Head coach: Greg Henson (70-25-11, three GPAC titles, sixth year)
2017 Record: 15-2-4 overall; 9-0-1 GPAC (1st); GPAC tournament runner up
Key Returners: D Chelsea Bright; GK Lindsey Carley; MF Tori Cera; MF Maria Deeter; D Ashley Martin; MF Lauren Martin; F Kaitlyn Radebaugh; D Taylor Roby; MF Michaela Twito.
Key Newcomers: MF Madeline Haugen, MF Mikeila Martinez; F Callie McNary, GK Cheyenne Smith, F Brynn Suddeth
Key Losses: F Sami Birmingham; D Jeannelle Condame; D Leah Shohat; MF Esther Soenksen.
2017 GPAC All-Conference: Chelsea Bright (first team); Lindsey Carley (Defensive Player of the Year, first team) Maria Deeter (first team); Lauren Martin (second team); Kaitlyn Radebaugh (second team); Sami Birmingham (honorable mention); Tori Cera (honorable mention); Michaela Twito (honorable mention).
This program shows no signs of letting up under the direction of Greg Henson, who has guided Concordia University women’s soccer to three GPAC titles, two national tournament appearances and a total of 60 wins since the start of the 2014 season. Those successes lead into a 2018 campaign with expectations that go perhaps beyond any other a Bulldog women’s soccer squad has faced. It no longer takes on the role of the underdog, at least within the GPAC.
Though its status inside the league has changed, the program retains the mindset preferred by the head coach: hard working and blue collar. Give them any reason to feel slighted and they feed off of it.
Says Henson, “Regardless of class or experience, this is the deepest roster that we’ve had since I’ve been here. I told the players the other day that I’ve said that every year I’ve been here. It continues to be true. It creates some good problems for the coaching staff to sort through and figure out what that lineup’s going to be. The good news is that we’re going to have a lot of options coming off the bench to fortify us and help us in a lot of different areas.”
Concordia earned a second-place slotting in the GPAC preseason poll while picking up a program all-time best five first-place votes. The Bulldogs did say goodbye to the winningest senior class in school history, but they bring back so much experience and talent that expectations are naturally high.
This is the swan song for senior midfielder Maria Deeter, whose stellar first three seasons have quickly gone by. She’ll go down as one of the program’s all-time greats. She’s clearly established herself as one of the top players in the conference. Her idea of a successful final collegiate season is mostly about achieving lofty team goals.
“I think this year we’re going in with big expectations,” Deeter said. “We obviously want to win championships. We want to win them all. That’s the ultimate goal. We want to get to that (national) tournament and take the next step for the program. To leave the legacy for the program, it would be awesome to take that next step and be on more of a national stage.”
One goal in 10 conference games. That’s all last year’s team surrendered. To expect that sort of dominance again is probably a bit unrealistic. However, GPAC Defensive Player of the Year Lindsey Carley is back in the fold. So too is first team All-GPAC center back Chelsea Bright, already a team captain as a sophomore.
There’s more. Additional 2017 all-conference honorees Tori Cera, Lauren Martin, Kaitlyn Radebaugh and Michaela Twito also return to the lineup. Throw in seniors like Ashley Martin and Taylor Roby as major figures ready for a big senior seasons. As a group, the ’17 squad outscored its opponents by a combined total of 56-14. During the surge they earned a signature victory over then 20th-ranked Hastings on Oct. 25 in the regular-season finale in front of one of the biggest soccer crowds of the entire GPAC season. It was a third-straight win by a 1-0 score against conference foes in a thrilling stretch run.
Sometimes you have to stop and enjoy the ride. Says Deeter, “I feel like it’s the accumulation of all the hard work you put in. It’s a very rewarding feeling but also nerve-wracking. You work so hard and you don’t want to lose. I’ve been on both sides (of the GPAC championship game). It’s still rewarding to get there because not many teams make it there. It’s electric and being able to host is even better. It’s always a goal so hopefully we can get there one more time for the senior class.”
Despite coming off a championship season, complacency has not set in. The aftermath of Nov. 10, the night of the GPAC title game in Seward, still stings. The Bulldogs lost out on penalty kicks in a heartbreaker that robbed them of a chance at the national tournament.
They’ve waited all offseason to atone for it – not that they had anything to be ashamed of. It’s just a group that always wants more. Many of them tasted the national tournament in Florida in 2016. Preseason camp has already revealed a team determined to get back to that level.
“This is easily the most competitive fall we’ve had in terms of talent on the roster with players battling for positions,” Henson said. “We spoke about that at the start of camp. No jobs have been won. No jobs have been lost. Everybody is still competing and we expect everyone to come out and work hard. We’ve seen that throughout every session we’ve run. We hope we continue to see that as we move forward and prepare for our first scrimmages and the regular-season opener.”
Deeter gets a lot of the headlines, but she’s just one of 11 who do their jobs well. Few did it better in 2017 than Carley, who was one of the GPAC’s surprise breakout performers. She allowed a measly eight goals in over 1,460 minutes in goal. Of course she was helped by a back line anchored by Bright, another budding star. On the opposite end, Radebaugh always seemed to surface with big goals in big moments. There were none bigger than her game winner that sunk Hastings in the regular-season finale.
Radebaugh was just the latest freshman to emerge. At least one rookie makes a big impact every year under Henson. Some of the leading candidates among freshmen to fill the bill are midfielder Madeline Haugen (San Diego, Calif.), midfielder Mikeila Martinez (Fairfield, Calif.), forward Callie McNary (Hastings, Minn.) and Cheyenne Smith (Alpine, Calif.), who is adept in goal but can also serve additional roles.
Newcomers are quickly brought up to speed on what this program is about. There’s a time for fun, like last week’s trip to the Omaha Zoo that broke up the preseason grind. There’s also a time for seriousness, especially on those 18 game days (plus the postseason) each year.
Says Henson, “Every team has a new personality. Everything starts now. We can’t worry about what we’ve done before. We really built ourselves on that. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we’ve been. We can’t rest on our laurels and expect teams to lay down for us and allow us to win games. We have to go out and earn the victories every single day.”
Deeter takes on that same mantra. She’s focused on the here and now. Someday she’ll look back on what an incredible ride it has been. “It’s hard to fully understand and grasp everything that we’ve done, especially with this senior class,” Deeter said. “Once we’re done it will be easier. Even now it’s like, yeah we had a great year last year but we still have unfinished business. There’s still stuff we want to accomplish.”
The 2018 season will officially open up on Aug. 25 when the Bulldogs host Tabor College (Kan.) at 2 p.m. CT.