McMullen ends club soccer coaching stint on a high note
Before the Cyclones' championship game, emotions began to well up inside of Justin McMullen.
It was going to be the last time he coached the team in action, and he went over scenarios in his head leading up to game time. When the final whistle sounded over an hour later, those melancholy feelings were gone, replaced by joy.
The U14 girls Cyclones soccer team won the Disney Cup Youth Invitational International Soccer Tournament on July 16 in Orlando, Florida, claiming gold with a 5-1 win in the final. The Cyclones are affiliated with the Southeast Missouri Soccer Club (SMSC), which is based in Cape Girardeau, and McMullen has been coaching teams in the program since 2000, including the past five seasons with this Cyclones bunch. He is also the Jackson High School girls soccer coach.
The Disney Cup tournament was McMullen's final hurrah with SMSC, and while McMullen had won the tournament once before, he had never done so with this group of girls. In fact, this team had never been to the Disney Cup before.
That made claiming the title of the prestigious tournament, which draws teams from across the globe and ranges in age from U9 to U19, extra special.
"Before we started the championship game, I got a little emotional just going through scenarios in my head and that it was going to be the last game, but when the game was over with solely thinking about the girls and how happy they were," McMullen said. "They were able to preserve through the heat and all the things like that, and to be champions was just fantastic.
"I couldn't have thought about another scenario going out the way we did and the type of tournament that we actually won. From a coach's standpoint, you can't ask for anything more."
The Cyclones went 6-0 in the seven-day tournament, beginning with a 3-1 win over Sisukas FC Mexico and ending with a 5-1 victory versus Midwest Wings SC U13 (Ill.). In between, they won three other pool-play games and defeated Sisukas FC in the semifinal 6-0.
"The whole tournament, we were successful by scoring early and staying settled in to our style of play," McMullen said. "Anytime you can score early and are able to play our own style of play, that certainly helps out, not playing catch up and not getting too frustrated with trying to score goals late and things like that. We were definitely on the good end of scoring early."
With the two other squads in the five-team tournament coming from Florida and Panama, the Cyclones faced a wide array of playing styles.
"I think the very first game against Mexico kind of opened our eyes up," McMullen said. "You weren't just playing another team. You were playing another country. That right there in itself was a great experience for them. Just kind of seeing the style of play Mexico had as opposed to the style of play we see here in the United States in general was just a great experience for them."
The Cyclones have 15 players on their roster, which is composed of Isabel Knaup, Alexa DeLuca, Emma Shields, Abbey Klund, Brooke Gerau, Lydia Weber, Caroline Rivenburgh, Sydney Buchheit, Avri O'Daniel, Kathryn Taylor, Shelby Renner, Brooklynn Burgess, Allison Buchheit, Justi Nelson and Sophie Hamra. Brian Rivenburgh is the team manager. Out of that roster, 14 players made the trip down to Florida.
With three substitutes, which McMullen said was about average, the Cyclones had to rely on their superior stamina.
SMSC Director of Coaching Paul Nelson, who is the associate head coach for Southeast Missouri State women's soccer team and the husband of head coach Heather Nelson, helped get the Cyclones into shape heading into the tournament.
"I'll tell you what, with 90 percent of humidity, every one of those players was needed," McMullen said. "We didn't lose anything when we substitute. We really, really just played well overall from top to bottom.
"I thought our fitness was as good as any team in that tournament. I thought coach Paul Nelson, who helped train us going down there, did a fantastic job of making sure we were fit."
After so many years with the club, McMullen has decided it's the right time to step away and focus solely on the Jackson girls and "maybe pursue some other opportunities."
Under McMullen, Jackson has won the two of the last three Class 4 District 1 championships, including this past spring. The season ended with a 4-1 loss to Eureka in sectionals. The Indians head into this season looking for their first sectional victory since 2003.
McMullen might be stepping away from SMSC, but he has fond memories of his time there. He got to end it on a high note with a Disney Cup title and, along the way, developed as a coach, thanks to the Nelsons.
"I've been very honored to have someone like Paul Nelson to be able to be my mentor," McMullen said. "Certainly wouldn't have success as a coach at the club level nor at the high school level without Paul Nelson and his wife Heather Nelson."