Hardaway soccer coach Rick Iden has always felt like his team had a chance to win. No matter who the game is against or where it is played, he’s never felt like his players couldn’t take the field and make a run at a victory.
The year was 2009, and the Hawks were traveling to face Glynn Academy nearly five hours away in Brunswick, Ga., in the first round of the state playoffs. Hardaway was the 3 seed, facing a team that had shut out nine of its opponents during the course of the regular season.
“It was just like, we didn’t have a chance and we had to go all the way across the state,” Iden remembered. “I just said I wasn’t going to worry about it. I’d ride the bus, I’d listen to my headphones, I may even take a nap. I just wasn’t going to worry about it. But the more we rode, the more ticked off I was.”
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So he started thinking. And thinking. And thinking some more.
“By the time we got there, I’d been thinking about some hair-brained thing we were going to do,” Iden said. “Sure enough, it worked like a charm.”
The Hawks won the game 2-1 and ended up advancing to the quarterfinals, where they lost to the eventual state runner-up, McIntosh High.
It reminded Iden of a lesson he’s learned over his 22 years coaching Hardaway.
“Don’t ever count these fools out,” he said. “Don’t ever think you’ve got it, but don’t ever think these fools are out of it. They always come through for me.”
The same can be said for Iden, who has announced he will retire at the end of the season. The Hawks begin play in the Class AAAAA playoffs against Ware County on Tuesday at Woodruff, weather permitting. (update, the game has been postponed. No makeup date has been announced.)
The veteran coach, who didn’t have a background in soccer when he took over the program, shared a familiar story Monday about how he got hooked up with the team.
Ken Chandler, the head football coach at the time, wanted his assistant coaches to be head coaches in another sport.
“I thought, man, baseball practice is too long. Basketball, well they play in the winter time and track, Lord, you have those marathon meets,” Iden explained. “I go out to watch a playoff soccer game one year and they got beat. I’m in the coach’s box saying, ‘They’re loaded with talent. I can’t screw this up no matter how hard I try.’ ”
Like his players, Iden didn’t disappoint.
From 1992-2014, he has compiled a 325-72-19 record, nine region titles, eight region runner-up, two state semifinals appearances, three quarterfinals appearances, 13 All-Bi-City players of the year and one state player of the year. One player competed on the U-17 national team and only one of his teams missed the state playoffs all together.
“I’ve had a great time,” he said. “I’ve had great kids. I guess that’s what has made it so easy, having that luxury. I’ve just been lucky to have the caliber of kids I’ve had. Even though things can change somewhat, they still have that inner thing about them.
“They come in and I guess maybe it’s something about the tradition. They just buy into what Hardaway soccer is all about.”
What it’s been about since he took over is a well-conditioned and intense team that, win or lose, is going to run the opposition ragged.
“I said the best thing I could do was to get out of their way,” Iden said. “But I was going to get them in shape and let them know I’m their coach. When it was time to turn it on, we turned it on. I was going to build that intensity. The harder I pushed, the more they responded.”
“He really didn’t know a lot about soccer when he started, to be honest,” Torrey Wiley, who played on Iden’s first team in ’93, said last year. “He knew we needed to run, so that’s what we did. A lot. We were in better shape than anyone we stepped on the field with. He knew about commitment.”
Iden, who is quick to credit those around him for the program’s success, did admit he was proud of the tradition he helped build and noted that the thought it helped other programs in the Columbus area, as well.
“We set ourselves up as a target,” he said. “People wanted to beat Hardaway. And I wasn’t kind, either. I was one of those guys, you know, if we are five goals better than our opponent, then I wanted them busting their butt to get goal No. 6. We were going to play to our level, not theirs.”
At the end of his career, Iden said he has mixed feelings. He knows it’s time, he said, but leaving his players still isn’t easy to do.
“Larry Gaither told me one time, he said, ‘You’ll know,’ ” Iden said of the longtime Hardaway golf coach. “And I know. It’s time. We won the region, and now anything else is just gravy for me.”
He’ll miss his time with his assistant coaches, like Chris Liesendahl who has been with him for 17 years, 16 of which have been with the soccer program.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Liesendahl of being without Iden next year. “What am I going to do? It’s almost like we’re Abbott and Costello at this point. I’m happy for him, but disappointed because I know what we’re losing. Hardaway is losing one of its all-time great coaches in any sport.”
Iden was equally complimentary of Liesendahl, who will continue under new head coach Kevin Orck next season. Orck and Iden also have a long history, playing football together at Kendrick High.
More than anything, Iden will miss the interaction with his players.
“That’s going to be hard,” he said. “I got a little choked up the other night before the region game. It’s here, the end. They don’t realize it right now, but this is going to mean something to them down the road. (My 300th win) didn’t mean all that much. What meant more was seeing the former players who came out. That’s what’s so special about coaching. I’ll miss that more than anything else. I don’t know where else you get to share that.”
Iden downplayed any thought of a win-one-for-the-Gipper situation in the playoffs.
“I want it for the kids, but I don’t need it as much for myself,” he said. “It’s all bonus time now. Now, let’s just have some fun and enjoy ourselves.”