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Season-In-Review: 2023 Concordia Women's Soccer

By Jacob Knabel on Nov. 26, 2023 in Women's Soccer

The Concordia University Women’s Soccer program isn’t going anywhere. That’s a message the 2023 Bulldogs delivered loud and clear despite a roster containing only three graduating seniors (two of which are set to return in 2024). Head Coach Nick Smith pushed a lot of the right buttons in his first year at the helm while first fortifying the team’s chemistry and togetherness. Things began to fall into place back in the spring when Smith scored his first big recruiting victory: convincing Grace Soenksen to play a fifth season of college soccer.

Coming off a seventh place GPAC finish in 2022, league coaches pegged Concordia to place fifth prior to the ’23 campaign. The bump to fifth likely had a lot to do with the return of what had been a talented freshman class in 2022. Even so, the Bulldogs outperformed outside expectations.

“We exceeded what my expectations were if I’m honest,” Smith said. “I knew that we were a young group and we had a lot of talent. A lot of that talent wasn’t really tested yet at the college level. For me, I’m not from the area, so it was a little bit of a learning experience to see what the competition in the area held and what the GPAC was all about. I think we showed incredibly well. Just about every metric we could compare ourselves to from the year before, we were better. We earned more wins this year and had fewer losses this year. We scored nearly 20 more goals this year. Of the 51 goals we had on the year, 47 of those goals were scored by sophomores and freshmen. What that tells me is we’re going to be consistently competitive for a good while.”

Guided by the Whitehouse, Ohio, native Smith, Concordia even flirted with a potential national tournament bid. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed on Nov. 7 with a home loss to eventual GPAC postseason champion Midland in the conference semifinals. The ending was a bitter pill to swallow, but the Bulldogs can take pride in knowing they made remarkable strides throughout the fall. At 13-4-3 overall, the 2023 Concordia team tied for the fifth most wins in a season in school history. Some of the more impressive performances included the 4-0 rout of Dordt, the 1-0 win at reigning GPAC champion Jamestown and the 2-2 tie at Hastings that required the Bulldogs to rally from a 2-0 deficit.

In sum, Concordia outscored its opponents by a combined total of 51-16. Eight shutouts were recorded with the help of Soenksen, who became the second player in program history to be named GPAC Defensive Player of the Year. The 2023 Bulldogs equaled a school record with five First Team All-GPAC selections as Soenksen was joined with that distinction by sophomore teammates Savannah Andrews, Kierstynn Garner, Hannah Kile and Niah Kirchner. In addition, Sierra Springer landed on the second team and Bradi Ore and Taylor Slaymaker garnered honorable mention status.

With one different result here or there, Concordia could have celebrated a GPAC championship in 2023. How exactly did it improve so dramatically this fall? Says Soenksen, “I think it was the maturity that we gained through last year. Nick does a really good job of working with the players and the talents that we have. He helped everyone understand why we were doing things a certain way. Things just clicked.”

While Soenksen and company played stout defensively, the program’s ability to put away goals has been a big reason for its ascent back near the top of the league standings. The Bulldogs have gone from 23 goals scored in 2021 to 33 in 2022 and to 51 in 2023. It certainly helps to have dynamic talents like Garner and Andrews in the attacking third. The Kearney, Neb., native Garner exploded onto the scene in 2023 and led the GPAC in goals during the regular season with 19. That total represented the highest for a Concordia player since Sami Birmingham’s 20 goals in 2016.

Andrews backed Garner with 13 goals of her own (four of which came in the 8-1 stomping of Mount Marty. Meanwhile, Springer and Elena Ruiz contributed five goals apiece. As a team, Concordia’s average of 2.55 goals scored per game ranked second best among GPAC teams. With ‘KG’ back in 2024 as a junior, the Bulldogs plan to put forth an even more lethal attack.

“I can’t say enough good things about Kierstynn,” Smith said. “She brings it every day to training and she brings it on game days too. She’s definitely a player who leads through example. She has a number of different ways that she can impact a game. She’s incredibly efficient when she crafts herself an opportunity in front of the net. The system and style of soccer that we play is really beneficial to players like KG. We were a team this year that wanted to control possession as much as possible. What that means is we’re constantly stretching our opposition and making them put in a lot of work off the ball. What that does is allow a player of KG’s caliber to pick and choose the right moments as to when to be direct and when to be aggressive. She took a huge step forward. We’re looking for more growth from her. I truly believe she can get 30-plus goals per season.”

Soenken teamed up in the back with the likes of all-conference award winners in Kile and Slaymaker. Also a Kearney native, Slaymaker returned from injury and started all 20 games. She was one of six Bulldogs to be able to claim that same feat. The others were Garner, Kile, Kirchner, Soenksen and Shelby Rugg. In goal, Ore took command of the starting role (17 starts) and picked up six shutouts while making 49 saves and recording a goals against average of 0.81. Ore effectively answered the questions at the keeper spot after the program graduated two-year starter Kalie Ward. Ore was one of three seniors honored on senior day (in addition to Hannah Haas and Kassidy Johnson). Ore and Johnson both plan to stay for one more season.

As Smith has relayed to his team, the 2023 Bulldogs were a bit of an underdog story with modest outside expectations entering the season. That won’t be the case in 2024. Smith will begin the process of getting his team to embrace lofty expectations as the spring semester sets the tone for the ’24 campaign.

“It’s about making sure we’re continuing to raise the bar in our offseason and not settle with what we’ve done this year,” Smith said. “When we’re out recruiting, we want to add depth to the roster and consistently push that level with who we bring in. I’m incredibly proud of this group. We did a lot of growing up this year. Looking back, 13-4-3 is a great record. I also felt like we let a couple results go. That is to be expected with a relatively young group. For the majority of the year, we started eight sophomores and one freshman. We’re going to see the rewards for all that experience they earned in the years to come. We’re a program that’s trending in the right direction. Hopefully next year we can take a couple more steps forward and compete for GPAC regular season and tournament titles.”