Over a five-year period, the Concordia University women’s soccer program has put together a body of work that stands out as arguably the best in the GPAC. While the 2018 Bulldogs came up short of hoisting any championship hardware, they carried themselves like champions. They went into every game this season with the belief that they would win, no matter if the opposition boasted a national ranking next to its name.
That type of swagger was fostered by the conference championship runs made by head coach Greg Henson’s 2014, 2016 and 2017 teams. The 2018 team entered the final game of the regular season still with a shot at a title and then reached the postseason championship game. Unfortunately, this fall did not come with the Fairytale ending.
“Our goals every year, year-in and year-out, are to win conference championships and obviously we fell short of that this year,” Henson said. “We were right there going into the last game of the year. To find our way to the conference championship game for a fifth year in a row is just a testament to our players and our program. It really has cemented itself as one of the top programs in the league. It gets tougher every season. I’m proud of the effort of our team from top to bottom this year.”
To put 2018 into perspective, it would no doubt have been the top season in program history if you took into account every campaign prior to 2014. The Bulldogs went 13-3-5 overall, topped Morningside in the GPAC tournament quarterfinals and then proved once again that they have Midland’s number. Concordia got past the then 17th-ranked Warriors, 1-0, in the GPAC semifinals.
If nothing else, 2018 deserves to be remembered in many ways as a fitting swan song for senior captain Maria Deeter. When an injury forced one of the team’s top returning goal scorers (Kaitlyn Radebaugh) to miss essentially the entire season, Deeter helped pick up the slack. She knocked in a career high 14 goals this past fall with her signature goal being a game winner in overtime at Morningside. For four seasons, Deeter consistently provided high level play and a championship mentality.
“She’s been a tremendous player and leader for us for four years,” Henson said. “She made a huge impact right from the beginning of her career. She’s been a leader on and off the field and extension of the coaching staff. It’s going to be difficult to replace a player like that.”
Deeter certainly went out fighting. Perhaps the stretch run of the season would have turned out differently had the Seward native not suffered an injury on Oct. 20. It forced Deeter to miss the last two games of the regular season and the nearly all of the first two in the conference tournament. She then gutted it out and played more than 100 minutes of the heartbreaking double overtime defeat at Hastings in the GPAC championship game.
Based on the national rankings, the 11th-ranked Broncos would have seemed like a significant favorite to beat Concordia. However, the two rivals both know better than to expect anything to come easy in head-to-head matchups. The Bulldogs are officially 3-3-3 against the Broncos since the start of the 2014 season. There is no better rivalry currently in GPAC women’s soccer.
“I think one of the best rivalries in the entire conference might be between two women’s soccer programs,” Henson said. “Us and Hastings has really become a great rivalry. Going into that match both teams know it’s going to be a tough game for 90 minutes or even more. They have been the perennial power in our conference for quite some time and to create a rivalry with them is exciting.”
The 2018 team certainly showed an ability to overcome adversity, not only in regards to injuries but also at times when doubt could have crept in. A 3-2 home loss to Briar Cliff in the regular-season finale (snapped a 26-game GPAC regular-season unbeaten streak) did not sit well. Outsiders probably wondered if the loss of Deeter had caught up to them.
But the Bulldogs proved they were more than just a single player. Exceptional seasons were also turned in by all-conference performers in sophomore Tori Cera (first team), seniors Ashley Martin (second team) and Lauren Martin (second team) and sophomore Lindsey Carley. Lauren Martin broke the program record for assists in a single season (16) while Cera selflessly moved from attacking midfielder to center back.
“Tori Cera had a great season for us and we kind of expected that going in,” Henson said. “She’s a quality player and somebody I think will continue to have a great career moving forward. She’s someone who can play anywhere on the field. As for Lauren, she came on really strong last year. She transferred in as a sophomore and took a little time to adapt to her surroundings. It was the offseason between her sophomore and junior year she really made a big jump in her mentality.”
The offseason push will ramp back up in January for a team that will look a bit different without Deeter and a senior class that included another starter in Taylor Roby. That should mean a bigger spotlight for the likes of Carley, Cera, freshman center back Cheyenne Smith, junior forward Brynn Suddeth and sophomore midfielder Michaela Twito. Suddeth provided an offensive lift with hat tricks on three separate occasions.
Both results at Midland that came with Deeter sidelined should be a confidence boost heading into 2019. Concordia drew at Midland in the regular season before winning in Fremont in the postseason (the Warriors went on to advance to the round of 16 at the national tournament). The young players also got a taste of what a GPAC championship game (and defeat) feels like.
Said Henson of moving forward, “It’s going to be a different team and there’s going to be a different personality to this group. We have a lot of young players who are very important to our future. We have to develop the talent we have and get some players healthy. We look forward to getting back out there to prepare for the 2019 season. I think we have a great group coming back and a good recruiting class coming in.”