In the fall of 2020, Concordia University Women’s Soccer returned to form while re-solidifying itself as one of the top programs in the GPAC. The abnormal fall season concluded on Nov. 14 when the Bulldogs celebrated a signature victory over eventual GPAC regular-season champion Briar Cliff. Inside a circle of smiling teammates, players took turns jumping into the middle and breaking out in dance routines.
Other than locking up a GPAC championship, this was the about the next best way to wrap things up for the fall. The victory was representative of the growth Concordia showed over a short period of time.
“I’ve been really proud of the girls,” said Head Coach Thomas Goines, who is in the midst of his first season with the Bulldogs. “They worked hard this fall. Through a season of ups and downs and unknowns, they’ve stayed as consistent and as focused as you could expect them to be. The big turnaround has really just been about the ability to focus and have that team mentality. We’ve been able to do that all year. It felt good to end the fall on a win.”
Most of the key performers for the 2020 team experienced the 0-6 start to a 2019 season that saw Concordia drop below the lofty standard the program had become known for. Members of the team will tell you that the record a year ago (6-11-2 overall) did not reflect the overall talent inside the program. Some tweaks here and there were really all that was needed to trend back towards the top of the conference standings.
As for the 2020 campaign, the Bulldogs found themselves at somewhat of a crossroads after suffering back-to-back defeats to begin the month of October. A 2-1 overtime win over Jamestown on Oct. 10 signaled a turning point. Concordia had found a way to beat an opponent that had ended its 2019 season in the GPAC quarterfinals (by a 4-0 score). Senior goalkeeper Lindsey Carley knows all about the swings of emotions and the coaching transitions that have occurred within the program in recent years.
“I’d say one of the biggest factors (in our success) is our team chemistry,” Carley said. “Last year we struggled with finding our identity as a team and this year we were really able to solidify who we are. That greatly contributed to our success on the field and it showed in both the offense and the defense. We also had a lot of players step up this year and fill in key roles that we were missing last year. Marty (Mikeila Martinez) stepped up and became our top goal scorer, which was what we easily missed the most last year. Overall, everyone was just really bought in this season.”
Carley and company went 6-0-1 over the final seven games of the fall and finished in a tie for second place in the GPAC (9-2-1 GPAC record). Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Bulldogs still had a shot at a share of the conference title. Not only did it tag Briar Cliff with its only loss of the fall, Concordia also defeated arch rival Hastings, 1-0, on Oct. 17.
As part of the closing seven-game stretch, Martinez and Cheyenne Smith produced a golden goal apiece and freshman Sydney Ross’ hustle resulted in the game-winner versus Hastings. There was also the 7-0 demolition of Doane and a 5-0 triumph at Presentation. Only a 2-2 draw at Midland (a game the Bulldogs led 2-0) stood in the way in an otherwise perfect fall finish.
Said Goines of that run, “I think it was mentality. It took those setbacks to really see what the character of this group was going to be – to find that confidence and who they are and what their game is. We were able to find some big wins and take it a match at a time against some very tough teams. The win over Hastings was a big point for us in the season. This team decided it was going to focus in and do the little things right. At that point forward it was a different season.”
Carley, Tori Cera and Michaela Twito had all been starters for the 2017 team that won the GPAC regular-season title with an undefeated (9-0-1) league record. Unfortunately, this year’s squad had to play without Cera (two-time first team All-GPAC) for an extended period until she returned for the win over Hastings. Her presence appeared to take the team to a higher level and give it a new surge of energy in the middle of the season.
This year’s team seems to have a little something extra, a little something that the 2019 team never quite unlocked. Twito believes Goines has played a central role in helping re-instill confidence that Concordia could beat anyone on its schedule.
Said Twito, “He will never admit it and always say that it is the players who do all the work, but Coach Goines has done amazing things for this program. We are fortunate to have the ultimate coaching staff. He is one of the best coaches I have trained under and will push you further than you want to be pushed sometimes. At the end of the day, he knows his stuff. He knows how to win games, he knows how to motivate and he knows soccer. I am grateful that he came to Concordia and saw this program as having potential.”
Twito also is thankful to God for the opportunity to enjoy a senior season that had been put in jeopardy by the COVID-19 virus. One of the more colorful personalities on the team, Twito is a competitor when she steps on the field. Both Carley and Twito are believers in this team after what they saw this fall. Particularly on the defensive end, the Bulldogs have shown they can completely take an opponent out of its game.
“Our team has gained our confidence back and remembers what we are capable of,” Twito said. “I am convinced that every girl on our team will go all out in practice and in games leading up to the tournament. I am looking forward to the spring season to come. The dogs are hungry.”
Carley came back for a fifth year in the program. After last season’s struggles, this will feel like a much more fitting way for the Urbandale, Iowa, native to go out. One of the top goalkeepers in program history, Carley says that members of the team “truly are a family” while also saying that “it definitely means a lot more when you’re winning with your friends and not just your teammates.”
As April draws nearer, the anticipation of again having the opportunity to host in the conference tournament will grow. “We beat a lot of really talented teams to close out our season and I think that’s very telling of our team’s potential to win the tournament this spring,” Carley said. “We dominated a majority of our games, which made my job pretty easy compared to prior years. If we continue at the level of play that we left off at, there’s no doubt in my mind we will make a big run in the tournament this spring.”
The GPAC tournament is set to get underway on April 3, 2021, as part of an unprecedented two-part season. Unofficially, the Bulldogs will be the No. 3 seed in the GPAC.
Said Goines, “It’s going to be a matter of how quickly we can get off the ground running and how soon we can get to our highest level of play. It’s the same challenge everyone will face. It’s going to be unique, but our focus will be on getting ourselves back physically and as clean as we can be heading into that first-round matchup.”