PREVIEW: Women’s soccer makes push for trip to Alabama

SEWARD, Neb. – The standards for Concordia women’s soccer keep on rocketing skyward as second-year head coach Greg Henson leads the program into its first-ever national tournament appearance. A layoff of eight days following their GPAC tournament title victory will end in Atchison, Kan., on Saturday when the 24th-ranked Bulldogs take on No. 9 Benedictine College. Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. from the BC Soccer Complex.

No. 24 Concordia (15-2-4) at No. 9 Benedictine (18-1)
Saturday, Nov. 22, 2 p.m.
Site: Atchison, Kan.
Facility: BC Soccer Complex (on campus)
Webcast: Livestream (Benedictine Sports Network)
General admission: $8 (visiting college students or 18 and under: $5) 

2014 NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championships bracket (PDF)

The extensive list of accomplishments, including a school record for wins (15) and shutouts (12) in a season, is beginning to sink in for a Bulldog program that had never even been to a conference title game in its previous 18 years of existence. Senior defender Marcie Sindt used the word “surreal” to describe the 1-0 national-tournament clinching win at No. 20 Hastings on Nov. 13.

Now anything seems possible. Concordia is riding high on a 13-game unbeaten streak (9-0-4) that includes eight shutouts.

“Making it to the national tournament has always been the goal,” Sindt said. “But I don't think it was until probably two or three weeks ago that we started looking at each other and thinking, ‘wow, we could actually do this.’ Cool things happen when you have a coach who believes in you. That’s when you start to believe in yourself.”

It’s safe to say that no Concordia women’s soccer team has ever had more belief in itself than the 2014 edition. Confidence is easy to come by when every team in your conference fails to defeat you. There’s also a comfort in knowing there are eight seniors, including six who started at Hastings last week, who have designs on extending their careers beyond Saturday.

“We have talked a lot about how we have achieved all of the goals we set out to at the beginning of the year, but it doesn't stop there,” senior Rachel Mussell said. “We have raised the bar now, and we are looking at continuing to raise it.”

Raising the bar even higher will come with another set of hurdles as the Bulldogs try to get past the champion from the Heart of America Athletic Conference. The powerful Ravens have knocked off Concordia seven-straight years and are making their third national tournament appearance. They’ve been here before and they will be playing on their home turf – where they have won 10 of 11 games this season.

Will the Bulldogs know how to emotionally handle the unfamiliar national stage?

“I think our emotions will be high,” senior Melissa Stine said. “We've never played a game with stakes so high. Regardless of our outcome though, we should all be proud at what we have accomplished this year and the standards we have set for future years. Our team has always taken every game at a time, never getting ahead of ourselves. I hope that we go into this game the very same, and just see it as another team and another game. If we play at the level we are capable of playing and leave it all on the field, we have nothing to fear.”

Interestingly, Benedictine’s only loss this season came at the hands of then No. 23 Hastings, 3-2, on Sept. 23. Since then the Ravens have won 10 games in a row, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 29-2.

Henson knows it will take the type of effort it took to beat Hastings twice this season. He likes how his team has responded mentally in the days since the momentous GPAC title win.

“Our players are extremely excited,” Henson said at Tuesday’s Bulldog Booster Club gathering. “They’re not getting ahead of their selves, but they’re talking about taking it another step. The program and the mindset of the team are in the right spot.”

The Bulldogs plan to arrive on the Benedictine campus at 12:30 p.m. on Friday in preparation for a 1 p.m. workout. An opening-round celebration banquet will be hosted at 6:30 p.m. at the Ferrell Academic Center for players, coaches and athletic personnel. Concordia will then spend Friday night in Atchison before kicking off the national tournament on Saturday.

The winner will advance to play either No. 8 Spring Arbor (Mich.) (18-1-1) or AIB (Iowa) (12-6-2) in the second round of the national tournament. All rounds following the opening round will be played at the Orange Beach Sportsplex in Orange Beach, Ala.

What the Bulldogs are saying

Rachel Mussell
I don't think I have ever felt as excited about something in my sports career as I was about winning the GPAC championship game. It's hard to describe the feeling other than complete exhilaration. I think it has begun to sink in, especially as we have continued to practice and have begun to talk about the plans for the weekend.

I think it has been a very special experience to accomplish all of this as a team as a senior. We have been through a lot together as a class, and the journey is something that I think has prepared us to continue to fight to achieve our goals. There is something to be said when you have eight girls leading a team and playing to keep their soccer careers alive, and I think that is where we are all at. We don't want this season to end yet, and we are playing like that.

Benedictine will be another tough opponent in a season that has been filled with tough opponents. It definitely gives us some confidence knowing that we have beaten Hastings twice this season, and I think we can also bring confidence in from the fact that we are very battle tested and don't know what it means to quit. It is always nice seeing how a team has done against other teams, but at the end of the day what matters is that we do all of the things that have brought us to this point. When we do that, we will be successful.

Marcie Sindt
It's hard to describe what the feeling (of winning the GPAC title) was like. When we got to the 90th minute I was experiencing the moment with all my best friends. That's what makes it so special. 

It has been an incredible journey. Throughout the entire season we had to work for every match, we never had an easy result handed to us. It was hard work, but that's what makes the accomplishment that much sweeter.

Emotions will be high but we are going to treat it like any other game. We're going to focus on the things we've been doing all year to make us successful, and the rest will work itself out.

Melissa Stine
Through the excitement, the mindset has been just focused on the game we have coming, and preparing to play. We've kept our schedules open all week for all our different practice plans due to the turf being covered in snow. Everyone has been so cooperative. It hasn't been difficult to focus at all. Winning the GPAC and being able to go to nationals is more than we could've ever imagined doing, and we want to play our best and looking to advance. 

As for making it (to the national tournament) my senior year, I could not ask for a better way to end my college career. I'm so proud of this team and what we have accomplished this year. I'm not sure any words can describe the feeling I've had knowing we're going to nationals. I’m just so blessed to be able to be given this opportunity I get to experience with my best friends.