The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Sports

May 5, 2014

Pacers, Liddell ready for first playoffs together

ENID, Okla. — Craig Liddell is in his element.

Enid’s head soccer coach is bolting between three training stations during a late-season practice at D. Bruce Selby Stadium, stopping only momentarily at each — one a shooting drill, one for ball-control and a third for passing — to shout condensed correction and encouragement to surprisingly focused players at each coed sector.

None of the three needs much guidance, each with players trained to stand-in as momentary assistant coaches to help manage the 100-plus members that comprise Enid High School soccer. Pacer senior Sarah Blakely, running the passing drill, signals a timed water break, Liddell’s cue to step-in and reinforce what made Blakely and others able to captain entire drills without their coach’s help.

Liddell sprints over from the shooting drill in Selby’s east end zone, punctuating a typically, and in this case necessary, rapid-fire pep talk with orders to continue.

“You have to step in and be teachers,” he says. “You have to be leaders.”

The Pacers, for the first time in Liddell’s 14-year tenure, will play in the 6A state playoffs in a first-round elimination game today in Tulsa against district 6A-3 runner-up, and defending state champion, Bishop Kelley.

The game marks the end of a long wait for both Liddell and the Pacers, a senior-laden team that typically has nine fourth-year players in its starting 11.

“Most of us started as freshmen,’’ said Shelley Mueller, one of those starting seniors and a Southwestern Oklahoma State University soccer commit. “We helped build it, and now, four years later, we’re actually getting to do what we’ve been wanting to do the whole time. It’s a proud moment to know it’s us there actually getting to playoffs.”

For Liddell, the postseason berth was a step that had previously been missing, despite the Enid soccer program’s advancement into one of the school’s most competitive. Combined, the Pacers and Plainsmen brought in a record 115 players to start the season, a tappable talent pool drawn to soccer at least in part because of Liddell’s demeanor, a kinetic mix of high praise and high expectation that splits the gap between drill sergeant and coddling coach.

“If you practice with him every day, he just has this drive inside of him that transfers to us,” said Pedro Braga, a sophomore for the Plainsmen, who missed what would have been a second-straight postseason berth by a tiebreaker. “The atmosphere, we have that never-say-never attitude.”

In a post-practice speech on Friday, the Pacers’ final full-speed session before their 21st-century playoff debut and only the second in team history  — a 7-0 loss to Broken Arrow in the first round in 1998 being their first — Liddell demanded eye contact from each player, only to tell a quick joke before the huddle began in earnest. By the time it was over, the message was delivered: it’s just a game, but one no one wants to lose.

That dichotomy rarely was a part of his own youth soccer career for the Scottish-born Liddell. The 36-year-old son of Raymond, a small taxi company owner and Diane, a dental hygienist, was earmarked as a potential professional player as early as 10 years old, captaining championship teams as a center back for Edinburgh’s chapter in the youth pipeline for Celtic FC, a tradition-steeped club playing in the Scottish Premiership since 1888.

“It’s like the Alabama-Auburn rivalry here, and it’s everywhere in the U.K.,” Liddell said. “It’s a phenomenal thing to be a part of, but when you’re that age, and there’s that much pressure ... it was great, but it was more pressure than kids needed.’’

As Liddell’s pro prospects dwindled — “I was not far off, but not quite there,” he explained — he was drawn more and more to soccer’s coaching culture. By 16, when his father forced him to finish school rather than chase unlikely pro stardom, being a coach was his new goal.

By chance, he ended up playing for Phillips University in Enid, following fellow Edinburgh native and former Enid coach Nicky Emblem-Cooper to Oklahoma. And by opportunity, Liddell ended up back in Enid, starting his first, and so far only, coaching stint as a 23-year-old graduate from California Baptist.

In the time since, he’s built Enid’s soccer program, once playing a role in a youth development program that many of his current players participated in before reaching high school. Players developed skills, and over the years of coaching and experiences as a pro prospect that preceded them, Liddell has learned the right amount of pressure to apply.

“We’ve always told them hard work gets results,” Liddell said. “Do your best, but it’s not just that happy feeling, warm-and-fuzzy pat on the back and, ‘you did well.’ Give your honest best, and things will come to you, and this group has believed that.

“Imagine if we all lived like that, what a great place it would be to live.”

The result hasn’t always been winning on the pitch, but there certainly have been results elsewhere. Liddell has lost track of how many players have left his program to play collegiate soccer, at least seven from the class of 2014 alone, and the coach has consistently stayed in touch with many of graduates, easily rattling off whereabouts — Tonkawa and Dallas, Boston and Brazil — of players past.

And while the winning, and a playoff trip for the first time in any of the Pacers’ careers, was part of the product this time, that connection between Liddell and his players doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.

“I really go to coach for pretty much everything,” said Blakely, who will play for Northern Oklahoma College Tonkawa next season. “He was a big influence on my college-making choices, and everything I do, he’s a really big father figure to me.”

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