SEASON PREVIEW: 2015 women’s soccer

By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications

Head coach: Greg Henson (24-12-6, two years)
2014 Record: 15-3-4 overall; 6-0-4 GPAC (2nd); GPAC tournament champs
Key Returners: D Jeannelle Condame; MF Madison Hawkins; GK Chrissy Lind; D Katrina Muther; F Jessica Skerston; MF Esther Soenksen
Key Newcomers: MF Kaylee Brown; MF Maria Deeter; D Ashley Martin; D Michaela Stevens
Key Losses: F Meredith Hein, D Rachel Mussell; D Marcie Sindt; MF Ashlie Sklenicka; MF Melissa Stine
2014 GPAC All-Conference: Rachel Mussell (first team); Melissa Stine (first team); Jessica Skerston (first team); Marcie Sindt (second team); Madison Hawkins (honorable mention); Chrissy Lind (honorable mention); Katrina Muther (honorable mention); Ashlie Sklenicka (honorable mention)

The 2015 Concordia women’s soccer squad is faced with the unenviable task of following up the 2014 Concordia women’s soccer team. Last year’s Bulldogs accomplished several program firsts – first to win the GPAC tournament, first to go unbeaten against GPAC opponents, first to achieve a national ranking and first to reach the national tournament. They also set single-season school records for wins (15), shutouts (12) and fewest goals allowed (19).

Third-year head coach Greg Henson now must retool his lineup after the graduation of first team all-conference performers Rachel Mussell and Melissa Stine and second team all-conference choice Marcie Sindt. They were part of a talented seven-member senior class, but the holdovers are teeming with confidence after the high of last fall. Henson has put 2014 in the rearview mirror.

Said Henson, “That’s what makes college athletics so much fun. Every year you have to turn the page and start the new chapter. We say goodbye to seven great seniors who were very impactful in our program. We spent the offseason learning how to play without them and getting along without them and getting ready for this fall. I don’t know if the offseason is ever that much different. Obviously we felt a little bit better. As soon as we got back onto the field it’s back to work and you’ve got to get the job done.”

Henson will lean upon senior captains in holding midfielder Madison Hawkins and outside back Katrina Muther for leadership. The two have played in a combined 88 career games and possess the most experience on the squad. Hawkins, although not flashy, has been an important figure in the middle of the field. Muther returns for her fifth year of a career that has been limited at times by injury. Concordia went 9-1-4 last season with the Rockford, Ill., native in the lineup.

A follow up to that kind of success will be difficult to come by, but Hawkins believes strongly in the new-look 2015 edition.

“There are seniors gone, but having actually gone to nationals now completely changes what you really expect,” Hawkins said. “You might say every single year that we want to go to nationals and win the GPAC conference. You’re not that disappointed if it doesn’t happen. This year we’re going in wanting and expecting to go to nationals.”

That optimism can be traced in part to the goal-scoring talents and goalkeeping ability on board the roster, namely sophomore Jessica Skerston and junior Chrissy Lind. A native of Colorado Springs, Colo., Lind just began playing soccer as a junior in high school but has rapidly improved her game. She already holds program records for shutouts in a single season (10) and career (13). She posted an impressive .710 goals against average in 2014.

Although Mussell and Sindt, former center back stalwarts, have departed, Lind’s work ethic suggests her best is yet to come.

“She’s still relatively new to the game and how far she’s come in such a short period of time is a testament to her work ethic,” Henson said. “We’re not worried about setting records and all-conference awards and things of that nature. She does a great job back there for us to put us in positions to win games. That’s the unique thing with the goalkeeping position is she can never win a game for us. She can only put us in a position to win a game and she does that game-in and game-out.”

On the attacking end of the field, Skerston supplies plenty of firepower. Last season she totaled 17 goals (third in the GPAC). Her eight game-winning goals represented a program record and was the third-highest figure among all NAIA soccer players. After scoring 32 goals as a senior at Lutheran High School in St. Charles, Mo., Skerston quickly adapted to the college level.

Opposing coaches may have been unfamiliar with No. 12 early on last season, but that has changed.

“Now she has to come out and continue to improve,” Henson said. “She’s not going to surprise anybody anymore. Everyone knows who she is in the conference. She’s got to continue to work and progress and follow this up with a solid sophomore season. There’s no pressure there either. Soccer is a team sport. Every year somebody has to step up.”

Skerston was the headliner for what proved to be a productive freshman class in 2014. Fellow sophomore Esther Soenksen started all 22 games in the midfield and chipped in four goals and three assists. Another key member of the class, outside back Jeannelle Condame tallied three goals and three assists while playing in every game (19 starts).

This year’s group of freshmen includes Seward native Maria Deeter, a first team all-state performer at Lincoln Lutheran High School. Others such as midfielder Kaylee Brown (Fort Collins, Colo.) and defenders Ashley Martin (Longmont, Colo.) and Michaela Stevens (Mesa, Ariz.) also bring the potential to make an immediate impact.

“We have a class of 11 players coming in,” Henson said. “It’s a good class all the way through. We’re looking for several of them to step in and make an impact right away. Maria Deeter was great as a high school player and at the select level with OFC up in Omaha. When you have a player of that level that’s in your backyard, you can’t allow them to get away without at least throwing the recruiting pitch at them. We’re really happy to have her here.”

The arrival of Deeter and company coupled with the return of several key components means Concordia’s talent level will not suffer in 2015. The question centers upon whether this bunch of Bulldogs can bottle up that extra special something that the 2014 team had. Says Hawkins, “I want us to have fun and find out who we are as a team without last year’s seniors and, with the incoming freshmen, take our team to a whole new level. We want to become our own team.”

The 2015 Bulldogs again aspire to use the defensive-minded approach that produced unprecedented results for a program that enters its 20th year of existence. Despite key losses in the back four, Henson says that team goals remain unchanged.

“The expectations haven’t really changed,” Henson said. “When I took the position in 2013, our goal was to get to the national tournament. We fell short of that in my first year and last year obviously we achieved that goal. I think now it’s just continuing to take the steps necessary to get back there and reach those goals.”

Concordia begins its GPAC tournament title defending season on Aug. 26 when Bethel College (Kan.) visits Bulldog Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. kickoff. After going 2-0 against Hastings last season, the Bulldogs put their series win streak with the Broncos on the line on Sept. 30 when the two sides meet in Hastings.