Letting go . . . of unfinished business
Editor's note: During the 2017 season, Christan Shirk transitioned from Managing Editor to Special Consultant and Advisor. As the time in which he can pretty much do as he pleases on this website comes to a close, we'll indulge his need to seek closure through the writing of one more long-winded, detail-bloated article (his words!) chronicling his involvement with the website and sharing his insights and reflections on the site’s evolution. So bear with us as he takes a stroll down memory lane. And please take advantage of all the hyperlinks to archived content spanning the history of our website.
I had no idea where things would lead when I discovered now-defunct D3soccer.net and its accompanying D3 Soccer Message Board during the Fall 2001 season. As an engineer and nothing more than a rec-league player, I certainly couldn’t have imagined writing columns for the leading website dedicated to Division III soccer much less becoming its Managing Editor. I step back into a consultant and advisory role with mixed feelings as I weigh the accomplishments against the (yet) unfulfilled potential of the website. This is the story of (a) my journey from casual D-III soccer fan to former D3soccer.com Managing Editor, (b) the website’s evolution, growth spurts, and perseverance, (c) how the two became intertwined and finally (d) my need and struggle to untwine despite unfinished business.
D-III Soccer Addict
In the fall of 1998 after twenty months overseas and out of touch with Messiah and Division III soccer—with a slow and unreliable dial-up connection in post-war Bosnia, we just hoped all our e-mail would go through before the connection failed or timed-out!—I moved close to my alma mater, Messiah College. It wasn’t the same Messiah men’s soccer that awaited me on my return to the States. In the early to mid-90’s, Messiah seemed a step behind the elite programs, but now the Falcons were a year into the Coach Brandt era and quickly progressing toward their first national title. It didn’t take long until I was hooked and I would be among the immense travelling support that witnessed the Falcons claim the 2000 championship at, and against, the Rowan Profs over Thanksgiving weekend.
In 2001, with a better computer and dial-up connection than in my volunteer days in Bosnia, my search for what the ever-expanding World Wide Web had to offer would lead me to D3soccer.net (not .com), the first website providing national Division III soccer coverage. It was a no-frills site, the handiwork of the father of a former Johns Hopkins soccer player, Tim Lawrence, who would be the subject of one of the early articles I wrote for this website. I quickly became a regular on the message board and enjoyed the banter with rival fans of Elizabethtown and Trinity (Tx.) and the shared bond with the many Falcon fans who also discovered the website. The opportunity to watch Messiah play some of the best D-III soccer in the nation and to engage with a growing group of D-III soccer enthusiasts on the message board turned me into a D-III soccer addict each fall, an addiction which, being single with time on my hands, seemed perfectly harmless.
After Messiah collected their third title in 2004, life’s journey would take me to Brazil to get married and live for the next six years. Life changed in many ways, but going to Messiah soccer games was one of the things I missed the most—that, and snow in the winter! Not being at the games meant I could no longer share firsthand impressions on the message board and fully participate in post-game analysis (to the delight of some, I’m sure!). Though I had already developed a broad interest in D-III soccer, being at an arm’s length—or, more accurately, 11 million arms’ lengths—from Messiah soccer probably contributed to a broadening focus on and knowledge of the entire D-III soccer landscape. And accordingly my contributions to the message board changed such that by the end of the decade I was making pithy comments and observations on dozens of results each week, foreshadowing the Fly-by articles I would later write for this website.
Drawn into D3soccer.com
While I was adjusting to married life and acclimating to Brazilian culture, another poster on the message board was plotting the next big thing in D-III soccer coverage. Jim Matson envisioned a more comprehensive and modern website akin to the popular D3hoops.com and D3football.com websites and purchased the D3soccer.com domain name. In 2007, with the help and support of the expanding D3sports.com network, D3soccer.com was launched as part of the network and men’s and women’s soccer forums were added to their message board. It remained somewhat obscure during its first few years and, as a loyal veteran of D3soccer.net and its message board, I was slow to embrace the newcomer after seeing a couple other upstart D-III soccer sites come and go. But being familiar with D3hoops.com, I was hopeful that D3soccer.com had the staying power those other short-lived sites did not and that it would develop into an equally excellent site as its predecessors in the D3sports.com network.
It was mostly a one-man show for Jim Matson until the 2010 season when James Derrick came on board as a columnist. With the weekly men’s and women’s Top 25 rankings that Jim had added the previous season, the site was on the upswing. Familiar with my posting on the message board, Jim Matson approached me later that season about writing for D3soccer.com. I had ignored his approach the previous fall and remained very hesitant. I was/am not a writer—not by natural gifting, nor by education, training, and experience. Sure, I could write well—grammar, punctuation, etc.—but I had never written for formal publication nor on a schedule with deadlines. I wasn’t sure it was an undertaking I was suited for or a commitment I wanted to make. It would certainly be quite different from the informality of posting on a message board if and as time allowed with less concern for proofing reading. Moreover, I wasn’t sure the content and style of my message board offerings would translate to website articles, a notion Jim Matson assuredly dismissed. So, as a trial run, I agreed to help with that year’s postseason coverage.
My first article was a preview of a few key conference tournaments, but I was much more pleased with my second offering: a Pool C at-large berth preview written in advance of the final weekend of conference tournament action. At-large berth predictions—first mine and then in recent years Ryan Harmanis’—would become an annual feature that is far and away the most popular and most visited article we do each year. With three writers instead of just one, the site’s NCAA tournament coverage in 2010 dwarfed the general recaps of previous years. James Derrick and I inaugurated a variety of offerings that in some form would become annual features: tournament field factoids, sectional previews, and Final Four previews. However, I was most proud of the look back at the 1980 Division III men’s tournament on its 30th anniversary as well as the belatedly published review of the 1990 tournament. The website also named men’s and women’s All-America teams for the first time after the 2010 season—a much more grueling undertaking than either Jim Matson or I could have imagined.
My decision to continue writing for D3soccer.com in 2011 would prove important for both the website and for national Division III soccer coverage with James Derrick not returning as a columnist and D3soccer.net calling it quits. And as it turned out, the summer and fall of 2011 coincided with a period of unemployment following my return to the United States with my wife and our newborn, so . . . for the only time its history, the website had someone working full-time on the site! Those extra man-hours not only ensured that, for the first time, the site had a complete database of games and standings/schedules for every conference, but can also be credited for the creation of our Conference Championship Central and NCAA Tournament Central which launched that season and remain relatively unchanged to date. Similarly, annual articles explaining the NCAA Regional Rankings and the NCAA Tournament berth system debuted that season along with the posting of the crucial NCAA Regional Rankings.
As a columnist—which is what I thought I had signed up for—I opened with the aforementioned article about D3soccer.net and the man behind the ground-breaking site before jumping into coverage of the current season. I had to feel my way through this new undertaking, submitting one to two pieces per week, but by late September I had settled on columns I called Fly-bys which were a comfortable and enjoyable continuation of type research and writing I had been doing on the message boards: rapid-fire mention of dozens of interesting results with observations, factoids, dot-connecting, and implications. The intent was to provide informative and interesting snapshots of the entire D-III soccer landscape by covering important high profile matches as well as those somewhat off the beaten path.
Readership was growing and the Fly-bys were popular, but the most popular article I would ever write (excepting the Pool C at-large berth predictions) was, ironically, about my alma mater losing. Hellooooo Neumann!, which was my attempt to put into perspective what may have been the biggest D-III tournament upset of all-time, garnered more feedback and e-mails than anything the website has published to this day. Despite not having any Messiah games to attend following their second round ouster, I was only able to complete the 30-year look back at the 1981 men’s tournament which sadly was the last such retrospective I would write for the site.
Over the following years I began taking on a more active role behind the scenes, learning the in’s and out’s of the back-end of the website, which would prove hugely beneficial as Jim Matson’s time to devote to the website was decreasing due to the demands of his business ventures. Taking on the responsibilities of Deputy Managing Editor did contribute to a reduction in the time I had to write original content for the website, although being gainfully employed once again, welcoming a second child into our growing family, and becoming a homeowner for the first time were equally to blame.
We opened the 2012 season with the debut of the now annual (if you don’t count 2017!) “What’s New" article, but after several Fly-by columns in September my run as a regular columnist was effectively over. We were a two-person operation—a spare-time hobby, as we often liked to describe it—and the 2012 and 2013 seasons were mostly about treading water, working at our limits to maintain what we had built. We were as disappointed as anyone with the lack of original content during the regular season, the overall lack of women’s coverage since 2010, as well as all the other ideas we just couldn’t realize.
Bouncing Back from the Brink
Moving forward, the question about whether to continue would loom over most off-seasons and in the summer of 2014 when the site had to leave the D3sports.com network we nearly did choose to close shop. D3soccer.com was seven years old and still not pulling its own weight within the network nor approaching the admirable high standards expected of its member sites. Without the support and assistance of the network, it was with much doubt and lowered expectations that we decided to forge ahead. However, 2014 would ironically and unexpectedly prove to be another year of growth for the website when four volunteer contributors came aboard to write weekly columns. Former Ohio Wesleyan player, Ryan Harmanis, who had helped with our conference and NCAA tournament coverage in 2013, was back for a full season doing a weekly recap of important midweek matches while other weekly columns covering the women (who had lacked coverage since 2010), men’s soccer in the Midwest, and upstate New York men’s soccer also debuted, the latter written by the former St. Lawrence national champion Mani Tafari who had had been a guest contributor a few times previously.
2014 was just a small sample of what I could envision the website becoming, and despite already being overstretched and having welcomed a third child into the world, I couldn’t help but be motivated to make improvements and add more features again in 2015. I became the de facto Managing Editor heading into the new season as Jim Matson’s involvement diminished. We introduced a new logo, updated the header collage, and made improvements to our navigation bar/pull-down menus. Two new features debuted: a compilation of links to all the conference preseason polls and a log of coaching milestones. Additionally, we finally had the opinion piece I thought the site needed when we set Ryan Harmanis free to do Ryan’s Ruminations, which greatly enhanced the site and quickly grew to be a favorite of our visitors. Unfortunately, we again lacked women’s coverage when the Women’s Watch columnist chose not to write again. In hindsight, perhaps the most important development of the 2015 season came when the father of a recently graduated D-III women’s soccer player began volunteering midseason as a copy editor and then helped with our women’s coverage during the NCAA tournament. Three years on and Jim Hutchinson is now the website’s new Managing Editor.
Caught in Two Minds
In the off-season we introduced a new feature compiling the men’s recruiting classes ahead of the 2016 season that was largely a repeat of 2015 except that we added Henry Loughlin‘s excellent weekly Nor’easter News and had Jim Hutchinson helping behind the scenes from the start. His assistance helped offset Jim Matson’s limited availability, but nevertheless my workload continued to exceed what was reasonable for a husband and father of three young children. The countless hours spent working on the website from August through December or January was increasingly unfair to my family—they deserved more of and from me—and I started realizing just how fast they grow up and that time not spent with them now could never be recaptured. Moreover, trying to juggle work, family and the website and sacrificing sleep to do so was taking a toll on me physically and mentally as I approached my mid-40’s. Something had to give and though I knew where my priorities should lie, it was a struggled to do what was best for my family and myself, i.e. take a step or two back from my responsibilities with the website, because (1) I didn't want to see the website we had worked so hard to create close shop or fade away, and (2) I didn't want to give up my vision and aspirations for all the website could become.
The website needed more weekly columns covering all regions. The site needed women’s coverage and a quality preseason Top 25. At-large berth predictions should be made for the women, not just the men. Features like the Coaching Milestones and the retrospectives of past NCAA tournaments should be revived. Features like the Recruiting Classes and the Coaching Carousel needed to be continued. New features like "Where are they Now?" or listing D-III products playing professionally should be added . . . and a weekly podcast. Ohh, and I should be writing Fly-by columns once again. And the website definitely could not be shut down! That was pride speaking as much as a genuine concern for the audience the website is intended to benefit. So with misplaced priorities I kept plugging away a little harder and a little longer than I should have, unable to let go.
A Belated but Timely Exit
After the close of the 2016 season with a fourth and final child on the way, I belatedly, but finally, informed Jim Matson and the ever-more-involved (and crucial) Jim Hutchinson that I could not return as a full-time Managing Editor in 2017 and needed to be phased out of most responsibilities as quickly as possible. With our contract with PrestoSports expiring, the future of the website was as big a question mark as it had been since 2014. But Jim Matson agreed to re-up with PrestoSports as Jim Hutchinson agreed to take on many of my regular season responsibilities so the website could return for an eleventh season.
My transition from Managing Editor to Special Consultant and Advisor wasn’t as quick as hoped, but a reduced workload was immediately evident. Unfortunately, our off-season coverage of the NCCA Woman of the Year nomination and selection process was among the casualties, which was doubly unfortunate because Lizzy Crist, national champion goalkeeper for Washington University and our two-time Goalkeeper of the Year, became the first-ever Division III soccer player to win the award (and second soccer player and fifth Division III athlete overall). On the positive side, an appeal on the eve of the new season for more volunteers to join the D3soccer.com team, particularly for copy editing and other behind-the-scenes tasks, was unusually fruitful, giving Jim Hutchinson three competent and dependable volunteers to help meet those pressing needs for the duration of the season. We even got a few columns from the one volunteer called Significant Digits, something different from our normal fare that we expect to return in 2018.
In this past offseason, as was already announced, Jim Hutchinson formally assumed the role of Managing Editor after effectively sharing this role with me through the transitional 2017 season. Entering the new 2018 season, I have finally been phased out of most responsibilities with the website. Thankfully, unlike a few years ago when there was noone in place to take over, my responsibilities have been handed off, not dropped, and the website is not only in good hands with Jim Hutchinson, but it is primed for significant improvement and growth under his leadership. His skills, strengths, experiences and contacts, coupled with the time he's able to invest and the team he is able to build will drive the website to new heights that simply were not obtainable a few years ago. The new injection of ideas from everyone that has been coming on board recently will also make for a better overall end product.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
For now I remain involved with the website, collaborating with Jim Matson and Jim Hutchinson to provide direction and oversight. I hope to see some of my ideas and visions for the site become reality (and somewhat ironically, I have more reason to believe that they will now). I move into this new role and this new era for the website with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can’t shake my deep sense of having so much unfinished business. On the other hand, if asked if I succeeded in leaving things better than I found them, I think I can proudly look back at what was achieved over the past eight years and confidently say that I did. For those for whom the website was and is intended to recognize, serve and benefit—the past, present, and future D-III soccer student-athletes and their families, coaches, programs, schools, alumni and fans—I sure hope so. I gave it my best shot and then some. The stewardship of the website has now passed hands and I am confident that Jim Hutchinson and the team he is assembling will be great caretakers and the website will prosper. For me, it’s Daddy time! Now where are those lil' weasels?
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Christan Shirk.