By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
STARKVILLE, Miss. – To this day, the 2001 Mississippi State soccer team remains the most successful squad in the history of the program. The ’01 Bulldogs’ Southeastern Conference Western Division title remains the only SEC crown of any kind for MSU women's soccer, but there may not have been many people outside of Starkville who foresaw the success of that team 11 years ago.
“Coming into the season, I think we were picked to finish last in our conference,” says Jessi Moore, former star forward for the Bulldogs. “We didn’t believe that for a second.”
Although the Bulldogs knew what kind of potential they had as a team, those outside the program pointed to Mississippi State’s struggles on the pitch in the years leading up to 2001 as a reason for doubt.
In 1999, MSU finished with a 4-16 record. The Bulldogs were at the bottom of the SEC West. That all changed in the year 2000 when head coach Neil McGuire was brought in to right the ship. McGuire, now the head coach at California, wasted no time putting his fingerprints on the program and the Bulldogs improved to 8-11-1 in year one under their new leader.
One key to McGuire’s success in changing the culture of Mississippi State soccer was the added responsibility he put on his players.
“We wanted to allow the team to have self-belief first and foremost, and let them know we were there to help them individually and as a team,” McGuire said of his approach in Starkville. “However, we were clear [that] it was going to be a player-driven team, and they were going to be given major responsibility.”
As a coach, McGuire knew that giving his players ownership of their success would make them feel more connected to the goals of their program. In turn, he says, his players knew their individual contributions were vitally important to the overall success of the team, and the athletes committed more to their training and game preparation.
With a year in Coach McGuire’s system under their belt, the returning Bulldogs from 2000 were joined by a talented group of freshmen – which included Moore and fellow forward Amy Van Zandt – and the Bulldogs were optimistic about their prospects heading into year two of the McGuire era.
“As a staff we were excited about our squad,” McGuire recalls. “We had a lot of freshmen who were energized. We had goal scorers, good athletic ability and trust in each other. We were focused on each game as it came, as opposed to the season as a whole, which was important for a young team.”
With the talent now in place on the roster, McGuire and his staff knew they would have to maximize their team’s preparation in order to get the most out of that talent on game days.
Scott Ebke, an assistant on that 2001 squad who is now in his fifth season as head coach at Southern Mississippi, believed that the team’s slogan was very important in that regard.
“We had a slogan of ‘Raise the Bar’ and we had a miniature ladder that we raised the bar on after every training session and game if we achieved our goals for that day,” Ebke explained. “This visualization also helped us improve our mental side of the game.”
The team started first with smaller goals to build confidence and continued to strive for higher achievements as it progressed. Moore said that once goals were attained, the team would discuss them as a group before raising the bar to the next level. This approach ensured that the players kept their eyes looking forward, and it turned out to be an invaluable resource for the Bulldogs.
“It was huge to have that as a visual,” Moore said. “Something we were all constantly reaching for.”
Combining this system with extra conditioning workouts in the preseason, McGuire and his staff had the team mentally and physically prepared for the season ahead. With the foundation for success in place, all that was left to do was perform.
The team went on to perform wonderfully, finishing 13-8 (an 8.5-game improvement from the ’99 season) and claiming the SEC Western Division crown.
The Bulldogs were led offensively by a pair of potent freshmen forwards in Moore and Van Zandt.
As soon as they hit the field for Mississippi State, Moore and Van Zandt had an incredible chemistry – one that McGuire called intuitive and lethal.
That instant chemistry was not a stroke of luck, but rather a result of years of playing side-by-side at the high school and club levels.
The duo first met at the age of 12 when Moore moved to Van Zandt’s native Texas, and after becoming best friends they played together throughout their time at Colleyville’s Heritage High School before joining forces in Starkville.
Just as they did in high school and club ball, Moore and Van Zandt formed an offensive force for the Bulldogs and went on to rewrite the Mississippi State record books. Moore set an MSU record in 2001 with 16 assists, helping her co-star Van Zandt on her way to a school record 15 goals.
Van Zandt also set a single-season record with 39 total points (Moore holds the MSU career mark with 62 points in her two years in Starkville), and Moore averaged an MSU-best 0.76 assists per contest over the course of the 21-game campaign. Both strikers possessed a knack for scoring, and each player’s abilities complemented the others perfectly around the 18-yard box.
“Amy was an exceptional talent and one of the best finishers I have ever coached,” McGuire said. “Jessi, like Amy, was lethal in front of the goal, but also knew when to give up the shot for an easy pass to the open player.”
Moore and Van Zandt each benefitted from the other’s talents, and they were able to do it without a hint of selfishness.
“The nice thing about both of them was they were happy to set each other up to score, which is not always the case for goal scorers,” McGuire added.
By season’s end, Moore and Van Zandt each had garnered All-SEC honors and All-Region accolades from Soccer Buzz and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
The Bulldogs’ offensive firepower was aided in the back by a stout defense, led by goalkeeper Krystal Werges. Werges possessed all the physical tools that coaches look for in a net-minder and racked up 79 saves over the course of the season (3.7 per game).
“Kyrstal brought athleticism to our defense and a will to win,” Ebke said of Werges. “She was a great communicator and had great distribution out of the back. A lot of our attack that year came from playing out of the back and that started with Krystal.”
While players like Moore, Van Zandt and Werges were vital to the success of the 2001 team, there were unsung heroes woven into the fabric of the team that also played pivotal roles for the Bulldogs.
One such player, who carries a familiar name for football fans, was Ngum Suh. Suh, brother of Detroit Lions’ defensive tackle Ndamukong, was a handful for teams at the midfielder spot.
The team eventually fell in the SEC tournament quarterfinals and came up just short of making the NCAA Championships as an at-large selection, but the Bulldogs’ season for the ages was enough to garner McGuire SEC Coach of the Year honors. McGuire, however, sees the award as a group accomplishment that he merely accepted on behalf of the team.
“All the accolades that came with that season should be placed squarely on the team,” he says. “We as coaches were just there to support them.”
McGuire credited the 2001 Bulldogs for helping him learn how to better manage a competitive squad, something that has helped him along the way and still helps him at Cal.
“At that time, Mississippi State was not meant to be there based on history,” McGuire said. “We, however, disagreed with that. What I learned with the 2001 team at MSU is that anything and everything is possible if you can create a team that plays together and for one another.”
The team still remains close today, and the memories that they made have withstood the test of time.
“I still talk to a lot of the players on that team and it’s always fun to have the [division] championship ring on display in my office today,” Ebke said.
Moore echoed similar sentiments, noting that the team’s success was due in large part to the chemistry that the ladies shared as friends and as teammates.
“We knew from the beginning of the season that our team could be special, and I’m extraordinarily proud of what we accomplished,” she added. “We had such a good time together on and off the field.”