Culture Reboot Impacts Highlander Hot Start
by Mike Villamor, Big West Assistant Commissioner For Communications
To trace the connection to what drove the best Big West start in UC Riverside men’s soccer history, head coach Tim Cupello remembers a preseason off-site retreat that helped his players bond together.
The retreat was an extension of the culture change that Cupello and his staff wished to foster with the team. A culture founded upon the core values of respect and trust, as well as loyalty, excellence, teamwork and courage.
“We did some stuff where the guys opened up and shared some personal life history with one another,” Cupello recounted. “You could tell they were willing to let down their guard and be a little vulnerable with one another. I think once that happened, and the players started to get to know each other more on a personal level, not just a soccer level, then they started to realize ‘wow, this guy is going through similar things that I’ve gone through.’”
The payoff is a maximization of his squad’s talents, fueling an 8-4-1 record and 3-0-1 start in Big West play. The Highlanders are two wins shy of tying the school Division 1 record for victories, and one away from equaling the program standard in conference. The results seem to be just as much a product of the players and coaches treating one another as family, in addition to the more tangible factors such as skill development, improved technique and effective in-game strategy.
Never dismiss or marginalize the effect of chemistry on a team’s success. After a disappointing 2015 campaign in which the Highlanders posted a 6-12-1 record and finished last in the Big West South Division, missing out on the conference tournament, Cupello realized that no amount of training would improve the program without acknowledging the cultural component of getting better.
A lot of time was spent during the winter and spring months to implement those cultural changes.
“In a collaborative effort between the staff and the players, we established what our team core values were,” said Cupello. “And I think through that process of getting individuals to buy into the team and the unit, as opposed to playing for themselves and being willing to abandon their own ego, I think that’s what led to the success.”
Cupello sees it in how his team interacts on the field during games and practices.
“When things are difficult, they tend to rally around each other,” Cupello pointed out. “They’re not on the field nitpicking and yelling and screaming at each other. They tend to be more supportive.”
Not surprisingly, the togetherness of the team is symbolized through its stats. Ten different players have scored at least one goal this season, helping the Highlanders rank second among Big West teams with 21. Five different players have recorded a game-winning goal.
That’s in contrast to the 2015 squad which leaned heavily on Norberto Ochoa and Michael Salazar to score a combined 13 of UCR’s 23 goals.
And while having a primary offensive option or two isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the “win through balance” approach has fed one of the strengths of the team.
“In past years, we’ve had one or two clear-cut guys that kind of were our go-to goal scorers, and I don’t know if that fostered a lot of belief in that next group of players coming in behind them,” said Cupello.
“This year, because there has been so much focus on just the team as opposed to individuals, I think everyone is ready to step up when called upon.”
Depth certainly has helped the process. It has fostered a competitive environment in which playing time isn’t taken for granted, and spots in the lineup aren’t guaranteed.
“Say a certain player isn’t performing to the best of his ability in any given match,” Cupello said. “It allows the other players to kind of step up and be ready because they’ve been in a position where they’re realistically fighting for a spot.”
Of course, success involves having a core of players that can be counted on at all times on the field. The Highlanders have a solid defensive backline in veterans Stephen Copley, Phillip Dominique and James Alewine III, along with a younger player in Yosimar Hernandez. That group has registered 47 of a possible 52 starts among them, which in turn has helped Vincent Morales protect the net. The junior goalkeeper leads the Big West in saves (71) and save percentage (.798).
It is difficult to effect change without buy-in from everyone, but it helps when key players champion the cause.
One of those players is senior Romario Lomeli. Ranking second in the league in assists with six, and becoming the Highlander career leader in assists earlier this season – currently with 17 – Lomeli exemplifies the family culture Cupello has tried to foster.
Lomeli’s impact goes far beyond the stat sheet.
“The thing that really has impressed me about him this season is he has really bought into this whole ‘the team before myself’ concept,” Cupello said.
“He’s extremely passionate about his teammates. You can hear that if you’re inside our locker room and you hear the way he speaks about his teammates. He loves every one of them.”
Lomeli manifests the cultural change Cupello hoped to foster. Becoming a cohesive family, as opposed to identifying as just a compilation of teammates, has engendered an atmosphere in which players truly want to sacrifice for one another.
So far, so good. The Highlanders sit atop the Big West South Division with 10 points.
But Cupello knows more work is to be done with six regular season games remaining, and all against teams from within his own division.
He references the 2014 season when the Highlanders had just four points entering intra-divisional play.
“We made a strong push through our South Division matches, and made up a lot of ground, and ended up winning the divisional title that year,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody is out of the picture and we certainly haven’t won anything. We’ve just put ourselves in a good position. I think our guys are very well aware the hard work that’s still necessary to finish the season strong.”
And that’s a whole lot easier to do when you’re family.