How Faith Has Formed Foundation For Messiah College's Success
The Golden Rule, the biblical instruction delivered in the Gospel of Matthew as "Do to others what you would have them do to you," seems a strange starting point for a discussion of the Messiah College women's soccer team. The Falcons have, after all, outscored their opponents 76-4 without losing a game this season. Like most seasons.
In those moments when Messiah's seemingly endless waves of substitutes press forward in search of another goal, when its defenders remain attached at the hip to their prey in the dying moments of games long since decided, it might be best not to know the sorts of things those foes would like to do to the Falcons. But such scripture is the foundation of one of the most successful college sports teams in the country.
You can, it seems, love your neighbor without letting her get to the end line to deliver a cross.
"It can be difficult in sports because there's this belief out there that to love someone means you can't score against them eight times and that be OK," Messiah senior defender Hannah Weyland said. "Giving your best effort to another team, that's loving them in a way. If we would approach things halfheartedly and maybe beat a team 4-0 that we could beat 8-0, that's not giving them our best."
Faith is the foundation for Messiah. What is shares with many of the great dynasties in sports is belief.
During the height of North Carolina's dominance of Division I women's soccer, arguably the most successful dynasty in the history of college sports, the Tar Heels won nine national championships and compiled a 231-3-8 record in 10 seasons between 1986 and '95. They won three NCAA championships prior to that stretch and have claimed nine more since, all at the direction of coach Anson Dorrance, but never were they more dominant in a 10-year period than in those seasons. It was so close to perfection that it's fair to say it will never be surpassed.
And yet what Messiah, a small Christian college outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has done in Division III during the past decade comes as close to that kind of run as we are likely to see on a college soccer field.
In the 10 seasons preceding the current campaign, Messiah went 223-10-10, won five national championships and reached the Division III College Cup nine times. Entering Saturday's conference championship game against Stevenson University and with the NCAA tournament a week away, the Falcons are 19-0-1 and ranked No. 1. (Messiah's men's program, with 10 national championships since 2000, might be even more of a juggernaut.)
The architect at Messiah is Scott Frey. Like Dorrance, who played soccer for the Tar Heels and coached on the men's side before moving to the women's game, Frey played at Messiah and began his career coaching men. In fact, in his final season as the men's head coach at Alma College in Michigan, his team reached the Division III semifinals. Yet he felt he couldn't turn down the opportunity to return to his alma mater in 2000 and take over a women's program that had to that point been successful but hardly nationally relevant in the largest of the NCAA's three divisions.
Messiah was home both physically and spiritually.
"I loved Alma, loved working with the guys, the men there," Frey said. "But it's a different type of school. And to be able [at Messiah] to integrate your faith and who you are as a person, even more in depth, it's just more comfortable. It's dealing with young women who view life or have a worldview that's similar. That's neat, that's special. You can't do that everywhere. I think that's what makes this a special place is to be able to intertwine your faith with the game."
No separation of faith and field
Chartered in 1909, Messiah describes itself as committed to "Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church." All students are subject to what is described as a community covenant that governs personal conduct and are required to attend 24 religious services or meetings each semester.
For many players, like sophomore Kayla Deckert, that culture of faith intermingling with the college experience was one of the school's primary appeals. All the more so because it extended to the soccer team. In addition to talking about applying high pressure, shifting to three in the back or bringing wide players in off the flanks -- all the normal parlance of soccer and a successful team winding its way through a season -- Messiah players also talk about "playing for the Lord" and loving teammates as they love Jesus.
"It's fundamental in the sports aspect of it," Deckert said. "We may be doing a lot of the same things that other programs are doing, and it may look very similar from the outside, but just the motivation behind all of the things we're doing is rooted in our faith. The reason we practice hard and the reason we invest in our teammates and the reason we listen to our coach is not just because everyone else does it, but we are really just trying to honor God in our play and our actions."
How, then, does that manifest itself? Plenty of players and coaches, representing religiously affiliated schools and otherwise, talk about faith. It is brought up enough to be cliché. Not many of them win 93 percent of their games.
The answer seems to have less to do with what Messiah shares in common with other faith-centric programs than what it has in common with other championship programs.
Sophomore Marisa Weaver, second on the team in scoring this season, grew up well aware of Messiah. The daughter of a professor of computer science at the school, she idolized the women's soccer team, figures who were simultaneously larger than life as they piled up wins during the fall and relatable as counselors during summer soccer camps. Yet when it came time to look at colleges, she at first wanted no part of Messiah. Having grown less certain of her own faith, she worried about "people shoving faith down my throat." At the same time, she had recruiting interest from Bucknell, a secular school that offered a chance to play Division I soccer.
What changed her mind was, of all things, a puzzle. She spent an overnight recruiting visit in long conversations with players and putting together a puzzle. She said she woke up the next morning with her answer. What she found at Messiah wasn't about following rules or being force-fed doctrine; it was about people she wanted to be around for the next four years. The culture recruited her.
"What makes our team so good and so together is that we love each other," Weaver said. "But we wouldn't be able to love each other just from ourselves. You get annoyed with people, you say things you shouldn't have said and all that kind of thing. It's just kind of impossible to love someone else unless you have the love of Christ in you. I think that's what is different."
There is ample room for reasonable disagreement on the exclusivity of such sentiment, but it bonds those who share it. That, in turn, provides Frey with a receptive audience. He is not, by his own admission and with the corroboration of his players, an easy person for whom to play. He has lost 17 games in nearly 15 full seasons (and remembers each and every one of them), but ask him how often he's walked off the field unsatisfied with his team's performance and his answer is more often than not.
"I think my girls probably think they're the world's worst unbeaten team," Frey said. "It's always about process for us. It's always about getting better. ... It's hard sometimes because they feel like you're mad at them all the time, and you're not."
The current team, by the accounts of those involved, does not have the individual talent that some recent teams possessed. And while Frey suggested his best teams could compete on a mid-Division I level -- not anywhere close to the North Carolinas and Penn States of the world -- they win in Division III not by dint of athletic superiority as much as by technical superiority and work rate. They win because they play best together, as rare a quality as it is simple.
Faith doesn't win games. Faith is what allows the team as one to believe in the process by which games are won.
"All the teams before us have developed this culture," said junior Nikki Elsaesser, the team's leading goal scorer. "And now because we love the program and we see the good in the program and we love each other as teammates, we want to uphold that standard. It might be pressure, but it's pressure in a good way because it really does force us to be as good as we can possibly be and never play down from that standard regardless of what the score is."
Creating a team-first culture
Dorrance is a Mormon at a large state university in the South whose own faith is kept separate enough from his professional life that it still surprised some to learn he was Mormon when his team played at BYU in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal in 2012. Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy is a Catholic in a largely Protestant state who makes no secret of his faith but also rarely makes overt reference to it when talking about the sport. Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma was typically and caustically blunt this past winter in dismissing any justifiable connection between religion and sport, noting he didn't know the religious views of any of his players and didn't think it was any of his business to do so.
Yet you would be hard pressed to find not only three more consistently successful programs but three programs with cultures more similar to the one at Messiah.
All four coaches demand sacrifice, from the most talented player on the roster to the last player on the bench. All of them recruit talent because no coach can win without it. All of them can teach the game. But what they do best is get players to simultaneously compete harder against each other and care more about each other than anyone else.
That only happens when you get them to believe in something greater than themselves.
At Messiah, the foundation of their belief just happens to be the Bible.
It wouldn't work for everyone. It couldn't work for many. It does work for them.
"I think that's what it's always ultimately about, is creating a culture," Frey said when asked if he could replicate the environment at a secular school. "You just have to know what kind of culture and environment you're in. But in the end, you know what you want it to look like. It's about selfless individuals. It's about the team being the most important thing. That you invest as a servant leader. All those things, I think, are vital and essential.
"And when a team feels that and senses that, I don't think it matters if I'm with a secular group or a Christian group."
Call it the golden rule of championships.