NORTHFIELD — Travis Wall already had his car pointed toward Salem, Va., on Wednesday as he headed from Ohio to meet the St. Olaf men's soccer team there for the Division III championships this weekend.
"I'm not blowing smoke," Wall said. "I'm their biggest fan, you know?"
Wall is the first-year head coach at Kenyon College, about 50 miles northeast of Columbus, Ohio. Before that, he was St. Olaf's men's coach for four seasons. He moved to Ohio because both he, a Columbus native and Ohio Wesleyan graduate, and his fiancée are from the state.
It was easy to tell over the phone that he left part of his heart in Northfield.
With the help of assistant coach Justin Oliver, Wall took the Oles program from 9-10 in 2019 to 19-3-1 in 2021 to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in the Division III tournament. But when the opportunity to return home came, he couldn't resist.
Wall turned the program over to Oliver, who played at North St. Paul High and spent a year at St. Thomas. With a roster full of players they both recruited, the Oles took the next step this season by reaching the D-III Final Four. The 11th-ranked Oles face No. 18 Washington College (Md.) on Friday at 2 p.m. in a national semifinal.
"Coach Wall is one of the best coaches in the entire country, regardless of level," Oliver said, "and this has more to do with him than probably anyone else, to be honest with you."
They instilled a new work ethic, such as adding 7 a.m. offseason weightlifting sessions to the schedule. As they assembled the roster, they took advantage of St. Olaf's academic standing and attractiveness to international students to mine talent. St. Olaf is not the first school to go the international route, but it sure has clicked for them. Victor Gaulmin, a forward with 16 goals and 10 assists, is from Brest, France. Hakeem Morgan, who has nine goals and four assists, is from San Jose, Costa Rica, and has played for the Ticos' Under-23 team. That's a few degrees difference in temperature.
"All right, I hate the winter and I hate the snow," laughed Morgan, an economics major. "When we are playing soccer, it is not so bad."
The roster also includes players from Australia, Chile, Indonesia and Canada.
"Travis Wall and myself, we were very intentional about the way we were building this team and revamping the program," Oliver said. "Our locker room is such a melting pot of cultures where whoever gets on the aux cord first, we are going to be hearing some lovely music."
Gaulmin usually is the DJ on bus rides, so French music spills out of the speakers "that no one but him understands," Oliver joked. Morgan takes over at times and plays Latin music and hip hop, while there are occasional outbreaks of country and pop music. Gaulmin, who spoke little English upon his arrival, has even picked up some Spanish.
"I listen to a lot of Spanish music because Hakeem has put me on it," said Gaulmin, a kinesiology major.
With their blend of music, language and soccer, these two have powered the Oles to within one win of playing for the national championship. They reached the regional title game last weekend on Morgan's dramatic header off a throw-in in the 88th minute to defeat University of Chicago 2-1.
Now they face Washington College, which played Wall's Kenyon College team earlier in the season. The scouting report is taken care of.
Some familiar faces will be in the stands Saturday as St. Olaf chases its first championship. Morgan's family is expected to fly up from Costa Rica. Gaulmin's father and brother are traveling from France.
And the coach who brought them to St. Olaf and later handed the keys to a well-oiled machine to his assistant will be in attendance, too.
"I had to make a pretty impossible decision to leave a place that I love," Wall said, "and a bunch of guys I love to think about. Justin was with me since Day One, and that made it easier to leave."