Only one of Concordia University’s athletic programs is in the midst of a head coaching transition during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Announced as head coach of Bulldog women’s soccer in December, Thomas Goines has had the luxury of precious few organized training sessions with his new team. Before student-athletes were sent home, Goines had been planning on seeing his squad scrimmage the weekend after spring break.
It’s now the ultimate adjust-on-the-fly situation. Currently, Goines is situated in his home state of Indiana along with his wife Melissa and their three children. Goines is doing his best to get to know the players during “life in isolation,” the terminology used on the team’s social media accounts.
“It’s going to be one of the most unique fall seasons I’ve ever had,” Goines said. “You can always start working with your culture and we’ve been doing that since day one. We want that caring culture and the desire for competition, and the effort has to be there. We were able to do some of that and at least talk about it. We’ve been working together virtually now, but we don’t have that chance to see them play 11 to a side during this whole time.”
In other words, it’s hard to assess the level of this team from a competitive standpoint, but spirits are optimistic. Goines has put a stamp on the program by investing time and energy into social media platforms (such as Instagram and TikTok) that have given followers a window into individual personalities. The latest TikTok video featured members of the team showing off what’s inside their fridges – like stuffed animals and even a live cat (we trust that no animals were harmed in the making of this video).
Goines will be the third different head coach for some of the veteran players on the roster. He follows Chris Luther, who stepped into the head role for the 2019 campaign after Greg Henson vacated the position to move to Ferris State University. Luther is back in his previous role as lead assistant. Goines certainly understands the environment at Concordias. He graduated from Concordia-Wisconsin, earned a master’s degree from Concordia-Irvine and was the head coach at Concordia-Chicago for four years.
“It comes down to your relationships with players,” Goines says of what he’s missing most right now. “Every player has different ways they want to be communicated with. As a former athlete, I built relationships with some of my best friends in training on the field through a shared experience you love doing. The championships and goals you have are built in those moments. Now we have to move on and try to do some of those things virtually. We’re getting to know each other as much as we can and technology is allowing us to do it.”
While last season the Bulldogs slipped to 6-11-2 overall, the program is not at all far removed from being a championship contender. It played in five-straight GPAC tournament title games from 2014 through 2018 while winning a total of three GPAC championships during that stretch. Returning All-GPAC selections such as seniors-to-be in defender Tori Cera (first team), goalkeeper Lindsey Carley (second team) and midfielder Michaela Twito (second team) understand what it’s like to play in big games.
Under these circumstances, they are showing how their talents extend to realms off the field. They’re kicking around soccer balls – and toilet paper – in in-home social media challenges. Graduate assistant Andrea Borray Ortiz has played a critical role in the team’s social media outreach.
“There’s an endless opportunity for Internet challenges and different things like it,” Goines said. “It’s hard to be original, but you always try to put your own spin on different things. The kids have been great. They have really jumped on board and have thought of some fun things. Andrea has taken on the task of creating some of that material and those videos. Our athletes have been phenomenal. We want to remain relevant and allow people to see who we are and allow our team to stay connected.”
Technology is also making it easier to track home workouts that are shared among teammates, providing for peer accountability. Weekly video conferences have been used for group chats within the team and Goines continues to make regular contact through phone calls and texts. Goines says the discussions cover “everything under the sun,” and not just soccer.
How the team navigates this strange new world could have a significant impact on what transpires in the fall. Says Goines, “Every team in the country is dealing with what we’re dealing with right now. No one’s at training. No one’s at practice. The difference between us and them could be what we do individually. As a group they have a chance to grow and show some maturity. I’ve been happy with what we’ve seen so far.”
The health pandemic is also having a big impact on recruiting for college soccer coaches. With high school soccer seasons occurring in the spring, this is normally a time for evaluating prospective college athletes. Instead, recruiting has become more of a grind. Goines says he’s making more phone calls to make up for the lack of face-to-face contact with coaches and recruits. He also credited his assistant coaches for their roles in the process.
If all goes according to plan, the team will reunite physically in August for preseason camp. That’s when the evaluation period will begin in earnest. There will be no time to waste as Goines puts his vision into place. He expects to have a competitive squad in 2020.
“I think there’s more talent here as a starting point than in any program I’ve gone to,” Goines said. “The attitude is right. There’s a desire to win and the ability to win. They’ve bought into the idea that they need to take care of themselves and their fitness in order to compete at the highest level. Those are some of the things you instill early. I’m expecting us to be competitive and I see the ability to do some special things because we’ve got special players on this team.”