On paper, the 2015 season looked like somewhat of a rebuilding year for Concordia University women’s soccer following a GPAC tournament championship season in 2014. The Bulldogs had graduated a pair of first team all-conference choices and a second team all-league selection after the program had earned its first-ever national tournament bid.
As third-year head coach Greg Henson admitted, the team’s 2015 preseason national ranking of 21st was based upon the previous year’s successes. Loser of three-straight games by 1-0 scores in mid-October, the Bulldogs arrived at a crossroads, in danger of missing the conference tournament altogether.
“We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup,” Henson said. “Sometimes it’s just the growing pains that you have to go through. The team really showed at the end of the season what we’re capable of.”
A frustrating October goal-scoring drought ended with a much-needed 3-0 win at Doane, propelling the Bulldogs to another strong finish. Concordia won each of its final four games of the regular season to climb to the No. 5 seed in the GPAC tournament. Though disappointed to be hitting the road for the conference semifinals, Henson’s squad recaptured its tournament magic.
For the second-straight season, the Bulldogs celebrated on the home field of conference regular-season champion Hastings after bouncing the Broncos from GPAC postseason play. Almost exactly a year after polishing off a 1-0 conference championship win at Lloyd Wilson Field, Concordia returned and again surprised Hastings, this time with a dramatic penalty kick shootout win in the GPAC semifinals.
Suddenly, Concordia had become the only team to reach the GPAC championship in each of the last two seasons. Considering its youth and struggles to score goals at times during the regular season, the program’s 2015 conference title game appearance may have seemed more improbable than its 2014 run.
“I think throughout the season and even during the period where we lost three in a row, 1-0, the talent was always there,” Henson said. “The team had the ability to do what we ended up doing at the end of the season. Sometimes it’s just a matter of coming together and re-establishing what our team goals are and what each player needs to do in order for us to achieve those. I think some of the bumps in the road we had throughout the season were the result of being a young team.”
That young team grew up behind one of the league’s best freshman in midfielder Maria Deeter. The second team all-conference selection notched a pair of goals in Concordia’s 4-0 blowout of fourth-seeded Briar Cliff in the GPAC quarterfinals. Deeter then scored the equalizing goal and converted on her penalty kick at Hastings. She was typically joined in the starting lineup by fellow freshman Ashley Martin and a trio of sophomores in Jeannelle Condame, Jessica Skerston and Esther Soenksen.
Only two seniors – Madison Hawkins and Katrina Muther – saw regular time on the field. Their leadership and steady play helped lessen the blow after the Bulldogs lost five players who started in the 2014 GPAC championship game. Concordia had a new roster in 2015, but the attitude never changed.
“When we first got here three years it was about coming in and setting a new mindset and re-establishing a winning culture within the program,” Henson said. “It started with our team motto of being the best team on game day. That really just means at the basic level that we can compete with anybody for 90 minutes and we truly believe that. The results in the last couple years against Hastings prove that.”
The late-season run in 2015 provided a solid encore to what the 2014 edition accomplished. At 13-6-2 overall this past season, Henson has now guided the program to a mark of 28-9-6 over the last two years. It’s easily the best two-year run for Concordia women’s soccer, which dates back to 1996. Furthermore, the Bulldogs have reached at least the conference semifinal round in each of the past three years.
The current group of sophomores and juniors will return in 2016 having experienced the thrill of an unexpected GPAC championship as well as the heartbreak of a conference final defeat. Morningside sent Concordia packing by scoring the game-winning goal with only 38 seconds remaining in the 2015 conference title game. Nine of the 11 Bulldogs who started that game will be back. In other words, Henson and his program also expect to ‘be back.’
“We expect to be a conference contender and get to the national tournament,” Henson said. “We proved that those are legitimate goals for us. We know what it takes to make a run through the conference tournament whether as a high seed hosting games or going on the road three times. We know what it takes to get there. That game (GPAC title loss) will be motivation alone to get back there next year and to find a way to finish the game off.”
The 2016 team just might prove to be the most talented team yet for Henson, who expects several incoming recruits to push for spots in the starting lineup. But newcomers will have to earn roles for a squad that returns each of its five all-conference honorees. That list includes Chrissy Lind, who already owned the program goalkeeper record for career shutouts after her sophomore season. Lind and company collaborated on the GPAC’s stingiest defense in 2015.
Naturally, expectations will remain high as Henson, two victories away from becoming the program’s all-time winningest coach, enters his fourth year at the helm.
“We have a lot of impactful players that will be returning,” Henson said. “As of now we have eight freshmen coming in next year. We’re excited about them and the impact they can make as well. I think we’re going to continue to move in the right direction and get better as a program. We’ll continue to set our sights on national tournament bids and I think that’s achievable.”