In a just a few years, Patrick Baker has turned 'Noles into an ACC power and has them on cusp of their first NCAA title.
Moments after the ACC tournament finale, Florida State coach Patrick Baker gathered his players at the center circle, not to console them but to challenge them.
"Listen. Four weekends from now, this is where the Final Four is going to be held," he said, gesturing at the posh SAS Soccer Complex in Cary, N.C. "There'll be a path for us to get back here and we're just as capable of taking that path as anybody in the country."
That wasn't mere coach-speak.
The Seminoles had narrowly lost 3-2 to North Carolina, the favorite to win another national championship. Though the 'Noles never had advanced beyond the NCAA Tournament round of 16, that result, as well as a 1-0 loss to the Tar Heels in the regular-season finale, buoyed their confidence to aim for a grandiose goal, the College Cup. And at that moment, they looked at their surroundings and each other a bit differently.
"Playing the No.1 team in the nation as close as we did," junior midfielder Jez Ratliff said, "we did feel like, "Maybe we're not that far off."'
They weren't. The No.11-seeded Seminoles (17-7-1) meet Connecticut (14-5-3) at noon today in the semifinals. The top-seeded Tar Heels (25-0-0) play No.4-seeded UCLA (20-1-3) at 2:30 p.m. Both games are on ESPN2.
"It's always a dream you'll get to the Final Four," said midfielder Amber Tollefson, the lone senior playing after star defender Kristin Boyce broke her ankle in mid October. Not that long ago, it seemed a pipe dream.
During its first few years (1995-97), FSU played on a choppy intramural field. A flipcard masqueraded as a collegiate scoreboard. Back then, FSU was in the same conference as UNC but not in its league.
"There are a lot of pieces that have given us this puzzle of success," FSU athletic director Dave Hart said, "but clearly you have to start with Patrick Baker."
While rival Florida was winning the 1998 NCAA championship in its fourth year, the same as FSU, Hart was hiring Baker to take over for Heather Kerby-Nelson. Baker had successful stints at Division III North Carolina Wesleyan, then Pennsylvania. He also gained recruiting connections through the Olympic Development Program.
"This was a gold mine waiting to be exposed," Baker said.
It didn't hurt that by the fall of 1999, FSU completed work on a state-of-the-art, $8-million soccer/softball complex.
"I thought it was almost too much," said sophomore forward Leah Gallegos, who leads FSU with 18 goals, the first time she toured the facility. "It was hard to believe that a soccer program could be give so much. It was easy for me to imagine myself being part of it."
So too could other heralded prospects over the years. Baker has landed four straight classes pundits ranked in the top 25; two in the top 10 (class of 2000 and 2003). Baker masterfully blended these top-shelf players into a winning bunch, beginning with the 2000 opener against Florida. The Seminoles upset UF 3-2.
"Anytime you're building a program, you have to have those milestone wins, those milestone events," Hart said.
More quickly followed. Later that season, FSU stunned visiting UNC 3-2 and went on to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid. FSU advanced to the round of 16 by beating UF in Gainesville. The next year, the Seminoles reached the ACC title game and advanced to the NCAA Tournament again, proving they were no one-hit wonders. Last season, they reached the round of 16 for a second time.
"It's been building and building and building," Baker said. "But I really felt that probably next year would be the year."
When the Seminoles began 1-4 and fell out of the national polls, it seemed next year would have to be the goal. But by shrewdly abandoning his 4-5-1 alignment for the 4-4-2 he has been using and confidently turning to his youngsters, including freshmen Kelly Rowland, Julia Schnugg and India Trotter, Baker has FSU in a position he presciently spoke of a month ago.
"I remember when I was in high school, I'd watch the games on TV and think to myself how amazing those players at North Carolina and Portland and Santa Clara were and how cool it would be to be one of them," Gallegos said. "I never thought then I ever could possibly be on a team that would be in the Final Four."
Look around now, Leah.
Here you are.