"32 Strong" Mentality Propels Soccer to SEC Title
Digital Media Reporter
FOR MOST, THE game-tying, net-ripping, long-distance goal Shannon Cooke scored in the SEC Tournament title game would have been a once-in-a-lifetime strike.
For Cooke, the goal – a 40+ yarder with 19 minutes left to play that swerved past the Arkansas keeper, knotting the score at 1 and setting up LSU’s first ever tournament title win – was a bit more familiar. A product of Arsenal Football Club and the England National team, Cooke has a collection of similar strikes in her past.
“I used to score goals like that in England a lot,” Cooke says. “There was a game in England I’ll always remember against Aston Villa when I was playing for Arsenal. We won 5-3, and I scored five goals, all from the same area on the pitch – probably about 35, 40 yards out.”
Superseding that quintet, surely, will be “top bins” from the title game, to borrow Cooke’s postgame description of the goal. Her individual brilliance on the move is what landed the goal at No. 4 on SportsCenter’s top 10 that evening. But the theme of the week no Tiger will ever forget was “32 Strong,” a nod to every player on the roster who played a role in an unforgettable championship run.
“It’s a team effort,” Cooke says. “We keep saying ‘32 Strong.’ I couldn’t have done that without the other girls on the pitch. I just happened to be the lucky one who put it in the back of the net.”
THE INCREDIBLE GOAL – and the penalty kicks that followed to clinch LSU’s first ever SEC Tournament championship – was the culmination of an unforgettable eight days in Orange Beach, Ala. The Tigers became the first team in SEC history to win four games in eight days to claim the title. Three of those games went into double overtime – 413 minutes of soccer in just over a week, an almost impossible workload to manage.
“I woke up Monday morning, and I was like, ‘My legs have never felt like this before,’” says first-team All-SEC defender Lucy Parker. “The pain...even just laying in bed Sunday night, I couldn’t sleep, my legs hurt so much.”
How did LSU manage the burden?
“Better than I would’ve imagined we just did,” head coach Brian Lee laughs.
The excellent run of form began well before the SEC Tournament. Since September, the Tigers have not lost in regulation, and they avenged their only two overtime defeats – Arkansas and Tennessee – in the tournament.
It wasn’t by accident or chance, though. It took a combination of pre-game preparation, in-game management, post-game recovery, and positive energy from the sidelines to navigate the historic run.
Parker has been a part of a world-class club in Arsenal, so she’s used to approaching the game professionally. She says the film sessions leading into games this season has prepared the team mentally for each opponent.
“The work that goes on behind the scenes, the coaches put in so many hours, film against other teams,” she says. “We have really taken that upper step, watching a lot of footage on other teams, and really understanding how we want to play going into a game. That’s cemented our style of play and sticking to that in the games and sticking to coach’s game plan.”
During games, Lee and the training staff were able to monitor the fatigue levels of each player through heart rate trackers linked to an iPad on the sideline. If a player neared ‘the red’ – a visual marker of excess workload – Lee made sure to get a substitution in the game on the front foot.
“We were able to be a little proactive about it and get them out a minute or two or five minutes before fatigue really hit,” he says.
Recovering between games was also vital. The players credited the work of trainer Hannah Faldetta and strength coach Tim Johnson for helping them maintain peak performance. NormaTec sessions and “shake outs” – a series of exercises to flush out the players’ legs – combined with massages and pool recovery to help keep the team as fresh as possible.
“The work we had to do in between games to recover our legs, everybody did everything they could,” Parker says. “All the backroom staff, the trainers, the nutritionists, everything was down to a T. We did literally everything we possibly could.”
The collective mentality embodying the SEC champs might be best summed up by the LSU bench, whose energy and activity on the sidelines caught the attention of fans on social media and the tournament broadcast crew.
Most importantly, it caught the energy of the players on the field.
“The girls who were on the bench were everything,” says Adrienne Richardson, who earned All-Tournament team honors. “Even when those of us playing didn’t have energy, we would look over, see them all excited, and it was like, ‘If they can do this, so can we.’”
“We talk about knowing your roles a lot,” says SEC Tournament MVP Caroline Brockmeier, who made 19 saves and stopped three penalties in the tournament, “whether it’s playing time or being on the bench to celebrate and support the team. Everyone buys into their roles. We have one of the most hype benches in NCAA soccer, which has helped us incredible amounts.”
Some of their motivational tools included: Gatorade cup binoculars for set pieces, rally pennies, and a stuffed Tiger from Build-A-Bear. The Tiger spent games in a papoose, worn by Jade Clarke in the first half and Caitie Cantrill in the second. The Tiger’s heart, stuffed by the players at the workshop, came with a wish, as per Build-A-Bear tradition.
“We wished to win the SEC Championship,” Cantrill says. “So when we walked out, we said, ‘If we win it, it’s this bear.’ It’s the bear’s fault.”
“They’re having every bit as much fun as it looks like they’re having when you see the pictures and videos,” Lee says. “For the kids on the field, they’re making a massive difference. In Orange Beach, every game was close, and I thought every time we stepped on the field, it was 12 vs. 11, if you add up the difference our bench kids were making.”
Other contributions from the bench were more direct, like Megan Johnson’s decisive penalty kick against Tennessee. Johnson didn’t play a minute all tournament and has played just 66 all season, but she buried her attempt from the spot in the ninth round of kicks against the Volunteers to send the Tigers into the semis.
“It was unbelievable,” says Johnson, a Baton Rouge native. “I’ve dreamed of coming to LSU and playing soccer my entire life, pretty much. It’s an absolute dream.”
When she wasn’t burying game-winning penalties, though, Johnson joined her teammates in providing energy from the bench.
“I think it’s so important,” she says. “The people on the field look to the people on the sidelines for energy. It’s such a huge role to play. I’m glad I got to do that for my teammates.
“Everyone wants to have an impact on the team, if that’s on the field, or if you’re in the bench,” Cantrill adds. “When the players on the field get down, they need to be able to look to us and get our energy. They play better when they look to us and see us. No matter what’s going on, whether we’re a goal down or tied or ahead, we need to maintain hypeness.”
IT WAS NEVER easier to maintain that hypeness than after Cooke’s goal, though. After Abbey Newton – who buried the title-winning penalty minutes later – won a 50-50 ball in midfield, Cooke took one touch and simply tried to put a shot on target to make the keeper work in windy conditions.
“I just remember Abbey passing me the ball,” she says. “I looked up, and I knew the wind was behind me, because we’d already played the half before with the wind against it. I thought, ‘We’re down. I’ve just got to go for it.’ I thought I could at least get a corner from it, because I knew I could get it on frame from there. I thought the keeper might tip it over and we’d get a corner from it. But I looked in the back of the net, and it was in.”
The emotions of the team in the moments the goal went in swerved almost as much as Cooke’s shot.
“That’s one of those where you’re like, ‘Oh, pass it one more time,’ and then she touches it off, and as soon as she hits it, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, that might go in,’” Lee says. “For it to go in and curl upper 90, it was the perfect circumstance.”
The on-field celebration was almost as good as the goal, from Cooke’s easily-lip-read, “Oh my God!” to the swarm of teammates who closed her down in a way Arkansas’ defense might’ve regretted not emulating.
“For the first five seconds after it happened, I was like, ‘Wait...did that go in?’” Richardson says. “Then we all just sort of looked at each other for a second, and it was like, ‘Oh my God. That went in.’ It definitely boosted us like, ‘Okay, we’re in this thing. We can win this. We will win this.’”
The tournament win was LSU’s first in program history, after a series of close calls during Lee’s tenure. Since he took over in December 2004, the Tigers have made six NCAA Tournaments, won the SEC West three times and advanced to the SEC finals once before, but they had never claimed the tournament championship – until this year.
“Historically, I feel like we’ve been the nearly men when we’ve had good teams,” Lee says. “We’ve been runners up in the SEC three or four times. We’d lost a final on penalties before. We’d lost a semifinal in penalties. But, as that game wore on, we felt really, really good about our chances”
That belief, boosted by Cooke’s blast and cemented in penalty kicks, has permeated the last two months for the Tigers, as they gear up for Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff against Boston University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They’re radiating confidence – the sort of confidence that inspires one to take a rip from 40 yards, and the sort that propels a team to an unprecedented championship.
“I think that we have started to really believe in ourselves. We’re playing a much more attractive style of soccer, and we enjoy playing a much more attractive style of soccer,” says Parker. “Even if our results are close, we know we’re playing teams off the park in certain games. We’ve really outplayed teams with the way we’re playing. It’s just the belief. When your coach really instills in you how good he thinks you can be and you start seeing it on the field, it’s so easy to believe it once you start getting the results.”