May 1, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Anna Kuzan credits a college coach for turning her off to playing college sports, specifically soccer, her favorite sport growing up.
She actually can thank the same coach at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for unwittingly turning her on to what would become her niche and current career path.
“I didn’t care for the coach so I ended up playing intramurals and I got into a lot of different sports,” said Kuzan, Georgia Tech softball’s strength and conditioning coach (she serves men’s and women’s swimming and diving in a similar capacity). “All my time was spent in the weight room because I liked the people in there and I liked learning, I liked being around it.
“I developed a love for being in the weight room all the time and getting stronger and the passion of working with athletes, their drive to perform at a higher level,” she added. “I liked that. I didn’t want to take the route of a personal trainer because I’m too intense for that. My intensity level fits more with athletes.”
Her intensity was just what the doctor — actually head coach Sharon Perkins — sought for her team.
“[Coach Perkins’] main goal was to build mental toughness,” recalled Kuzan, a 25-year-old native of La Crosse, Wisc. “I did that by having the girls come in early in the morning, in the colder weather and we would still get after it. Nobody wants to get up at 6:00 a.m. and run in 40-degree weather, but they did it and they did well.”
That introduction to the team easily could have gone the way her introduction to college soccer went, turning off the team before they’d even gotten to know her.
Instead, the team was all in. That cemented their relationship and the investment in Kuzan’s philosophy and her training program has paid off in the weight room and on the field.
“We have gotten bigger. That’s just a physical awareness that you can see with us,” said senior Kate Kuzma. “But we’re mentally tough as well. We do a lot of 6 a.m. (running) so we’re waking up at like 5:00, 5:15. Last year we didn’t really run out in the cold. This year it didn’t matter if it was below freezing. We were out there running. Obviously, you’re going to hear some gripes but it was like, ‘Hey, we could definitely play in this.”
Kuzan, who interned at NC State before being hired by Director of Olympic Sports Player Development Scott McDonald, credited Perkins and her staff for getting the players prepared for what was coming and the character of the team for being open-minded to her approach and determined to fight through.
“I think the coaches did a good job setting that up for me as well,” she said. “The girls always had a great attitude. They always knew that I was here for improving them and they bought into everything I said and did everything I asked. I was fortunate to come into a good group.”
Tech was very good on the field, finishing the regular season 33-21, 12-8 in the ACC (tied for third with Virginia Tech, which the Yellow Jackets beat in the season’s final series).
As important, the team’s improved mental toughness showed on the field, as the Jackets bore through a tough non-conference slate, then won four of its final six series in ACC play.
They reeled off a 12-game winning streak and are playing some of their best ball heading into next week’s ACC Tournament. Even though the team had a two-week hiccup, when it lost four straight games at Florida State and North Carolina, it should be noted that of the four losses three were by one run and the other by two.
This team is tough, physically and mentally, a testament to the work with Kuzan, who may be the players’ biggest fan. On the coldest morning, on the toughest run they knew she had their back.
“I was cheering for them, bringing attention to the other girls on the team that may not see their progress,” she said.
Kuzan couldn’t sight one story of achievement that stood out but was able to point to a specific area the team made tremendous improvement. Fittingly, it was the team’s ability pull itself up.
“At the beginning of the season none of the girls could do a pull-up,” she recalled. “By Christmas, before they left for the fall, everyone was able to do at least one or more. That carried on. Now, some girls are doing eight pull-ups and some are getting like five consistently over sets.
“They see that progress, and I just get excited for them,” she said. “They see that excitement and they get excited for each other for accomplishing things they never thought they could.”
It’s the kind of belief system that is sure to help in upcoming postseason play.