April 16, 2009

Zawislan Named Head Soccer Coach

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Yesterday afternoon, the men’s soccer team took the field for a normal spring semester training session, but something was different this time.
Junior forward Matt Bouraee observed a positive addition to the program — it concerned one of the most basic elements of training.
“Instead of [working on] fitness toward the end, where we run until we puke, he integrates our running into practice,”“Bouraee said. “Today, there were two games going on at the same time on different fields. Every time he blew the whistle, which was pretty often, we had to run from one field to another and then continue playing. … A lot of guys ran a lot more and got a good workout [that way].”
The mastermind of this training regimen change, and those that are to follow, is the Red’s new head coach, Jaro Zawislan. With the official announcement made on Monday by Director of Athletics Andy Noel, the Polish-born citizen of Canada comes to Ithaca after seven years as an assistant coach at nearby Syracuse, other coaching stints across the country, experience playing at the professional level and a collegiate career for the record books.
[img_assist|nid=36889|title=Changing the pace|desc=The soccer team’s new coach may be the breath of life for men’s soccer after a tough 2008 season.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Commenting on the “exhausting” hiring process to become Cornell’s new head coach, the former goalkeeper: “I feel like one of the winners of those Survivor reality shows.”
One thing is clear — Zawislan is serious about soccer.
After a particularly discouraging season in which the Red went 1-15 — winless against Ivy foes — it was time for a change. In January, Bryan Scales resigned as head coach after 11 years in the job. By early February, Zawislan had interviewed with Cornell representatives. Selected from a deep pool of candidates, he soon accepted the Red’s top job.
With the program coming off such a low point, he is aware of the challenges ahead of him. Zawislan believes that all of his Div. 1 collegiate coaching assignments — from Creighton to Stanford and then Syracuse — have helped the assistant prepare to take the reins of Cornell’s program.
“I will definitely be very demanding,” Zawislan said, “but also I will be very approachable. I want to make sure the players feel comfortable with the coaching staff, but also they know what’s expected. There will be a high level of expectation.”
“I don’t mean that every one of us will have to breath, eat, drink soccer 24 hours a day,” he added. “If they do it, that’s great. I don’t have anything against it. But I know also the most important thing will be the balance between academics, soccer and social life.”
The Cornell players know what is in store for them, as five members of the squad were selected to interview each candidate who advanced to the final round and help with the final choice. To Bouraee, who was one of those players present in the interview, two things in particular distinguished Zawislan from the field of applicants: his experience and his knowledge of the game. And it didn’t hurt that Zawislan’s resume included a stay at Stanford, whose rigorous academic standards are not that different from Cornell’s.
“[It stood out that] he coached at Stanford,” Bouraee said. “[We thought] he might have a sense of how to coach at an Ivy League school, at an academically-based school. … He came off as very disciplinary [in the interviews].”
Yet Zawislan’s serious demeanor quickly turns into a wide smile when he begins talking about his family and his upbringing in soccer-mad Poland.
“Being born in Poland, you kind of get into soccer just by being born in the country,” Zawislan said with a laugh.
Instead of fathers and sons playing catch or tossing the pigskin, however, they play soccer — Zawislan, on the other hand, also had the advantage of a father who played soccer professionally.
“My two brothers with me would come back [from playing in the neighborhood] and my father [would be] coming back from his training session, we still found the energy to kick the ball around the living room,” Zawislan said. “Our mother wasn’t too happy about it, some broken crystals and damaged furniture, but I think she was happy with the outcome many years after where we made something out of soccer.”
The youngest of the three attended Creighton and followed his oldest brother’s example — starting in goal. The middle brother, a midfielder/forward like the Zawislan brood’s patriarch, played for the University of Buffalo.
As the oldest, Jaro set the example of moving westward by leaving Poland after his second year of high school to finish the last two years in Toronto. Collegiate greatness came soon after.
Another of the student-athlete interviewers was sophomore Scott Brody, who is in the unique position that the new coach has boatloads of experience at his own position — with the imminent graduation of Luca Cerretani and Steve Lesser, Brody is currently the only goalie on Cornell’s roster.
Appearing in nine games, Brody logged 791:24 minutes in the 2008 season with 35 saves and a 2.27 goals-against average. Zawislan is planning on scheduling individual sessions with his most experienced netminder.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do … and working with him on an individual basis,” Zawislan said.
The MVP of the 1993 ACC Tournament, the Red’s new coach knows a thing or two about the position. He started in goal for every game in his four years at Clemson — his records for career saves (448), season saves (134) and career starts (88) are still good on his old campus, and that career saves record also holds the No. 24 spot on the all-time NCAA rankings. A computer science major at Clemson, Zawislan was also a national All-Academic selection.
“He’ll be able to offer a lot of advice,” Brody said.
After graduating in 1993, Zawislan fulfilled his lifelong dream to play pro as an All-Star for the Columbia Heat of the USISL. After that, he returned to his native land to play for the Divison II professional team Arka Gdynia in northern Poland, a squad that his father had played for years ago.
Having gone full circle in more than one manner, Zawislan then returned to the collegiate soccer circles — this time as a coach.
“The irony of the situation was that before making the decision to go play at Clemson, I didn’t know much about the scholarship system, the NCAA system in the United States,” Zawislan said. “I didn’t realize the importance and how big a part of life [collegiate athletics are] here for people in the United States. It’s very unique here.”
“It’s an irony that I didn’t know much about it and now I’m making a career of it,” he concluded. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Zawislan arrived at Creighton University in Nebraska as an assistant in 1999, just in time to coach his youngest brother to All-America status in his senior year, after which he was drafted by Kansas City.
After two seasons at Creighton, where he earned a masters’ degree in 2001, Zawislan moved on to Stanford. While he was in Palo Alto, the Cardinal won its first Pac-10 championship and made it to the national semifinals in 2001.
And though it might be too soon to be projecting national championship runs for a completely new-look Red, Zawislan is concentrating on making the most of the program’s current assets.
“Talking about [changing] the formations and systems that we are going to play, that is still premature,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to evaluate the players we have in the program right now, see what we have, see what kind of a talent level there is. We are going to adjust the formations to the players we have on the team.”
According to Zawislan, the squad will have more training sessions over the next few weeks and at least one game, primarily in order for him to get to know the players on and off the field. There will then be individual meetings for staff and players to discuss each player’s future with the team.
“Today [at the first practice], he didn’t seem as strict as he did during the meetings where he went over the responsibilities of being on the roster,” Bouraee said. “He’s coming off as an associate on the field who’s willing to help rather than a disciplinarian.”
And as the new head coach evaluates his team over the next couple of weeks, he will also determine the player leadership for next season. There are several schools of thought that Zawislan could employ in choosing the 2009 captains, from one or two people to the entire senior class.
“Most recently at Syracuse we had leadership by committee,” Zawislan said. “We had six seniors who were contributing on and off the field. … It doesn’t work every time, so that’s why it’s very important to get to know the players and the team and the chemistry of the team before making those decisions.”
In addition to familiarizing himself with the current squad, Zawislan is diving into the recruiting scene — both foreign and domestic. He pointed out that Canadian and Mexican students are considered to have a U.S. citizen’s status for purposes of need-based financial aid, a fact which plays to one of Zawislan’s strengths — having coached the prestigious Canadian Soccer Academy, the Canadian émigré has ties to the strongest soccer programs in the Great White North.
“One advantage I have is the network of coaches in Canada,” Zawislan said. “They’ve already been calling the last few days with suggestions and players. We’re not just going to take any player that they suggest, but there have been some reliable sources that were good leads.”
But as many outside resources as he can capitalize on, according to Zawislan, the key to success in 2009 and beyond lies in his players embracing the direction of the program.
“We had a great working relationship between the [Cornell and Syracuse] programs because of the proximity between Syracuse and Cornell, with Bryan [Scales] here,” Zawislan said, “but I don’t really know much about his coaching staff. I haven’t been part of his training sessions and so on, so I’m going to start fresh. I’m not asking the question what was happening in the past. I’m just going to bring my style and my philosophy into the program. … We only will be successful if everyone’s buying into [the team philosophy].”
So far, one day into the new era of Cornell men’s soccer, the players seem to be buying into it.
“Jaro has brought a lot of excitement to the program,” Brody said. “Players are just pumped up to play and improve on last season.”
“He looks good,” Bouraee added, “in my opinion.”