In more ways than one, the 2019 season proved different than the past several for the Concordia University women’s soccer program. The Bulldogs were hit with some early challenges – a head coaching change in July and then what was likely the program’s most challenging nonconference schedule it ever faced. Staff and players also had to figure out how to make up for the graduation of the likes of Maria Deeter and Martin twins, Ashley and Lauren, among others.
After serving previous head coach Greg Henson as an assistant in 2018, Chris Luther stepped into the head role this past fall (he will return to an assistant position moving forward).
“We had to lead by example,” Luther said. “Through the transition we knew that if we freaked out as a staff and acted like the schedule would be a monster to overcome, the girls would feed negatively off that energy. We had a lot of discussions as a staff about being consistent, being positive and staying true to the process. There were obviously some speedbumps. We talked constantly about trusting the process.”
The season ultimately finished with a 4-0 loss at Jamestown in the quarterfinals of the GPAC tournament. That result was out of character for a Bulldog team that often competed closely with the top teams in the league. Concordia carried a degree of momentum into the postseason by claiming wins over Doane and Dakota Wesleyan to close out the regular season. The overall mark at the end of the line stood at 6-11-2.
That record fell below the standard set by recent Bulldog squads, such as the 2014, 2016 and 2017 groups that each celebrated GPAC championships. However, this ’19 bunch can be proud of the way it hung together after an 0-6 start that included a road trip to Arkansas where it took on two nationally-ranked opponents.
“One thing our upperclassmen always brought was a nose-to-the-grindstone type of effort,” Luther said when discussing the leadership of the juniors and seniors. “That’s something that Coach Henson always preached – having that blue collar mentality. They brought such consistency every day and led by example with their attitude and energy levels.”
It makes sense that battle-tested veterans like goalkeeper Lindsey Carley, Tori Cera, Morgan Raska, Michaela Twito and others would exude the type of confidence it takes to compete with other perennially strong programs in the league like Hastings and Midland. (Each of those standouts have tasted plenty of success.) Concordia fell in double overtime at then 14th-ranked Hastings in mid-October and defeated Briar Cliff at a time when the Chargers were 6-1 in league play.
In a season that certainly had some frustrations, there were also moments of joy. Back on Sept. 21, members of the team gained a new perspective when the Fritz & Friends organization (promotes awareness for Duchene muscular dystrophy) visited campus on game day. Fritz Krieger (who has Duchene and is son of a Bulldog women’s soccer alum) served as honorary captain that day. Concordia defeated Northwestern, 1-0. Said Carley afterwards, “You could definitely tell on the field that we were all playing for something a little extra today. It was a very special win.”
Additionally, the reaction of Twito to her own golden goal in the 3-2 double overtime victory over Doane was priceless. Twito’s header made for plenty of smiles on a chilly night that wound up being the final home game in the careers of six seniors. There surely were plenty of other memorable moments made along the ride – like the really long ride to Jamestown.
“My No. 1 reason for being in coaching always has been the relationships,” Luther said. “The bus trips are always a blast. There are so many different personalities on the team. Being at a different level with the girls in that sense was really enjoyable. We had a really good coaching staff with our GA’s in Andrea (Borray Ortiz) and Adam (Lewis). They’re just quality people. Working with all the different personalities is really a lot of fun.”
Cera shined brightest as a first team all-conference selection while Carley and Twito were named to the GPAC’s second team. The Bulldogs struggled at times to put the ball in the back of the net, but some late tweaks helped make a difference. Concordia posted a season high four goals in the regular-season finale at Dakota Wesleyan.
The 2019 roster featured a freshman class of 12 and many had the opportunity to see quality minutes throughout the fall. In terms of playing time, the most prominent among them were Aliyah Aldama, Jaiden Beecher, Allee Downing, Ellie Eason, Kaley Heinz and Grace Soenksen. One of five siblings to score a goal as a Concordia soccer player, Soenksen collected honorable mention All-GPAC honors in her rookie season.
“We always preach taking the opportunities when you get them,” Luther said. “Grace was living proof of that. She comes off the bench (during the early-season trip to Arkansas) and ends up winning a starting job and works her tail off. It’s a work ethic from the Soenksen clan that we’re used to seeing.”
Also an assistant professor of health and human performance at Concordia, Luther took on an increased role that he had not expected to come about. It was a selfless move on his part that made for greater continuity moving into the 2019 preseason.
“I knew the program and had the year with Greg, which was invaluable,” Luther said. “Obviously there were some philosophical differences, but as far as team function and team operation we knew there would be benefit in keeping the consistency of that. I think it made the transition a little smoother.”
Looking ahead to 2020, the Bulldogs will have a new head coach on board. Concordia was not far off from being a conference championship team in 2018, and with a talented roster coming back, there’s plenty of reason to think optimistically for 2020. The new leader of the program will have an opportunity this coming spring to assess the roster and lay the groundwork for next fall.