Editor’s note: This article was published before Ashland University’s first-round NCAA Tournament game at home Thursday night. The Eagles beat Michigan Tech, 3-0, for their 18th shutout in 22 games this season. It was AU’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2004 and advanced the Eagles to play Cedarville in Ashland at 3 p.m. Saturday. 

ASHLAND — With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like Cayleb Paulino arrived as sunshine in a hurricane for the Ashland University women’s soccer program.

Leading the Eagles into the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year on Thursday night, the head coach landed at AU in the summer of 2021. It was essentially days before the start of the season following the abrupt departure of three-year head coach Taylor Clarke.

Clarke won 32 of his 51 games piloting Ashland, but he took an offer to become an assistant coach at Division I Bowling Green State University, and AU had to scramble for a fix.

Typically afforded more time to find a replacement head coach, it had to feel like borderline mayhem for AU director of athletics Al King to try to plug in a talented successor.

He said in most coaching searches he has a list of people in mind – at least a baseline of where to start.

For this situation?

“I didn’t have anybody,” King said. “It was a few days before (the team) came to camp. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to try to go with an interim coach.’ And then I interviewed a couple guys and it just wasn’t going to work.”

The pace of the search had to be somewhat frenetic. The Eagles had plenty of talent returning from back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament under Clarke and boasted eight consecutive winning seasons.

King was calling retired coaches and former graduate assistants, practically knocking on doors to at least find a one-season solution. In the midst of it, he was getting emails about the job every other day from a guy neither he nor anyone else in the Ashland athletic department had ever heard of.

It was Paulino, a 32-year-old former soccer player at Division III Wilmington College. He had accrued a decade of assistant men’s and women’s coaching experience during stops at Defiance College and Ohio Northern University but had never even interviewed for a head coaching job.

He was so persistent that King said he finally reached out to ONU head coach Mark Batman (now the women’s head coach at the University of Toledo) to get Paulino’s background.

Batman had been close with the late former Ashland coach Danny Krispinsky, a 2002 Ashland High School graduate who preceded Clarke. He said he would hate to lose Paulino, but knowing AU’s history and the passion Krispinsky had for the program, he felt Paulino was a guy who would thrive and simply needed a shot as a head coach.

Three years later, Paulino carries a 47-5-10 career record into Thursday’s 6 p.m. NCAA Tournament opener against Michigan Tech at Ferguson Field. The Eagles pushed past Michigan Tech in first round of NCAA Tournament, 3-0.

The Eagles are ranked No. 2 in the country with an unbeaten 17-0-4 mark.

“I got the job five days before (the players) moved in,” Paulino said. “It was more or less the name game and figuring out who everybody was and trying not to freak everybody out by changing everything dramatically, because they were already a really good program.”

“I inherited an unbelievable legacy here,” he said. “(Krispinsky) coached a lot of the kids who were seniors my first year, that was the legacy he left is he wanted this group to be competitive at the highest level.”

When he arrived, Paulino’s knowledge of Ashland wasn’t much deeper than seeing the sign off the highway on his way to Cleveland. Things came together so fast that he said he found out he got the job while on vacation, hardly typical for an AU athletics department known nationally for its immense coaching talents across the board.

That first season, he commuted four hours round-trip from Lima while his wife, Alexandria, was at home raising 1- and 3-year-old daughters.

Somehow, Paulino and the Eagles found a way to win the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (12-0-2) and its tournament in their first year in the league, hosted their NCAA Tournament regional and finished 15-2-3 in what was the program’s best season since 2004.

“He had so much going on (that first year), it’s amazing he could keep his wits about him and coach like he did,” King said. “… It’s incredible we did as well as we did with having to fill everything together like that.”

Current Eagles junior and former Ashland High School standout McKinley Mendenhall said it felt like a whirlwind from the players’ perspective as well.

“It was definitely a lot for both the players and for him starting my freshman year,” she said. “No one knew who he was, he didn’t know any of the players, so it was a lot to kind of figure out who we were as a team and we had to figure that out together.”

As things settled in, Paulino and his family moved to the Shelby area, with his wife (also a former soccer player at Wilmington) becoming a teacher for Ashland City Schools.

The Eagles, meanwhile, settled back in as a squad as well. Despite graduating 13 players from the 2021 team, AU matched its win total last fall at 15-3-3, repeated as GMAC champs and returned to the NCAA Tournament.

It all helped lay the groundwork for this year, which has seen Ashland win its most games (17) in almost two decades while also garnering the nation’s No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history for a six-week stretch.

“Everybody wants to write the article and storm the field (after the No. 1 ranking), and I think we’ve managed it really, really well,” Paulino said. “But (at this point), I think that kind of recognition at the national stage is past us and we’re just trying to move forward and try to get the best out of our group.”

The coach said this year’s squad is one of the deepest in the country; for a while, he had 24 players mixing into games. Monitoring minutes and keeping fresh legs so the team doesn’t “crawl to the finish line” of the season, as Paulino puts it, is part of the reason Ashland is outscoring its opponents a jaw-dropping 50-4 for the year thus far.

For all intents and purposes, the Eagle defense is the best in the country. They feature the highest shutout percentage (no goals allowed in 17 of 21 games), and goalies Mackenzie Simon and Maddie Dolenga have a combined 69 saves with a nation-leading 0.19 goals-against average.

Midfielder Merrik Mihalek was named the GMAC Defensive Player of the Year and the offense has goals from 13 players, paced by GMAC first-team forward Dani Hicks (nine goals – including four game-winners – and six assists).

Freshman and Loudonville High School graduate Sydney Polen, who like Mendenhall has scored five goals this fall, said the expectations for everyone are all on the table when playing for Paulino.

“Our game plans are so different from anything I’ve ever experienced, but it’s because he’s so knowledgeable and does so much work off the field watching film and talking to other coaches,” she said. “He prepares us for every game, it’s just a matter of if we go out and execute.”

The Eagles are doing it with a roster balanced with talent in every class that features transfers, athletes from four different states and a good mix of contributing locals in Mendenhall, Polen, Adi Turnbaugh (Ontario) and Phyllis Stanfield (Madison).

The next step for Paulino and Ashland is making a postseason run. While they have made the NCAA Tournament five straight seasons now, the Eagles haven’t gotten past the first round since winning a pair of tournament games in 2004.

They will be hosting their regional at Ferguson Field for the second time in three seasons, where they are an unbeaten 17-0-2 since a double-overtime defeat to Drury in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Last year, AU lost its opener in the ninth shootout round to a Ferris State team that advanced all the way to the final four.

“This is why we took the job,” Paulino said. “We knew this could be a place where you could win, because of the resources we have, the people that we have, the culture that we’ve created.

“I’m excited for the group and where we’re at, but I don’t think that we can be satisfied.”

Mendenhall said it’s clear her coach wants the best for the Eagles as players and individuals on and off the field.

King said he’s ecstatic to see what that hasty coaching search from a few summers ago has turned into. He praised Paulino for his vision and high standards, and his tactical, perfectionist approach to the game.

“It shows you that you really should be open in all these coaching searches,” King said. “He hadn’t interviewed for a job, he wasn’t on the radar and look how good he’s been.

“When he came in here, I said to him, ‘I think this program can take off and be a national contender – that’s the goal.’ That’s what he was asked to do … and here we are in the third straight year in the NCAA playoffs.”

Doug Haidet is a 17-year resident of Ashland. He wrote sports in some capacity for the Ashland Times-Gazette from 2006 to 2018. He lives with his wife, Christy, and son, Murphy.