With less than eight minutes left in the biggest game of his career, Men’s Head Soccer Coach Bryan Waggoner did not hear the deafening roar from the standing-room only crowd of yellow-and-black-clad fans. He did not feel the cold November night air. And even though he knew it was there, Waggoner did not look at the scoreboard: 1–1.
Months earlier, during the team’s first preseason practice, Waggoner had told his players they were good enough to win the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Championship.
“I wanted them to know that was what our goal was going to be,” he said. “But we never talked about it again.”
In just its fifth season, the team was now on its home turf, fighting for that title—and for respect. “Every time this team steps out on the field, they have something to prove,” Waggoner said. “That is a powerful and dangerous thing. I remember looking in their eyes during halftime, and there was no panic, no worries. They wanted to finish this off in front of their fans.”
Then, as if in slow motion, the 31-year-old coach watched Nick Cornell ’13 loft the ball high to Will Wolf ’14, who knocked it past the Lynchburg College goalie and gave Randolph a 2-1 lead. The crowd erupted, and the team held tight while the clock wound down. As the last second ticked by, a crowd of students carrying yellow and black flags rushed the field and joined in a frenzied celebration with the players.
“It was surreal,” Waggoner remembered. “You don’t get very many moments like that in your life. After everything this campus has been through, for everyone to come together like that was amazing. I know those fans drove my guys to win. They wanted to do that for the school.”
The moment was made sweeter by the presence of 10 of the founding members of the soccer team, the alumni who chose to attend a school in its first year of coeducation, players who had the courage to join a team that did not exist until they walked on the field.
“It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was in this makeshift cubicle in the lobby of the RAD Center, back to back with Clay Nunley (the men’s head basketball coach),” Waggoner said. That was 2006–07, when Randolph College was still Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and the two men’s coaches were recruiting without the benefit of existing programs—or any male students on campus. “I will never forget the first time I brought a recruit in,” Waggoner remembered. “We walked into the dining hall, and we were the only two males in the room. All of these heads turned to stare at us, and there was complete silence. That’s the first time I realized just how much of a challenge this was going to be.”
But Waggoner did not give up, even when it took hundreds of calls to get even two students to show an interest. “I wanted to find qualified student-athletes who were going to fit the academic profile here and have some kind of soccer experience,” he said. “So I went after the players who were overlooked in high school.”
In its first year in competition, the men’s team faced multiple obstacles—a tenuous atmosphere on campus due to the coed transition and a schedule of highly competitive teams that considered Randolph to be irrelevant. While many opponents saw a young, inexperienced team trying to gain its footing, Waggoner saw something special. “The biggest thing you can do as a coach is to try and make them believe they can win a championship and to take it one step at a time,” he said. “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to continue that belief during the hard times. But they followed me, and each year we got better.”
The program has grown tremendously since that first season. In 2008 and 2009, the WildCats made it to the ODAC quarterfinals. And in 2010, the team earned a spot in the semi-final round, only to lose to Lynchburg College.
Strategies have changed over the years, and the team’s depth and capabilities have grown. But one thing has not changed: the team’s bond as a family. “Some of the other schools might have big-time players,” said Nick Hudson ’12. “But when you really care about the people around you, then you are a lot more willing to fight and battle to get the result you want.”
Before every game, each player touches a plaque inscribed with the word “WILDCATS.” Each letter in the word represents what Waggoner considers the team’s foundation: Will, Integrity, Leadership, Desire, Class, Attitude, Trust, and Selflessness. “On and off the field, we always tried to keep together as a team, as a family, and to live by these eight words,” said Aaron Humphreys ’11, who now lives near Richmond, Virginia. “I still live by that foundation.”
Current members of the team, which includes just two seniors, said the program’s history remains a driving force for them. “Coach Waggoner tells us where the program came from, how it started, and everything it’s been through,” said Timmy Songer ’12. “We are family. That’s at our core.”
During the first season in 2007, the team won just two games, a far cry from its 18–6 record in 2011. “I have to pinch myself sometimes now,” Waggoner said. “To think that we are now the team to beat, it shows just how far the guys have come and what they have expected out of themselves.”
It was not the only team fighting to gain respect. The men’s basketball team and women’s softball team both battled their way into the ODAC Championship finals last year.
The teams were defeated during the final games, but their successes gained more respect for Randolph’s growing athletic program.
Brad Bankston, ODAC commissioner, said the depth and competiveness of the ODAC’s athletic programs, especially in men’s basketball and soccer, made the jobs of Waggoner and Nunley more challenging. “They’ve had the cards stacked against them due to the competiveness of the league,” he said.
The 2011 ODAC Championship win over Lynchburg College earned the WildCats a spot in the NCAA tournament, where the team continued to shock others by overtaking Christopher Newport University, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation, and then DeSales University. The victories secured a spot in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 tournament, which was held in Redlands, California. That loss in overtime to the University of Texas at Tyler was a defeat that did nothing to dampen the team’s determination or heart.
“We are not the typical big, physical team,” said John Vecchietti ’14. “But we work together very well. We don’t look for individual highlights. We look for results. We don’t showboat. We just get rid of the ball quickly and move as a team. We’ve proven that underdogs can go a long way when they have heart and determination. That’s what got us here.”
Waggoner’s players are not the only ones who have grown over the past few years. “One of the reasons I took this job was because I knew there wouldn’t be a better learning opportunity,” he said, adding that one of the biggest lessons was realizing the need to step back.
“Often the best coaching is not coaching,” Waggoner said. “It is being there and letting the guys learn on their own.”
Sometimes the best lessons came off the field. During one road trip in southern Virginia, the team’s bus was traveling through a storm on the only road to its destination when it came across a large downed tree. As cars lined up behind the Randolph bus, Waggoner told his team to get off and move the tree. “We thought he was kidding,” Hudson laughed.
The unity of the team was not isolated to the players; their family members became equally close and made sure the team always had fans and support. “There was always someone there for you, even when your parents weren’t able to be there,” Hudson said.
That bond helped when the team faced tragedy during the fall season. Aaron, the brother of Trey Padgett ’15, died early one morning in a car accident, and the team rallied to support their friend and his family. Teammates took notes, collected Padgett’s work, and kept him up to speed. They also attended the funeral together.
“After Aaron died, we started putting blue tape on our arms for the games,” Songer said. “I’d look down at my arm and think about how life could be taken away from you so quickly. It would drive me harder, and I know a lot of the players looked to that for strength by the end of the season. They did it for Aaron and for Trey and his family.”
“We are more than a team,” added Wolf. “We are brothers, and we are a family.”
Upperclassmen on the men’s soccer team have learned that the game is just part of the overall experience, and they make a point to serve as mentors and tutors for first-years.
“We are not just here to be a championship soccer team,” Wolf said. “We want to be championship students as well. You have to learn to find the balance. You have to put in the time with soccer and with the books.”
The true reward, Hudson said, is the end result. “You don’t get the stardom that some people get playing at big institutions. You have to play because you love it,” he said. “You know you are going to be held accountable on the field and in the classroom. But if you’ve had a successful four years as a student and as an athlete, then all of that work pays off.”
That is exactly what the soccer team’s coaching staff hopes players will take from their Randolph experience. “Every coach wants to win a championship,” Waggoner said. “But we tell them that in four years, they will be done. What we want is for them to carry these memories and the lessons they’ve learned into whatever they do.
“We want them to do more than just get by in life,” he added. “We want them to be the kind of people who strive to be great at whatever they do.”
Waggoner knows the speeches, drills, and lectures can only help his players so much. The rest is up to them. “They need to play for each other,” he said. “They need to trust each other and know that their teammates are going to be there when they need them. Ultimately, all I have are words. They are the ones who need to go out there and do it.”
The team will start its 2012 season ranked 18th in the nation for Division III. Nobody—except Waggoner—thought that was possible just five years ago. “All players want to believe in something,” Waggoner said. “They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. If you give them the platform, and you stay at it even through the difficult times, a true team can arise.”
After the November ODAC Championship game, that team was gathered on the field for photos while fans celebrated nearby. Soaking wet and freezing from the two coolers of ice water his players dumped on his head, Waggoner thought back to the emotional rollercoaster that had been the past five seasons. He remembered the ups and the downs, the long hours, the tears, and the pain. And then he looked around at the students, faculty, and staff still celebrating on the field. Finally, he saw the pride and happiness on the faces of his team members and the alumni who began this journey with him not that long ago.
As the players held the ODAC Championship trophy high, Waggoner knew it belonged not just to the team, but to the entire Randolph community. “We’ve built something special here, and we’ve come so far—as a team and as a College,” said Waggoner, who was named ODAC Coach of the Year. “I don’t know if I will ever be a part of another championship that represents as much as this one did. It was one of our greatest moments.”