Graduating: A Goal for Players
Local Soccer Team Flourishes
One of the best kept secrets in Texomaland may be the Austin College Lady Kangaroos Soccer Team. The Roos just completed their 15th consecutive winning season for the liberal arts school in Sherman. It’s all been under Coach Paul Burns, who started the program in 1996.
“I was doing post-graduate work in St. Louis when I was asked to come here,” recalled Burns. “I liked the community and I liked Austin College. So, I took the job.”
Burns, who is originally from Stoke-on-Trent, England, near Birmingham, knew early on that he ‘wasn’t good enough to play soccer at a high level,’ so he naturally took the coaching route.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching; organizing for the team, everything,” said Burns. “Even when I was very young, I’d organize games; take care of uniforms, collect the money and did schedules. I had learned a lot about coaching before I went to university.”
Burns attended and played at Staffordshire University in England and came to the University of Missouri-Columbia for the post graduate work. From there, it was on to Sherman.
“I am also an instructor in the exercise and sports department,” he explained. “When I first came here, I also operated the recreational sports on campus and was in charge of the lacrosse club.”
But it’s the women’s soccer team that he is proud of and what it has achieved. Many people judge a program by championships, but for the small Division III (non-scholarship) college, Burns focuses on players and style. Winning comes as it does.
“First, I love the sport. It is player driven versus coach driven. I like that,” said Burns. “Players get to make the decisions on the field. There are no timeouts, so you don’t get to huddle and make a decision among yourselves with a coach.”
Burns added that since he grew up in a soccer culture, he can give his players insight into how you play the game. But beyond soccer, the Austin College culture and Burns’ own philosophy requires one “given.”
“Everyone graduates in four years,” he said. “The students take care of that and we can become a winning program. The coach will take care of it from there.”
Burns is emphatic when discussing his players.
“They are student athletes; not athlete students; we emphasize academics,” he explained. “We have 100 percent graduation; it’s a big thing here. Our program is soccer fueled and everyone works as hard as they can; we don’t limit ourselves.”
Austin College, one of about 400 non-scholarship colleges in the U.S., competes in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference with teams from Colorado to Georgia. Women’s soccer is played in the fall of each year; AC’s record was 11-4-2 with a 5-3-2 conference mark; the season ended Nov. 7 with an AC tie. Trinity University in San Antonio was the SCAC Champion and the only school invited to the NCAA Div. III Tournament. Austin College finished fifth, but did not get an at-large bid.
Burns has taken his team to the post season only twice; in 1999 and 2000. Each year, the Lady Kangaroos lost in the first round in overtime. Burns’ record at AC is 163-97-22 in those 15 years.
Playing for championships is not what Burns holds as the highest goal in his program. In his office, the walls are filled with academic awards for his players; not the team. These plaques/certificates include national awards in addition to school awards. He practices what he preaches.
“Sports help with coordination, but education is most important,” said Burns.
For the record, AC Women have won division titles four times and played in those two NCAA tournaments. Burns added that the SCAC will have a conference tournament beginning next year.
“Right now, there are 12 teams in our conference and nine of them are excellent,” he smiled. “It’s an incredible conference to play in.”
The AC Lady Kangaroos had 22 on the team this past season.
“We have an unusual team this year,” said Burns. “We worked hard as a team; we played defense from the front and redirected from the back. But we didn’t score enough goals.”
Burns singled out senior Ashley Johnson, a defender from Austin; sophomore Natalie Nelms, a midfielder who is ‘very special’; and junior Shelly Casey, a forward from New Mexico, as key players for the Lady Kangaroos.
He also praised his goalie, Katelin Ellegde, a senior from Fort Worth.
“She is exceptional,” Burns said. “She only gave up six goals this season. She is the best goalie in the conference.”
The remaining members include Emily Brockette, Kelsey D’Amore, Maddy Millender, Chelsea Parker, Abby Saizow, Mackenzie Lund, Leah Reznicek, Nicole Breckling, Emily Brzuzy, Emma Treu, Melissa Grimaldo, Erika Higgenbotham, Babby Mavelian, Ali Ryan, Sarah Martin, Ali Fidel, Lauren Scott and Andrea Schneider.
The college season can be difficult on the players, according to Burns.
“It is 10 weeks of nothing but soccer; 20 games,” he explained. “It is exhausting on the players.”
With the Roos, Burns is assisted by Glen Price from Durant; he’s in charge of recruiting.
“He’s fantastic,” said Burns. “He does a great job for us.”
From Tulsa, volunteer coach Scott Peavler helps when he is in Sherman, Burns added.
Burns has also noticed in the past 10 years that the players in the United States are much better than they were. Their competitive nature is coming out, he said. Unfortunately, they are more sensitive, too.
“They struggle to deal with failure,” he explained. “I impress on them that it’s okay to fail. Learn from it and be positive. Work toward a higher standard.”
In general, Burns notices, in their play, that the current players ‘understand the nuances of the game,’ but don’t watch enough high level soccer.
“You’ve got to pass the ball and move; and then keep moving,” he explained. “They just slow down or stop.”
According to Burns, it does follow the general difference in North American soccer compared to the Europeans. NA players are conditioned based while European players are practiced based. Burns believes NA players spend too much time running to be in shape compared to practicing; while Europeans spend more time on the field practicing soccer.
While he has coached both, Burns prefers to coach women simply because women deal better with emotional issues while men have the egos.
“I can be honest and straight forward with the women,” Burns explained. “They share their self-belief and self-confidence. Men single out each other, but women deal with adversity as a group. As a coach, it’s one less thing to worry about.”
Overall, he wouldn’t be in any other profession.
“I like the relationship with the kids. I get to watch them grow and develop,” said Burns. “I’m always learning about them and me.”
Burns is married to Holly and they have two daughters: Jade, age six and McKinlee, age 3. Burns is glad that they can grow up in the college soccer environment.
“They have strong female role models here. That’s important for them as girls,” he said. “And yes, I hope they play soccer, too.”