Moving up the mountain
Jarrod Smith, like the West Virginia University soccer program, is a work in progress. If each were a jigsaw puzzle, the border would be complete with a few pieces fitting in here and there. The Mountaineer program was mired in mediocrity before jumping onto the national scene last season with the program's first-ever ranking and advancing to the Big East semifinals. Smith, meanwhile, has all of the tools and talent to become an elite player but is still learning to get out of his own way when it comes to the psychological side of the game.
Part of the growing process for Smith, a native of New Zealand, has been the adjustment to the American game and referees. The Kiwi is, to be polite, aggressive when it comes to pleading his case to those referees, much like Lou Pinella is in his sport. Overseas, the referees are a little more tolerant of "intense discussions" over calls. Subsequently Smith has had more than his fair share of cards here in the states.
But Smith is extremely passionate about winning, and a bad call simply serves as the full moon for the werewolf. Compounding Smith's frustration was his team's performance early in his career at WVU. Despite his goals the Mountaineers stumbled to a 5-10-3 record.
"When I first got here we didn't have the bits of talent that we have now on the team, and I struggled because my whole life I was used to being on a winning side and I came here and we were losing a lot," Smith recalls. "It was easy to try and resort to doing everything myself."
It was not the kind of experience he had imagined when he left New Zealand for Morgantown. Mike Seabolt, the Mountaineer head coach headed to New Zealand after receiving word that a pair of Kiwis were interested in coming to the U.S. to go to college. Seabolt watched Smith and Peter Howe (now with Central Connecticut State) and talked to the national team coaches and decided to make an offer to Smith.
The scholarship was exactly what Smith was looking for, and he headed for a place in the United States that he had never heard of before: West Virginia. It was a good match, but the losing took a toll on Smith that first year.
"It was hard for him early on because the team wasn't very good and he wanted to win and score goals," Seabolt says. "He was detrimental to himself and the team because he was so focused on scoring goals that he lost sight of some of the other things he needed to contribute to the team - he had to learn that there is more to it than just scoring a goal."
"I've always been a goalscorer and it is frustrating at times when you don't get as many goals as you'd like," Smith adds.
Last season, Smith's goal output was slowed by a broken big toe in his striking foot and the opposition paying closer attention to him. Proving Seabolt's point that he can be as useful to the team without scoring a goal, the Mountaineers posted a winning record for the first time in five years and advanced to the Big East semifinals, punctuated by a win at St. John's in the quarterfinals. The season helped validate Seabolt's philosophy in relation to Smith, but also WVU's presence in the conference.
"Getting a result there at St. John's and a result against Notre Dame, gave me confidence in the people around me. We finally had some competitors that we could build a team around," Smith says.
"He learned to use his teammates and involve them in the game better, and for that reason we're having more success," Seabolt says.
Smith is a troublemaker for defenders, his 6-2 frame combined with his speed and athleticism around the net make him a constant threat, and he is now a more complete player than just the goalscorer he was before arriving in Morgantown.
"I was used to just getting the ball at my feet and just running at people, but with the double-teams I get now, I just don't get those opportunities very much," Smith says. "But I don't mind. As long as we are getting results and I feel like I am filling my role on the team, I'm happy."
His growth has also come off the field as well. Seabolt sees the junior as someone who went from a player he had to worry about keeping in line to a team leader. If he can continue to progress, he has the chance to take his game to the next level.
The same can be said for the Mountaineer program. Smith and Seabolt agree that it is the players' buying into a vision and doing the necessary work to accomplish the goals set before them that has made the biggest difference in the program's resurgence.
"Discipline and the belief in each other and the program and that we're all going forward in the right direction are the most dramatic differences," Smith attests. "We feel we can compete with the top teams in the country, and hopefully one day we'll be among them."
"One of the main things is the character and work ethic of the group of players that we have in the program, and the team attitude we've instilled and that the group has bought into," Seabolt says. "We feel pretty good about where we are, but we're a long way from satisfied."
Yes, the Mountaineers are still a work in progress. And yes, Smith still needs to learn to back away from the referees every now and again - he already has four yellow cards on the year. But slowly, the pieces for each are being put together, and it won't be long before the puzzle is complete.
Adam Zundell works for the University of Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.