Ged O’Connor has been head coach at Division 2 Saint Leo University for eight years after four years as an assistant coach there. He has a combined record of 89-48-9 and led Saint Leo to four NCAA Tournament (2006-2009) appearances and an SSC Tournament Championship in 2008 and 2011.
During his four seasons as assistant, O’Connor assisted in all phases of running the program with a special emphasis on goalkeeping and recruiting. Ged attended Webber International University and played a summer with Runcorn FC in England. He holds an NSCAA National Goalkeeping Level II, and Premier diploma. In addition, the Manchester, England, native is also a member of the NSCAA coaching education staff and the chairperson of the NSCAA Regional Rankings and South Region Committees.
Your conference has three strong teams who have been nationally ranked this season. How much of a challenge has it been competing in that division?
It’s known as the Conference of Champions because in all sports at Division 2 this conference has more national champions than any of the others. It is a desirable place to play for girls – would you rather play in Dakota or Florida? We played a Division 1 school during the season and beat them, so the standard is high, with us, Barry and Rollins at the top but we beat one of the bottom teams in overtime, to it is all pretty close. The biggest challenge is that every game is very difficult. For the girls it can be difficult to get up for every game – knowing how physical it is over here. The top six teams go from the region to the NCAA tournament and generally because of the strength of our division we get four or five bids from our conference. So if you do relatively well in the conference you should be good. We’ve made it five out of the past seven years, we’ve won the conference so we’re definitely a strong team, but it is hard to stay top of the table all of the time.
You were a goalkeeper at an NAIA school. How happy are you with the level of goalkeeper coaching in the college game?
I think it is poor overall. I was up at an ACC school over the summer and the coach there was telling me how there are big time Division 1 schools who don’t have a goalkeeper coach. For us it definitely helps having one. We go out 45 minutes early before each session to work with the ‘keepers and I think it is a real benefit to them. If a school we are playing against doesn’t have a dedicated goalkeeper coach then I am happy.
When you’re recruiting, what kind of players do you look for?
Speed, athleticism, and then from there in this league they need to have strong technical skills. Recruiting gets harder and harder. We spend more time watching games, going to tournaments and making phone calls. When I first started we would look at recruiting after Christmas and now we are looking one or even two years in advance. We will pick up some rough diamond-type players that we can polish as we go. Some programs if they graduate their left back will go to a tournament looking purely for a left back. I prefer to go to a tournament to try to find a quality player that we can then fix into our system. If we can do that we will be successful. We had an All-American transfer to us who was a forward then ended up playing outside defender for us. I think in the girl’s game it is a little bit easier to move players but it can still be a challenge to find players who are fast and athletic enough.
As a Catholic institution are you limited in any way by the players you can accept? How about academic standards?
Not really. We are very lucky in that it is a catholic school but it’s as catholic as you want it to be. You can go to church every day if you want, but you don’t have to. The only requirement is that there are two religious-based classes that every student has to take over four years. That’s it. So it’s not that much in the grand scheme of things. Academically it can be a challenge to recruit players because St Leo’s is a strong academic school: we have an average SAT of over 1000 and an average GPA of 3.2. If we get a good kid they have to perform well in the classroom as well as on the field.
Do you choose players to fit positions or adjust your system to fit the players?
Our current team we actually adjusted our system to accommodate a player. She’s a 6’1” forward who was All-American as a freshman. She is a phenomenal player, currently a sophomore, who has scored 32 goals for us, so the whole system pretty much revolves around her. This is the first time I’ve adapted a system in that way though – we went from a traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1/4-3-3 with her as the target center forward. We want to get her on the ball as quickly as we can, then we can play from there. Changing the formation has happened over several years so it has taken time and we have had to work on the shape and tactics to make it work, but I’m pretty happy with how they are doing with it overall. The key has been keeping it as simple as possible.
Only eight of your players are from Florida. Is that common in your conference? How about for the university as a whole?
Yes that is common: we get a lot of players from overseas. There is so much competition for players in Florida – particularly at the Division 1 level that we find they would rather go to a lesser level D1 school than a high level D2 even though we have beaten a lot of them.
You have five English players, three other Europeans and several Canadians. How do you find those players?
A lot of it was luck: – you’ll get emails and you respond to them; we watch videos that they send; friends of current players; and then contacts that we have in the game that has grown over time. I’ll go out and watch all of them when I get the chance too. My assistant is going to England and Ireland in December and I’m going to Germany, Denmark and France in February. I think it is important to get to watch them play live but also to have the chance to talk to them and answer questions. It does cost a chunk of the budget to travel for this though, but I think it is very important to the success of the program. Our Athletic Director is the former men’s soccer coach so he understands the game. The president is also a big sports fan so he supports what we do.
What benefit does it offer the team having so many foreign players?
I think the American players are faster and more athletic in general whereas the international players tend to be smarter and more tactically aware soccer players. So having the balance between both is key to the success of this team. We will play against fast and athletic teams and we’re not too worried about them because of our shape and balance of players. When we play against others with a good balance of pace and tactical ability we face a bigger challenge. Within the team we do a lot of work to make sure that off the field the girls are happy. We go bowling, we go to the movies, and all different things like to help the girls enjoy spending time around each other.
Are you a fully funded program? Do you get 9.9 scholarships?
I wish! We get six scholarships.
How do they afford to play when you have limited scholarship funding? How do you divide up scholarships?
We do it based on the player. If they are that good we understand that we will have to pay for them. A lot of the decisions come from how much money we have coming back from graduating players though. We only graduated three players this year so we don’t have as much available to use on new freshmen. For the all players we let them know up front that we want them to come, they can get academic scholarships and other programs. If they can afford it great, if they can’t then we’ll move on. We also say if we can’t give you any money this year we can promise you $X in years 2-4. As long as you are up front with them I think that is the most important thing.
How do you attract them to St. Leo’s?
We are a fantastic academic institution and are relatively affordable (the cheapest school in the conference). We have a very good sports program and obviously the Florida weather is a big plus. It’s an amazing campus too – I’m very lucky to be here.
How do players get noticed by you? Does writing letters and calling really help?
Yes. A lot of it is video now though. We need to know which tournaments to go to so that we can watch the kids in action. Being friends with players on the team can also help – we have four players on the team now who are here because their friend was on the team. We respond to every email that we get because you never know when that next Mia Hamm might be coming along.
What is the value of tournaments for getting spotted? Which ones do you go to and like?
More ECNL events now. We still have the Disney Showcase over Christmas but the ECNL tournaments are generally the ones where we can look to pick up the best players because they have been training and playing at the highest level continually throughout the year. ECNL are coming here over the winter, which makes it easier for us, but we will go where the players are: if a Californian sends us an email and video and we are interested, we will go out there to watch her. I’ve done day trips to Rhode Island, to Tennessee and other states too as long as it fits in the schedule and budget.
So is ECNL becoming the only avenue for players to get recognized now?
Not at all. A lot of it is still money-based over here. You can play ECNL if you can afford it at a lot of programs, so the majority of our players don’t come from ECNL teams but the percentage is increasing. Ideally players who can get on to a high level ECNL team should try to do that, but there are a lot of the teams out there that are not very good. I think it needs another 3-4 years for the program to fully develop, one the current youngsters have cycled through before we see the true results of it. Clearly there are still players out there who are performing at the highest levels without ECNL experience. I know of several players here in Florida who we are recruiting who don’t play it because they can’t afford it.
How about ID and summer camps? Do you actively recruit from them?
Very much so. I do two ID events – one in summer and one in winter each year – and it has been a big benefit to us over the last couple of years. We don’t do overnight camps now – we do purely the one day camps because it costs less to run and takes less time. There are more players now that are doing the one day camps at a number of different venues rather than only going to one overnight camp and seeing one coach.
What’s the attrition rate? How many drop out before the end?
It changes from 3-4 one year to 1-2 the next. We want every kid to be here for four years but for some of them they don’t realize the level we are at and what we expect whereas others are good at it. Two days ago we had a kid who removed herself from the program who was on scholarship and this was her first year. We’ve also had a kid now who is about to graduate and was basically a walk on. She hasn’t played much but she has stayed throughout the years. We want them to have fun. If you’re not playing much but you aren’t being a problem then I’ll be happy to keep you in the program. I think time and expectations are the biggest causes for players to drop out. They are not prepared for the intensity of the program as we work hard to win. Just this weekend we lost to Barry University 2-1 in overtime and they are number 8 in the country. To be at this level we require commitment. We try to tell them before what to expect but we find that don’t understand until they are in it just how challenging it can be.
How important is it to you to build a relationship with your players off the field? What do you say or do?
It’s vital: you can’t state that enough. Having the kids want to play for you is very important so we have the team dinners and try to generally have a laugh with them off the field so that they can see that you don’t just value them as a field player. We have them come by the office most days, we will sit with them at team dinners, spend time with them on the busses. At training we might ask them what they want to do for the next fifteen minutes and let them decide and come up with suggestions. They might want to play Crossbar Challenge or World Cup.
Do you travel by Bus to all of your away games?
To the ones that are more than 90 minutes away yes. We’ve been to the Carolinas (9-8 hours away) as the furthest extreme. The school has rules about when we need to stay in hotels by distance, but if we have the budget for it we will often stay overnight closer than those rules state because it helps with the preparation. Also it is important to spend time together getting away so it helps with that.
What does the week look like for your players in the regular season?
On Monday they lift weights and train; Tuesday they train; Wednesday they play a game; Thursday lift weights and train; Friday train; Saturday play a game; and Sunday they have the day off. The training sessions are overall about 2.5 hours when you factor in ice baths, warm up and cool down. We training in the afternoons at 3pm and the games are either at 4:30 or 7pm. We can get kids registered before the regular student body so that they don’t miss too many classes for training, and then from there we make sure that their schedule gives them downtime for studying. During the season they have classes in the morning, training in the afternoon then downtime in the evening generally to allow them to do work.
How can coaches best prepare their players for college with you?
Encourage the players to spend time at the university campus, meet and talk to the players, and get as big of a feel for that particular program as is possible. So many kids now have no idea what is required so the more they can be prepared for it the better. We encourage players now to graduate a semester early and come here in January so that they can then spend the first spring semester in classes, training and getting used to what college is without playing the games yet.
How can coaches get into working at college level?
Get as much experience as they can at club and high school, volunteer at college, do the coaching courses too. I think they need to understand the hours that it takes though. We are regularly doing 60-70 hours per week, which can be a challenge for family life among other things.
How would you compare working in youth club soccer to college level? Would you go back to coaching youth club level?
No. I wouldn’t go back. I don’t have to deal with many parents at college. I work at a small club now and had an hour long phone call with a parent last night. I don’t want to do high level clubs where you are training 3-4 times per week. It is more to have fun with the girls.