Docking raising national profile of Coastal Carolina soccer

ryoung@thesunnews.comNovember 24, 2012 

Sometime after last season, after reintroducing Coastal Carolina soccer to the national consciousness with a No. 16 final ranking and a tight second-round NCAA tournament loss to eventual champion North Carolina, coach Shaun Docking was contacted by another college program to see if he was interested in moving on after 14 seasons with the Chanticleers.

Docking met with CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek to discuss the opportunity as well as the future of Coastal men’s soccer. In reflecting back this week, neither specified which school was looking at him or how seriously he considered the offer, but ultimately Docking stayed put.

And regardless of the specifics, those familiar with him and what he’s created in Conway seem to be in agreement as to his chief reasoning.

“I think it’s about the program he has built here at Coastal,” Yurachek said. “He’s got his name attached to this program, and I think there’s still unfinished business as far as his program is concerned.”

Indeed there is.

Docking took over at Coastal in 1998 after two seasons at Charleston Southern and inherited a Chants team that had regressed to 6-10-1 a couple years after reaching the NCAA tournament. But he saw potential -- the potential to recruit nationally-competitive athletes, the potential to win on a high level, and most importantly, the potential to build something.

Looking back, Docking admits he didn’t necessarily know he’d be here 15 seasons later, but after some ebbs and flows, surges and setbacks, his vision for the program is coming into clear focus as the Chants travel to play No. 2-ranked Maryland on Sunday evening in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

They’ve matched the program and Big South Conference record with 20 wins and are in the Sweet 16 for just the second time in program history. More pertinently, though, Docking and his players believe they can go even further this fall and in the coming seasons.

That is a large reason why Docking says he isn’t looking to go anywhere else after all these years – or, at least, that’s not the plan.

“I think if opportunities arise, you look at them, but you plan on doing the best job you can every day and see what happens,” he said. “If you win a national championship, that’s the best you can do. So that’s my goal to hopefully get to that point one day where we can get to a final four and win a national championship. And I think we’re pretty close right now.”

Pieces to the puzzle

It’s taken some patience and persistence to get to this point, though.

When his Chants reached the third round of the NCAA tournament in 2003 before a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to UC Santa Clara, Docking believed the program was set to thrive for years to come.

But after following with first-round exits in the tournament the next two seasons, Coastal would miss the postseason altogether for four straight years.

“We tried to keep it at that level,” Docking said this week, reflecting back.

The hope was that the program’s escalating national profile would help lure some of the top American players to campus, but after a couple quiet seasons, Docking realized that wasn’t being accomplished. With Coastal’s modest soccer facilities, he says it’s always going to be a challenge to attract the top domestic talent away from programs that play in better stadiums before bigger crowds and that offer more amenities.

But that didn’t mean the Chants couldn’t compete with those programs – they just needed a niche.

“I think with a return to getting international players again like we did in 2002 and 2003, that’s really helped with the success and the profile of the program,” Docking said. “… I think just a couple years of us not being at this level, we just felt as a staff we needed to head in that direction again, and it’s paid off.”

The core of players that has led Coastal to 38 wins and three NCAA tournament victories over the last two seasons includes talent from all over the international soccer map.

Senior forward Ashton Bennett – the NCAA leader with 23 goals last season and team leader with 15 goals and nine assists this year – hails from Jamaica, but he was already in the country playing at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College when Coastal found him.

But 2011 NSCAA third-team All-American Pedro Ribeiro, the Chants’ standout junior midfielder, was found through a connection in Brazil. Sophomore defender Henrik Robstad came to Coastal straight from Norway. Freshman defender Jhamie Hyde was recruited from Jamaica. And sophomore defender Kjartan Sigurdsson was found through a connection in Iceland. Those four have all made at least 19 starts this season for Coastal.

“It’s just years and years of networking and traveling and making contacts,” Docking said. “You’re always calling people and getting contacts and ideas. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the U.S. national team’s program, so I’ve been able to travel and meet coaches and network that way overseas. It’s just something that you develop over the years.”

Mining those connections for the right talent is its own challenge, though.

“We just do a lot of phone calls and emails,” Docking said. “We don’t have a big recruiting budget so we can’t travel much. We just end up spending a lot of hours on the phone, a lot of hours on email talking to coaches trying to find kids out there that have got the grades and are good enough.”

Docking said it took several trips to Jamaica before the Chants had their first breakthrough in pulling a key player (Hyde) directly out of the talent-rich country.

As for Sigurdsson, Docking said there is a large contingent of Iceland natives who played for Coastal in the 1980s and have since returned home. The Chants have refreshed those connections to keep a look-out for other talent that might be coming out of the country.

Ribeiro, meanwhile, has a cousin in Brazil who works as an intermediary to help send athletes to the United States, and he encouraged the young soccer standout to take the necessary tests to become NCAA eligible and to put together material to send to college coaches. Docking got an email from a coaching connection in Brazil who recommended Ribeiro, and after reviewing video, they called him and his family and eventually made an offer.

“I accepted the first day I got it,” Ribeiro said. “So fortunately, I had the chance to come here and take this opportunity.”

And the Chants’ top defender came to their attention via a fortuitous connection in Houston. Sophomore Uchenna Uzo is originally from Nigeria, but he was attending Houston Baptist University and not involved in the soccer program there. He was working out with former Coastal defender Ross Kelly, a Houston native who encouraged the Coastal coaching staff to take a look.

“You’ve just got to look all over,” Docking said.

But it’s not just about identifying talent. Part of the process is educating foreign players and their representatives on the NCAA’s academic requirements and definition of amateurism, not to mention making sure they can get cleared to enter the country.

“To be honest, for every one guy you get here, you’re probably talking to 10 guys that for whatever reason just don’t fit the model,” Docking said. “So for us in a recruiting year, if we’ve got a class of eight guys coming in, we’re probably talking to 80 or 100 kids internationally, maybe even more than that – 150 – every year just to get eight guys. And then in preseason, you don’t know sometimes if a kid’s going to get his visa or finally get cleared by the NCAA academically, so it’s always touch and go until the kids actually get there.”

The Chants’ growing national profile has helped, though, as has their reputation for sending players on to the professional ranks.

“Sometimes I am waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning [answering phone calls] because of the time difference in different countries,” said assistant coach Kyle Russell, who has taken a lead role in Coastal’s recruiting efforts. “A lot of international [players] really see what we’re doing here and they don’t look at the glitz and glamour; they look for the end result of getting an American degree and going on to play at the next level. …

“We’re starting to get that reputation.”

Looking forward

Docking’s own reputation, meanwhile, only continues to rise around the country.

Before becoming an assistant coach for the program, Russell played for Docking, so he has a dual perspective on the coach who has transformed Coastal soccer into a national brand.

“Everybody knows who coach Shaun Docking is,” Russell said. “Every tournament I go to, they say, ‘Hey, give my best to coach Docking.’ I know he’s had job offers overseas. I know he’s had job offers with the national team staff for the U-18s, and obviously with what he’s done here, he’s gotten opportunities and offers from other schools around the country. But he’s very committed and loyal to the work that he does.”

Docking didn’t say exactly how closely he considered that other college offer last offseason, but he reiterated that he’s happy with what he’s established at Coastal – and with the life his family has established in the area as well.

With more seasons like this, though, he’ll surely be faced with more career decisions.

“I’m not looking to leave,” he said. “I’m very happy here, love it here. My family’s settled, and I think we’re building something really special here. I think it can still get better and we can have more success, so my plan is to stay here and keep building it.

“Every situation is different. I think if somebody comes in and offers you $1 million a year, you certainly look at it. If it was $25,000 a year, you probably wouldn’t look at it. And for me, the most important thing is does any situation have the facilities and the resources in place to help you sustain a very good level of success with staffing and facilities and scholarship budgets and funding and all those kind of things.”

Those are matters Docking and Yurachek discussed in their meeting after last season.

There have been discussions about raising money for a new soccer and track complex. Yurachek says that is a goal for the next three to five years, and he likens the process to what Coastal was able to do for coach Gary Gilmore and the school’s baseball program, making incremental improvements until a new stadium could be funded and constructed.

“But eventually we’re going to have to build a top-notch soccer facility because we’re competing nationally now in soccer,” Yurachek said.

And in the meantime, Docking and the Chants will focus on continuing to elevate that national profile with their play on the field – including another opportunity Sunday to further raise the standard of Coastal men’s soccer.

“I think Hunter knows what it needs to grow, and I think there’s a plan in the works to try to do something for soccer,” Docking said. “Right now we’ve got so much going on campus with baseball, softball, the tennis center. I think there are plans in the works for soccer. I just don’t think it’s going to be this time next year we’ll have a brand new $10 million stadium. It’s just going to be something that we kind of chip away at, and I think that’s great. The players deserve that, the programs – men’s and women’s soccer – deserve it. And I think the university knows that.”

Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.

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