From never appearing in an NCAA Division I tournament to making it to the playoffs three out of the last four seasons, one UA coach turned the Razorback soccer team around in the span of just a few years.
Colby Hale made the leap possible for the soccer team. Hale took a substandard Arkansas soccer program with a 38 percent all-time win percentage and turned it into a yearly contender for the Southeastern Conference championship, and the results speak for themselves.
The Addition of Hale
Hale arrived in Fayetteville in December 2011 after Arkansas’ previous head coach, Erin Aubry, failed to lead the Hogs to a winning season in any of her three years with the team. Before Arkansas, Hale guided the University of Central Florida Knights to two Atlantic Sun conference championships, four Conference USA championships and seven NCAA Tournament bids. Prior to Hale, the Hogs were a much different team than fans have seen as of late.
Arkansas soccer’s inaugural season as a university sport was in 1986, and the program spent about three decades mostly in the bottom of the SEC with an all time record of 185-261-31 by 2012.
Their best record came in 1996 when they went 11-7-3 and made it to the SEC Final for the first and only time, until 2016, but lost to the Florida Gators 3-2 in double overtime. In 2011, the year before Hale was hired as head coach, the Hogs had a 4-14 overall record and a 2-9 record in the SEC.
“We knew there was a lot of work to do,” Hale said. “We had to sell a vision, not just about soccer. We made it about a bigger picture of what do we want them to say about us? Who do we want to be?.”
The very next year Hale took the team to a 9-10-1 overall record and 6-6-1 record in the SEC. In Hale’s second year, the Razorbacks looked like a brand new team and posted a 15-8-1 overall record, taking them to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Making the Transition
The Razorbacks took their game to the next level and broke several attendance and program records along the way during the 2016 season. Hale guided the team to wins against then-top 10 ranked teams in Duke and Florida, which catapulted the Razorbacks to their highest NCAA ranking in school history at No. 9. The Hogs earned the most wins they’ve ever recorded that season after posting an 18-5-1 record and made it to SEC tournament final once again against Florida. History would repeat itself as the Hogs lost 2-1 to the Gators in overtime. Hale said he focuses more on team play, rather than playing around two or three stars and doesn’t want to take credit for the success of his team.
“They’re out there. There are no timeouts. Ultimately, they’re the ones that have to work hard and score the goals,” Hale said.
One of those scorers, sophomore midfielder Kayla McKeon, said both players and coaches should get the credit for turning the program around.
“We’ve worked really, really hard to get the reputation that we have now,” McKeon said. “Also, Coach Colby, he pushes us every day to get better and obviously it’s working.”
Junior defender Carly Hoke sees the past of Razorback soccer as motivation for bettering the team.
“Having people that know where we’ve been and where we come from helps a lot,” Hoke said. “It’s not guaranteed that you’ll make the postseason every year so we realize the work we need to put in.”
Despite Arkansas’ mediocre soccer past, players seemed unfazed and were determined to create a great program from the ground up.
“Coach (Hale) really sold me on building a program,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be really cool to come in and do things that have never been done before. It wasn’t a program that was already set so you have to earn everything you get.”
McKeon said she knew the Hogs had all the capabilities to be successful.
“One of the biggest things that drew me to this school was I wanted to come to a program to help it get better,” she said.
Another important aspect of the game is fan support, and the soccer team has seen a spike in that with average attendance per game in 2016, seeing a 63-percent increase from Hale’s first season as coach, according to the Arkansas Razorback website. The Razorback players notice and use that their advantage.
“I think (fan support) has grown a lot. Our fans are the best,” Hoke said. “We only lost one game at home last year and the environment they create is electric and really helps us win.”
Arkansas has seen its game attendance record get higher in each of the last four seasons, the last one being in a 4-2 loss against No. 1 Penn State on Aug. 25, 2016.
The Hogs’ 2017 season has already kicked off and find themselves with a 2-2-0 record so far, beating North Texas and Abilene Christian and losing to Penn State and SMU.
“We want to keep working and we don’t wanna be satisfied with where we’ve been,” Hale said. “We understand to take the next step is a lot of hard work, and it’s up to us, but we feel like we have that possibility.”
Hoke and McKeon said they both think this Hog team is one of the most exciting teams in the country.
“Our games are never, ever boring, we’ll give you a show and it’ll be worth your while,” McKeon said.
Arkansas’ next game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Razorback Field against the James Madison Dukes.