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Spring Update: Bulldogs step up to physical challenges, embrace expectations

By Jacob Knabel on May. 17, 2024 in Women's Soccer

This spring, Head Coach Nick Smith began preparing the Concordia University Women’s Soccer team for the expectations that will follow it into 2024. The Bulldogs don’t expect to fly under the radar like they did in the fall of 2023, then coming off a seventh-place finish in the GPAC. Nearly all the key figures were back in place on the training fields during the spring semester. It was a time for attempting to answer the question on how the program will replace GPAC Defensive Player of the Year Grace Soenksen and how it will build upon a 13-win 2023 season.

Smith knows the talent is there. His main point of emphasis this spring was placed upon a continued commitment in terms of work ethic. Basically, Smith’s message was that more growth is necessary for this current group to reach the goals it will have this fall. A matchup with Creighton University helped drive home that point.

“The style of play they employed against us was what I was hoping for,” Smith said. “I wanted us to be humbled a little bit. Coming out of the fall where we exceeded expectations, you can sometimes get a sense of feeling satisfied and not having to put in the work. Creighton showed us we have levels to go still, which was good. That humbles us a little bit. We need to take that high work rate into the summer. That experience was a tremendous one. We got a lot out of that game, and we were fortunate to end our spring at Morrison Stadium.”

In addition to the anticipated clash with Creighton, the spring season included matchups with JUCO powerhouse Iowa Western Community College and NCAA Division II Wayne State College. There was a method to Smith’s madness as Concordia went up against foes that will prepare it for its stiffest challenges this fall. The spring semester also featured team-building activities and the operation of a Seward rec league meant to immerse the Bulldogs within the community. There’s a healthy environment within the program that convinced the likes of Hannah Haas, Kassidy Johnson and Bradi Ore to want to stick around for an additional year.

There’s a new class of players looking to take over as senior leaders, led by Taylor Slaymaker (who actually has two seasons of eligibility remaining). The vaunted group that arrived in the fall of 2022 also shifted to upperclassman roles. The juniors-to-be are highlighted by 2023 All-GPAC honorees in first-teamers Savannah Andrews, Kierstynn Garner, Hannah Kile and Niah Kirchner and second-teamer Sierra Springer. It’s no wonder the program made a big jump as those Bulldogs transitioned from freshmen to sophomores.

“I think you see their confidence growing,” Smith said. “I think that class showed they belong last year. The interesting thing moving forward is going to be what our internal expectations are. Coming into this previous fall, we were young. They were coming off a season where they were okay. We smashed expectations this past fall to finish second in conference. Now we’re becoming upperclassmen, and we have a much different expectation going into this season. It brings a different sort of pressure. Teams aren’t going to overlook Concordia. We have a chance to be in position to compete for a title.”

In order to do that, the Bulldogs will have to figure out how to compensate without Soenksen, one of the program’s all-time greats. It likely won’t be just one player who fills the gap. Thankfully, there’s enough talent and experience for Concordia to collectively fill those large shoes. Smith sees Slaymaker and Kile as players in line to become even bigger stars along the back line. Meanwhile, at keeper, Angela Banks saw extensive time this spring and is vying to take on the starting role.

“Kile and Taylor are the ones who are likely going to step in for Grace,” Smith said. “Kile and Taylor are two that had some really big individual growth in terms of getting the ball down and playing. Our center backs are the ones who have to be the calmest on the ball. Part of the deep dive we took after this fall was we statted out every single pass for every single player in every single game. Both Kile and Taylor were among our highest pass percentage players on the team. I think Kile and Taylor are trending in the right direction. Angie is another player moving in the right direction. Her shot stopping was never a question. What I saw from Angie was a lot of growth.”

Similar growth is expected of Garner, or ‘KG,’ as she’s often called. The Kearney, Neb., native draws a lot of attention with her speed and athleticism and has tallied 27 goals over her first two collegiate seasons. Smith believes Garner has the ability to seriously challenge the school single season goals record of 24 by Jennfier Davis in 2005. The key for Garner is to be able to adjust to the teams that attempt to play her in a physical manner.

To be frank, Smith wants his entire team to be more prepared to play against physical opponents. He believes increased quality of depth in 2024 will help keep everyone fresher and better equipped for the rigors of conference action. The spring foes were scheduled to test the Bulldogs specifically in those areas. The returns were positive.

Said Smith, “We started looking at the games that we struggled in and tried to figure out what was common in those games. In each of those games, we didn’t have the ball. We weren’t great in our passing in those games. The big focus for us was on retaining possession of the ball. We wanted to play against teams that were a little bit physically imposing to sort of mimic the Benedictine, Morningside and Midland games we had in the fall. Spring results don’t really matter, so we had some very specific in-game focus points. I was pleased to see the progress we had. We need to be ready for that because our schedule this fall has a bunch of physical teams. We have to be willing to retain the ball in those moments.”

The summer months will mean more recruiting and tidying up of the class of 2025 for Smith. Heading into his second year as the program’s head coach, Smith feels a higher level of comfort not only from a recruiting standpoint, but from an overall program standpoint. A productive August camp should put Concordia in an even healthier position.

“Sitting here now versus sitting here a year ago, I’m much surer of the team we’re going to have returning and what it’s going to look like in the fall,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the steps forward we’ve seen this spring.”

To view the 2024 Concordia Women’s Soccer Schedule, click HERE.