Earning one of the six spots in the A-10 conference tournament seemed unlikely for the Colonials at the beginning of the 2011 season.
After a disappointing campaign marked by injuries relegated the team to a 3-15 record a season ago, the Colonials were picked in preseason polls to finish this season in 13th place of 14 teams, the exact position they finished last fall.
Then, after the first eight non-conference games of this season, the Colonials had tallied only two wins with A-10 play ahead of them. But the team that had become accustomed to facing adversity did not let their record deter them from focusing on the task at hand: the postseason.
GW didn’t just earn a slot in the tournament. It earned a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season championship.
“We were on the road a lot early in the season, and generally it’s more difficult to win on the road,” head coach George Lidster said. “We lacked concentration and intensity for the whole 90 minutes, hence we didn’t score when we should have, we missed easy chances and we let in some easy goals at vital times just through a second’s lack of concentration.”
The team’s tempo changed when the Colonials opened conference play with weekend games against Saint Joseph’s and Temple at home. While the defense remained consistent in the early stages of the season, the offense often struggled to translate scoring opportunities into goals.
Determined to reverse the trend, Lidster and his coaching staff worked heavily with their offense before league play, emphasizing the importance of getting forward to create scoring opportunities.
“[Assistant] Coach Jones and myself realized it was a problem that we weren’t getting enough players in the box,” Lidster said. “Not just to have one or two people in there, but to have four in there. And that’s hard work. Half the time when you make that 40- or 50-yard run, you’re not going to get the ball. You’ve got to make that run 10 times to get the ball once.”
The approach worked. In their first conference game against Saint Joseph’s, the offense exploded to post a 4-0 victory against the Hawks as the Colonials swept their opening two games to sit atop the A-10 standings.
But then, the success they experienced deserted the Colonials the following weekend on a road trip to Ohio. There, GW was dealt its only two conference losses of the season to Dayton and Xavier, a sign of overconfidence after a strong start.
“I would say after we got those first two wins we all started to get this Hollywood mentality,” senior forward Yoni Berhanu said. “We started focusing on projecting, like, ‘We are 2-0, who knows? We may not lose another game.’ We started thinking more about St. Louis and the championship, rather than focusing on the next game. Maybe it was good for us in a way that we lost those two games, because it taught us to focus on the next game. Just taking it game by game was what helped us win more than anything.”
GW shook off the disappointing weekend, refocusing for the rest of league play. The Colonials went on to finish the season with five straight conference wins, out-scoring opponents 11-1.
The turning point in the season, Berhanu said, was the team’s doubly successful trip to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Citing a change in pre-game habits, including team runs to loosen up before their matches, the Colonials developed a new attitude toward the season.
“You can’t ever show that you’re panicking,” Lidster said. “You can’t ever show that you don’t believe in the guys. I had confidence in them and I tried to portray that I had confidence that things would change.”
Despite injuries to junior goalkeeper Brendan Lafferty, senior defenders Brice Carr and Jake Davis, as well as junior defender Jamie LaFleur and freshman defender Matthew Scott, the Colonials’ defense anchored the team through the season.
With what Lidster refers to as a “makeshift backline,” GW posted six shutouts in nine conference games, and finished with the second fewest goals allowed in the A-10.
“When it comes down it to it, this year we haven’t given up goals, and when you don’t give up goals, you will always get your chances to score,” Berhanu said. “Because our defense has been so rock solid in not giving anything up, eventually teams start to go forward, and that leaves a lot of space for us to attack. We know if we get one or two goals it’s going to be enough [to win]. That’s the sign of a championship team.”
While the talent level remained mostly the same as the team returned most of its core players, Berhanu cited a sense of camaraderie that contributed to its success. When he first joined GW’s team, there wasn’t much of a connection between the upperclassmen and underclassmen, he said, but the team’s closeness now is one of its greatest strengths.
The team left Wednesday for Berhanu’s first and only trip to the A-10 tournament, seeking to finish on top of the six-team field. Seeded No. 2 in the tournament, GW earned a first-round bye and will face the highest remaining team from quarterfinal action in the semifinal round Friday.
The Colonials want to win their first A-10 championship since 2004, and Berhanu made sure that the younger players on the team did not misunderstand the magnitude of the trip.
“I took them back to my freshman year, where we were in a position if we had beaten St. Bonaventure in the last game, we could have potentially gone to the tournament, and we let it slip away,” Berhanu said. “I told the guys, it’s taken me this long to even get back to be in a position to even go to the tournament. I told them this may very well be the last year they go to the A-10 tournament. I think that hit home with the guys, and they take it very seriously. For them, I told them to cherish it and play hard, because you’ll never know if you will make it back.”