Harris College in North Georgia. The Mountain Lions went 19-1-1. Young Harris, which won 19 matches in a row, captured its second consecutive Peach Belt Conference title and its first-ever PBC Tournament title in 2014. The Mountain Lions, who finished the season ranked No. 5 in the nation, earned their first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament. YHC advanced to the quarterfinals, losing to eventually champion Lynn University.
McKeever, who has guided the Mountain Lions to a 128-50-10 record (.707) in the Enchanted Valley, was recognized as the NSCAA Senior College Division II Southeast Region Coach of the Year while Ilija Ilic was named the NSCAA NCAA Division II National Men's Soccer Player of the Year and the NSCAA Men's Soccer Scholar Athlete of the Year. In addition to Ilic, three other Mountain Lions were named All-Americans and four were named to the NSCAA Division II Southeast Region team. Ilic and Lewis Hilton were also named to the NSCAA College Division Scholar All-America team while Ilic was named to the Capital One Division II Academic All-America® Men's Soccer first team. It is the third consecutive year that the Mountain Lions have had a player be recognized as an Academic All-American.
In the past year, four players - Ilic, Niall McCabe, Khurram Shazad and Samuel Mansour - have gone on to play professional soccer.
U90: Last year saw a strong performance both on the pitch and academically with All Americans, players being signed by professional franchises in the USL and a final NSCAA D-II National Ranking at number 10. What do you believe were the key ingredients in your performance?
MM: What do you need to work on in 2016? I think the style of football we play is unique to DII and I feel we execute it better than any other team in the division. I feel we had a lot of young talent last year that will be stronger physically and more mature mentally to handle the later stages of NCAA tournament. This combined with a really strong recruiting class should keep us at the top end of college soccer in the country.
U90: Young Harris has had a strong history of developing players athletically, technically and tactically to go onto the professional ranks. What key training approaches and methodologies do you bring to the Young Harris program, that you feel will transition the team to become even more competitive in the coming season and beyond?
MM: The 3 aspects of football we focus on to develop the player and the team are 1. Awareness 2. Choices and 3. Speed of play. I feel these 3 factors are essential in allowing each player and the team to reach their potential. The standard of players we are bringing through the program keeps it moving forward. Now we are recruiting players from the top youth clubs in the world. The types of players that are interested in YHC are lads who may have just missed out on that pro contract and know that if they spend time and apply themselves correctly that we can move them forward and allow them to develop
into the professional game.
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?
MM: Having turned 6 players into the professional game in the last year we have gained a reputation that will put us in the spotlight with coaches at the next level, so if the players are good enough they will get the recognition they deserve. Furthermore, out priority for each players at Young Harris is to push them to reach their potential as a student, as a footballer and also as a person. We focus on doing the small things at the very highest level, this allows for a great base to be built in the student’s life. At the point where they build a solid base here at YHC, sky is the limit when they proceed into the professional world.
U90: Young Harris had a great year in the classroom in 2015, with many players receiving All- American Honours. How do you help your players balance playing with their study. What pathways do programs like help student athletes continue a professional career post their collegiate playing career?
MM: We have had academic all Americans every year since becoming a DII school 4 years ago. Last year we boasted Student athlete of the year in the whole country in all college divisions. Many of our players are venturing into masters programs after college, or to start their own business, if they decide not to follow the path of professional football. I think the biggest factor in success as a student athlete is finding the “balance” and in order to do this we emphasize the importance of it prior to the student’s arrival on campus. The “balance” may be the biggest factor in students succeeding or failing and we try to constantly reinforce this by presenting the “professional lifestyle” to our students. We have many paths for academic support at YHC and this is one of the main reason we had the highest GPA in the conference last year.
U90: Young Harris have another big season ahead for 2016, what are your goals for the team, and how will you be preparing them for the best possible shot of consistency in the PBC, and the NCAA tournament?
MM: The goal is always to reach our potential as individuals and as a team. The common goal for players in this program is to win a national title and always will be. The preparation in ongoing year round. In the spring we are developing the players physically as well as helping them mature into their new roles. As each year passes more responsibility is placed on their shoulders. Having several great players graduate, this creates a path for other players to step into this leadership role and move the team forward. I think that this recruiting class will be as strong as any recruiting class in the country so my expectations for the fall are very high!