First-year Creighton men's soccer coach Johnny Torres 'up for the challenge' of rebuilding Jays

Jays legend Johnny Torres is taking over a team that’s missed the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row, something that hadn’t happened here since the program’s infantile stages three decades ago. “Our program’s history dictates what kind of standard we have at Creighton,” said Torres.

They call it the roundtable. Right in the middle of the expansive plot of green turf that Creighton’s soccer team will soon patrol from end to end, the entire group circles up at the start of practice — and again once it’s over.

The players, the coaches, the trainers, everybody. Arms get draped over each other’s shoulders. Eyes focus in on the speaker.

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It’s the Jays’ chance to motivate, to inspire, to challenge, to grow. They can share their grievances or heap some praise. First-year coach Johnny Torres got the idea from one of his youth soccer teams long ago.

“We start and end as a family. That’s the idea,” senior defender Bryce Gibson said. “I’ve loved how things are trending to a culture-based team. That’s big for us.”

If there’s a defining characteristic of Torres’ approach during the first few months on the job, that would be it.

The Creighton legend, hired last fall, is taking over a team that’s missed the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row, something that hadn’t happened here since the program’s infancy three decades ago. The Jays will begin this 2019 campaign outside the preseason Top 25 for the second straight year — they were ranked in all but one of the debut coaches polls from 2008 to 2017 (CU made two College Cups in that span).

So Torres has a restoration project on his hands.

“Our program’s history dictates what kind of standard we have at Creighton,” said Torres, a former two-time national player of the year who was a member of CU’s first College Cup team in 1996. “I think once (the players) are educated on our history and they understand what it is they’re embarking on to be part of this program, now we can hold them up to those standards that we’re looking for.”

But it’s a shared responsibility.

Because inevitably (and repeatedly) this sport will isolate each member of the 11 selected to furiously attack for goals or vivaciously defend against a score. The final result is so often defined by an individual moment of brilliance or folly — but you can’t lose the collaborative spirit.

The players say that Torres has exemplified this sense of selflessness for years. After all, he recruited many of them to CU. Gibson first met Torres on his campus visit. Junior Kuba Polat’s first contact with CU came on a Skype call with Torres.

“He’s the kind of person who takes a lot of pride in making sure that people are OK,” Polat said.

Said Gibson: “He has a care for others that helps him break down barriers.”

His players are trying to emulate that same spirit — and the hope is, it’ll show up on the field.

When they’re sprinting back on defense and working together to properly realign themselves. When they’re trying to creatively produce scoring chances. When they fall behind by a goal. When they take a frustrating loss.

Torres is eager to see it. The Jays’ first opportunity on the field came Saturday, when they played Bradley to a 1-1 draw in their first exhibition game in Peoria, Illinois.

The Jays trailed 1-0 at halftime, but Luke Haakenson finished a counter-attack to tie it in the 63rd minute.

Creighton will play two more exhibitions this week, both at Morrison Stadium. The Jays face Missouri State on Wednesday at 7 p.m. before taking on Illinois Chicago at 1 p.m. Saturday.

There’s a long way to go, though. Plenty of sleepless nights await — Torres admitted he’s already had a few. But he sees great potential.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any added pressure,” Torres said. “I’m enjoying every day. I think the guys are enjoying it. We’re up for the challenge.”

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