Milwaukee's seeds of success take root

MILWAUKEE -- Laura Moynihan came up with a simple slogan to stoke excitement surrounding the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's soccer program when she took over as head coach prior to the 1991 season.

"Final Four in '94."

Never mind that the Milwaukee program was just seven years old at the time and still played almost as many games against non-Division I opponents as Division I teams. Never mind that North Carolina would beat Milwaukee 7-0 that season en route to its ninth consecutive championship. Never mind that the head-coaching position was just a part-time role, one Moynihan filled in addition to doing the bookkeeping for the small business she and her husband ran.

Never mind that she was a self-taught coach more fluent in ballet than soccer until her daughters took up the sport.

"It was pretty optimistic," said Michael Moynihan, her son, chuckling at the memory of his mother's mantra. "But that's kind of how she was. She got really excited about stuff like that and getting other people to believe it was possible."

Laura Moynihan loved the challenges in life and thrived on curiosity and competitiveness. But she didn't get a chance to defy the soccer odds at Milwaukee. Cancer took her life less than a year after she coached her first game at the school.

On Saturday night, barely two weeks beyond the 20th anniversary of his mother's final game, Mike coached the Panthers to their first NCAA tournament win. Playing a home game for the first time in nine NCAA tournament appearances, on a field christened Laura Moynihan Field in August, Milwaukee beat Illinois State 3-0 behind a goal and an assist from All-American Sarah Hagen and a standout defensive effort against one of the players challenging Hagen for national scoring honors, Rachel Tejada.

It's not the Final Four. Not yet, at least. But watching Hagen deftly and calmly juggle a ball in solitude in the anxious minutes before a game, rise above a crowd of players to head a corner kick into the goal, or weave her way through defenders like a slalom skier through gates was to witness what can happen when people dream big enough and bold enough to make others believe anything is possible. Even if the dreamers aren't around to see it come to pass.

The players who celebrated Saturday on the field named in Laura's honor are all products of the chances she created as a founding mother of girls' soccer in the state and the matriarch of a coaching dynasty at Milwaukee. But there is something special about the role Hagen plays in the story, both as a cancer survivor who got the second chance Laura didn't and as the kind of talent for whom soccer promises to unlock the world.

The kind of player Laura would have been positively giddy to watch, let alone coach.

"She'd certainly be impressed," Mike said. "She got genuinely excited about people's performances when they did something nice, something maybe a little bit different. So I can only imagine if she had the opportunity to work with Sarah -- she does it on a daily basis where you see something and it's just like, 'Oh, my God.'

"My mom was very, very excited about things like that, so I'm sure Sarah would have loved having my mom as a cheerleader."

Milwaukee had Laura for only one season, but that was enough to forge a unique bond between family and program. Following her mother's death, Susan Moynihan took over as coach and guided the Panthers to almost as many wins in five seasons as the program had in the preceding eight seasons. An assistant coach for much of his sister's tenure, Mike stepped into the head-coaching position when Sue left for Purdue in 1997. He's still here 15 years later.

On his watch, the Panthers recently earned their 12th consecutive conference title, the last 11 coming in the Horizon League. They had twice advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before this year (both times in penalty-kick shootouts, officially recorded as draws) and entered this year's tournament ranked No. 15 in the nation.

All the success has been accomplished against the limitations of a budget that is far friendlier now than it was for Laura or Sue, but which nonetheless left the Panthers without a regular place to practice until Mike led a fundraising drive to install synthetic turf in place of the fragile sod on the overworked game field prior to last season.

"You look at what we've done over even the last several years now, being consistently ranked at the top of our region and in the national rankings," Mike said. "You look at the company we keep -- I don't know, it's kind of remarkable to see a lot of the big names, all the schools we keep company with. …

"Sometimes I've kind of got to slap myself and say, 'How did we get here? What's going on?'"

The root of an answer takes the form of another question, or more precisely, the litany of soccer queries Laura used to ask Michael and his younger brother, John, often hauling them out into the yard for demonstrations. The boys were the first soccer players in the family, but Sue, the oldest child, soon expressed an interest of her own. With no organized leagues for girls at the time in the Milwaukee area, she and a handful of other girls played in boys' leagues until growth spurts and the realities of adolescence left the girls at a competitive disadvantage physically.

At that point, Laura decided that there ought to be a way for girls to play. And if she wasn't the first to think about it, she was among the first to act on it. Her early efforts were administrative, setting up the structure for teams but leaving the coaching duties to those more versed in the game. But when her youngest daughter, Maureen, started to play, she tried her hand at coaching, first as an assistant and then eventually as Maureen's coach in club and for that one year at Milwaukee. Around all of it, a soccer culture sprouted in the state.

These days, the city of Milwaukee alone boasts two nationally ranked Division I programs heading to the second round -- Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette -- while the University of Wisconsin reached the Sweet 16 as recently as two years ago.

Panthers freshman and Milwaukee-area native Amy Kauffung started playing when she was 4 years old. Far from having to search out opportunities to even play the game, soccer was a constant that provided a path to college. Only after arriving at school did she begin to understand how much of that she owed to Laura.

"I didn't know as much as I would have liked to, but being here, we got to know what she did for the women's program," Kauffung said. "It's been amazing. We wouldn't be what we are today without her being here. It's great to be able to represent her and his whole family because of all they've done toward the women's program."

It was through the state's soccer culture that Michael came to know Hagen. He coached her in the Olympic Development Program when she was in middle school, and when she was diagnosed with a form of ovarian cancer as a freshman in high school, he offered the family any help they needed when they came from their home in Appleton to Milwaukee for treatment, a gesture she said left a lasting impression on her.

"When my mom was sick and people were offering to help out, it meant a lot to our family," Mike said. "It really helped lift the burden off of us for certain things."

Hagen didn't arrive at Milwaukee as a program savior, certainly not in her own eyes. Her goal as a freshman was to score five goals. She reached it after three games. She scored 24 goals that first season, eight better than the old school record. Then she went out and duplicated the mark the following season. Her goal to open the scoring against Illinois State was her 25th this season, breaking the three-way tie she held with herself for the record. Recently called into a high-profile training camp with the United States Under-23 national team, with senior national team coach Pia Sundhage looking on, she has a future on the field, whether with the national team or professionally.

She's been free of cancer for six years; her battle with the disease, in which she had a tumor the size of a soccer ball, was both a defining experience and an almost surreal memory.

"I'll revisit the idea [of cancer] all the time; it's something that's hard to forget," Hagen said. "But not many people get that second opportunity."

Laura didn't. The pain of that loss is still there in Mike's voice when he talks about his mother, covered and cloaked by a layer of years, but not gone. For all the success he's had, he says living up to her standards of care and respect remains his biggest challenge, and at least in his own mind, the source of his most frequent setbacks.

"The reason I felt it was important to have something in my mother's name was not just to have her name out there, as much as it was to keep her philosophy, keep people talking about it and thinking about it," Mike said of Laura Moynihan Field at Engelmann Stadium.

"Maybe that's what this does. Because I think she was a very unique individual. I think she did things different than most people.

"There are so many things going wrong with athletics that we hear about all the time. And she did everything right."

As her own time in this world drew to a close, Laura Moynihan asked something of Sue and the rest of her children. This request had nothing to do with Final Fours or wins and losses because, at the heart of it, she never was a soccer coach. She was a woman who believed everyone deserved an opportunity to explore the limits of their own passions and potential. Soccer was just the vehicle for getting them to believe.

"Take care of my girls," Laura said.

She never knew Hagen or any of the other women who wore Milwaukee uniforms Saturday night.

But she was talking about them.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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