A weekend in Birmingham, Ala., may not have changed the season outlook for the East Tennessee State soccer team. But it did put the possibilities in a new light.
The Bucs battled nationally ranked Memphis to a scoreless tie last Friday night, then followed with a 1-0 victory over No. 8 UAB on Sunday. The Blazers had led the country in scoring, at almost four goals per game, but they were undone by a tenacious ETSU defense and an own goal early in the second half as they were trying to clear a dangerous pass in the box.
“That’s definitely the highest-ranked team we’ve ever beaten,” coach Scott Calabrese said Tuesday. “On top of that, we were on the road, playing in their tournament. We had to be very disciplined and dig deep, especially two days after playing a double-overtime game against another Top 25 team. It showed a lot of character.”
The Bucs (2-1-2) have now strung together four straight shutouts. The streak started with a 1-0 victory over Kentucky in front of more than a thousand fans at Summers-Taylor Stadium.
“I feel like every game we’ve gotten more cohesive as a team,” said Calabrese, who built the ETSU program from scratch and is now in his sixth season. “When you look at how we’re playing, there’s a real commitment to work hard defensively. We’re getting major contributions from central defenders off the bench, and Ryan Coulter has made some great saves when called upon.”
Coulter set a school record with eight shutouts last season, when he was named Atlantic Sun Conference goalkeeper of the year. The senior from Dublin, Ireland already has half that total in his first five starts this fall.
Coulter says there’s a lot of hard work being done in front of him.
“It’s great for any goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet,” he said, “and our defense has really stepped up to the plate. I don’t know how many teams could have played those two teams last weekend and come out with clean sheets. It’s really incredible what we accomplished. Months and months of hard work went into it.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Coulter spent his first two years of college playing at the University of San Diego. The charms of life in Southern California weren’t all they were cracked up to be for the young Irishman, at least the soccer part.
“They had an Irish coach who had been there about 34 years,” said Coulter. “I thought that Irish connection would be to my advantage, but I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not in this country for palm trees and beautiful beaches — and San Diego has plenty of those. My aspirations are to get to the next level in this sport, and I’d never be a pro if I’d stayed in San Diego.”
Coulter could have followed in his father’s footsteps and gone into the music business. Phil Coulter is a legendary musician, songwriter and producer whose influence extends way beyond the Emerald Isle. He’s had a hand in dozens of platinum and gold records, and received a Grammy nomination in 2001.
In the early days, Coulter worked with the likes of Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom Jones. He and partner Bill Martin wrote “Saturday Night,” which the Bay City Rollers took to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1976, and two other No. 1 hits in the U.S., including an Elvis Presley cover of “My Boy.” He’s recently been involved with the Celtic Thunder productions.
For the young Coulter, who dabbled with the guitar and piano before catching the soccer bug, show business was never far away.
“Growing up, we always expected to see different celebrities around the house,” he said. “My dad performed at the White House, and we got letters from Bill Clinton and Mayor Guiliani. My dad has always been extremely supportive, and he could have helped me a lot in a musical direction. But soccer is what I wanted to do, and it’s all me. I’m building up a reputation by myself, for better or worse. I hope it’s for the better.”
There’s little doubt at this point. Coulter has been a rock in net and the Bucs have held their own without much in the way of offense. In fact, they’ve scored just two goals all season, though Calabrese says the chances are mounting.
The situation should improve now that forward David Geno is rounding back into form. The reigning conference player of the year had surgery for a broken foot in May and has seen action in only the last three matches.
He admits the demands of the UAB tournament were taxing, to say the least.
“Obviously, when you’ve been out three or four months, it’s a setback as far as fitness,” Geno said Tuesday before a team workout. “I’m just trying to get back in the flow and get comfortable with my foot. There is no pain. It’s more about fitness and confidence.”
If Geno returns to form — he had 11 goals and eight assists as a junior — the Bucs should be very hard to deal with in conference. Coulter says the chemistry is already in place to make another run at the NCAA tournament.
“When you have one of the best forwards in the country, even when he wasn’t playing, he was part of the team and everyone else learns from him,” said Coulter. “David is back now, and we have great players from all over the world here, and a big senior class. All those things have gone into what we’re doing. There’s just a cohesion with this team, no individuals. Everyone knows it takes a total team effort, and that’s the way we’ve been playing.”
The Bucs host Furman on Friday night, then Appalachian State on Sept. 26. They close out the nonconference schedule Sept. 29 at Radford before A-Sun action begins Oct. 4 at North Florida.