Featured Story

Spring Update: Nick Smith sees right pieces in place as program responds to change

By Jacob Knabel on May. 18, 2023 in Women's Soccer

Everything is still fresh and new for Concordia University Women’s Soccer Head Coach Nick Smith, but it hasn’t taken long for the program’s ninth all-time head coach to fully realize just what made this an attractive destination. Lured from his home state of Ohio, Smith was officially announced as head coach on March 9 and quickly relocated to Seward. With spring training sessions already underway, Smith did not want to miss a moment to dive in and start to learn more about the student-athletes he would inherit.

There’s work to be done, but Smith talks passionately about this opportunity, his first chance as a collegiate head coach after assisting with both men’s and women’s soccer at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio.

“The spring was big for me just to learn about what is here and get an understanding of the players’ personalities and the things we do well and the things we don’t,” Smith said. “With me coming in as a new coach, the last thing I wanted to do was throw a bunch of curveballs at them. The spring was about general assessment. Every training session was designed this spring for them to compete with each other and to show what they can offer. I think the girls took to that really well. I feel like the buy-in was there and the energy was high and that maintained itself through the course of the spring. I feel like we got a lot out of the spring even though I came here in the middle of March.”

The results were encouraging this spring as the Bulldogs went 4-0-2 while taking on competition from three different collegiate levels. Smith experimented greatly as he took Concordia up against College of Saint Mary, Doane, Nebraska Wesleyan, Wayne State College, York University and an alumni team. Among the significant occurrences, the sophomores-to-be made strides and will clearly be a major factor in the success of the 2023 team. In addition, Smith tinkered with different shapes, got a feel for the battle at goalkeeper and began to strategize on how the Bulldogs can become more dangerous on the attacking end.

In the month of May, Smith quickly scored his biggest recruiting win to date in helping convince three-time First Team All-GPAC center back Grace Soenksen to return for a fifth season inside the program. Smith is pumped about having Soenksen on the field, not just for her high-level play, but also for her leadership and steadying influence upon a still youthful roster. There won’t be many seniors on the field in 2023, so Soenksen’s presence will be significant.

Said Smith, “Myself, (assistants) Mel (Hall) and Mike (McIntyre) did some work this spring and made sure to invite her to all our sessions this spring and let her get a sense of what I would be like as a coach and get a feel for the sessions. Thankfully, she got interested enough that she played on two of the game dates with us. We got the news relatively late. We were a little nervous she would decide not to come back, but we’re thrilled to have a player of her profile coming back for us. You don’t find that type of player often. We have largely a young team, so she’s in a tremendous position to provide additional guidance to our younger classes. She’s been here for a conference championship and she’s hungry for more.”

The program got a major influx of talent last fall when Kierstynn Garner (Kearney High School) and her fellow classmates found their way to campus. Garner led the team with eight goals in 2022 and was named Second Team All-GPAC. She’s far from the only standout of the bunch. She was joined in the starting 11 in last season’s GPAC quarterfinal game by fellow freshmen in Savannah Andrews, Hannah Kile, Niah Kirchner and Shi-Lynn Yon while Elena Ruiz was a key substitute.

With a full fall season and a spring of development under their belts, the group is just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of potential. Andrews and Garner are ready to take on goal-scoring roles and Kirchner is on her way to becoming another all-conference performer.

“We’re working through two or three shapes we’re going to run with this fall,” Smith said. “Two of them I’m pretty settled on. In both of those shapes, you’re looking at six or seven sophomores being starters. Obviously they have to do the work over the summer and they have to earn it. No one is promised any spot, but it’s conceivable the sophomores will get a lot of minutes this fall. KG has some physical ability that is just different. I would also mention Niah Kirchner, who has been a fantastic player for us this spring. She’s a hard-working and savvy center midfielder. She makes things happen. You also have Savannah Andrews who scored a bunch of goals for us this spring. She comes with a lot of pedigree coming from the Gretna High School program.”

Smith went on to mention several others in the sophomore class. This past fall, Concordia had a unique starting 11 that typically was made up exclusively of freshmen and seniors. With the exception of Soenksen, those seniors have graduated and moved on. The 2023 team’s small senior class includes the likes of Hannah Haas, Kassidy Johnson and Bradi Ore. Each of those upperclassmen figure to have a role on the team with Ore currently in the mix at the goalkeeper spot, along with Angela Banks and Zoe Lavigne.

Another development this spring has been the recovery of defender Taylor Slaymaker, a starter who suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2022 campaign. Slaymaker played in all 18 games as a freshman in 2021 and has a good shot to earn back a starting role in 2023. Said Smith of the Kearney native, “She’s got huge amounts of potential. I’m really excited to see her be all the way back and not thinking about the injury. The mental side of it can be the most difficult part. She’s got years ahead of her to see out that potential and to play a large role on this team.”

In the upcoming months, Smith will be following up with his players to ensure they stay on top of intense summer workouts. In the meantime, Smith is getting his family settled in Seward while filling up the calendar with summer recruiting trips. He can’t help but be impressed with the talent he’s watched at the Nebraska state tournaments. Smith wants to make Concordia the preferred choice of in-state players who are not headed to Division I schools.

Said Smith, “The facilities here are tremendous. The stadium we play in is amazing and the locker rooms, the weight rooms and the support we have with Freddie (Miles) in strength and conditioning and Kyli (Haines) in athletic training are all awesome. The foundation is there for this program to really grow and for us to be a very relevant program in the GPAC and nationally. That’s why it was an easy decision for me to try to talk (wife) Marcy and the family into moving out here. The one question mark I had, which you don’t get a full sense for when you’re interviewing, is what is the skill level of the girls? What is their mindset? Are they determined to become champions? I found we have a group here that is hungry and motivated to be better. In our individual meetings, to a player, they were talking GPAC Championship. I love that ambition. I can’t sit here and promise that we’re going to deliver that this fall, but the fact that’s on their radar is something that makes me excited.”