Boise, Idaho -- Boise State Women's Soccer Head Coach Jim Thomas is a man who is generous with his time. Generous with his words. And even more so with his praise. Praise for his team and what they have accomplished during his short, two year tenure (this upcoming season is his third). Praise for the athletes who have gutted out performances for him and his predecessor. Praise for a mentor, confidante, and a rival coach in San Diego State's Mike Friesen. Coach Thomas has been given the reigns of an up-and-coming program. With his infusion of young talent, experienced upper classmen, and fast-paced philosophy, he hopes to create a culture of confidence, pride, and winning.
When Thomas assumed control of the team from Steve Lucas, he inherited a team with nine returning starters and five seniors. Having that kind of experience is a luxury for any transitioning team and new head coach. By the time the senior class had rolled through, they had played an "inordinate amount of minutes as college players." Allowing a focus more on defense rather than the fundamentals, and minutiae, of the game.
That first year saw a few bumps, of course, in an early loss to Idaho State, at ISU, 2-1 in overtime and losing to San Diego State twice in a season. But saw plenty of positives. Beating Washington, Arizona State, and making it to the Mountain West tournament finals before eventually falling to San Diego State for the second time. Eventually ending the season with a decent 13-7-3 record, the first thirteen win season since 2009. Of the seven losses, only one was by two goals. The the experience of the seniors was felt on that team, and it showed.
It was in last year's squad that the more traditional "transition" year could be seen. To which there were only two seniors returning, and seven starters from the previous year. Both seniors, Mikhaila Bowden and Shannon Scheuren, started all twenty-one matches from Coach Thomas' first season. Per Thomas the team came close to "making it" and seemed as though they had "spun their wheels" at certain points throughout the season. It was clear that experience was what was needed for the team.
So experience is what the athletes got.
With Thomas' philosophy of "only way to get experience is to give experience," the team went on a four game winning streak to end the regular season. This earned the team a post-season berth to the Mountain West Conference tournament. Last year's team, wrought with overall inexperience and no one "ready" to take charge, had an opportunity to make noise and have a drastic impact on the tournament.
But sometimes momentum is not everything. Sometimes just getting the necessary experience for younger athletes is not everything. The team had turned around what could have been an early off-season to, at minimum, a chance to make it back to the MWC finals and break through. Sometimes, a gut-wrenching 88th minute tie-breaking goal is. New Mexico had ended the Broncos' unlikely run from "outsider" to dark horse in a blink of an eye.
"Squad-wise we fell a little bit short."
A young team had scratched and clawed their way from a 5-8-3 record to end up 9-9-3. A "down" year as far as Coach Thomas is concerned. And there is something to that. The Mountain West Conference has not received an at-large bid in the NCAAs for years. As always, the goal is to to win the Mountain West outright, but barring a San Diego State-sized roadblock (who has won both the regular season and tournament for the last three years) the next best option is an at-large bid.
And how does a team go about that?
With this year's schedule, that is going to be a challenge. The team opens at Samford (AL), then Ole Miss, then Washington State--the home opener. For Coach Thomas, "that's as hard as start as we've ever had" and that "at the Division I level, no team is easy to beat." In order to get the at-large bid you need to be at .500 or above. Because the best chance for a bid for the NCAA tournament is the MWC tournament, the out of conference schedule is the place to "learn how to operate in these matches." The out of conference will help gird the team for the challenges of the MWC road and create confidence in ability and in the team.
"Our team speed has just skyrocketed!"
With the very real potential of three, to four, freshman starting it would seem as though the "trial by fire" approach is alive and well for the upcoming season. Going down to Alabama and Mississippi over the course of three days to open the season would certainly be a challenge for any team to overcome. Especially for a team that will be depending on those freshman for heavy minutes.
But those freshman would not be alone.
There are athletes on this squad with, not only statistics, but leadership qualities that will be at the forefront. Two important cogs in the machine that are integral to the team are Brooke Heidemann and Janelle Flores. Two players that represent both ends of the spectrum from offense to defense. Both with the opportunities to take the team to the next level and be the catalysts to a Mountain West championship title, and beyond.
"[Heidemann] was doing a more stuff that doesn't show up on the score card."
Brooke Heidemann is a three-time All-Mountain West selection to go along with a Freshman of the Year recognition. To say she is a focal point of the Bronco's offense would be stating it mildly. "[Heidemann] does the hardest part for our team, which is the creative piece," says Thomas. But that comes at a cost. Last year Heidemann had to take a responsibility for some defensive schemes. The cost had come in the "ability to break other teams down." Heidemann's strengths are her ability to break other teams down, scoring, and the ability to create scoring opportunities for others. Heidemann's flexibility, and leadership, adapted to the role that was needed, but not necessarily her strong suit. However it did lead to positive outcomes for the team that eventually lifted them to the MWC tournament.
Entering her final season with the Broncos, expect Heidemann to do great things to further enhance her already impressive career.
For every piece of a team that is geared toward scoring, and creating offense, there is a piece that can stop opponents from scoring that is just as important. And who better to stop those scores than Janelle Flores?
Last year Flores was in the top five of three major statistical categories in the Mountain West. She was first in saves with 81, second in shutouts with six, and first in goals against average with 0.95. In short: teams do not score against Flores and, if they do, they do not do so very often.
Coach Thomas' thoughts on Flores? She is "tremendous" whose statistics are not only comparable to the Mountain West, but nationally as well. And all that production? Flores did it all on one leg. Flores had a "significant" knee injury she had been struggling with the entire season. The scary part is Thomas is expecting an even "better, fitter, [and] more agile, quicker" keeper. With Flores constantly getting better, both physically and mentally, and only a sophomore, she will be an influential part to the Broncos' defensive capabilities.
These two leaders, mixed with some aggressive recruiting, has primed the team to create opportunities and wins. With the most recent recruits being integrated into the system, these four freshman have the real potential to add quality minutes to the rotation: Allegra Weeks, Eva Herrera, Laura Buck, and Michelle Reed. Following in Thomas' philosophy of playing the best eleven, all players are made available. The willingness to take risks and open all levels of collegiate experience to playing time will bode well for the long-term vision of the team.
"Playing a crisp, up-temp style of soccer that is defined by its attacking, movement, and patterns. And that when people come to watch us play, they're excited by what they see."
A lot can be said about building a team for the long haul. It takes patience, vision, charisma, and the leadership to make it happen. Coach Thomas speaks with the passion of a coach who has great faith in his players and the patience to weather any storms that may get in the way of success. Thomas wants to have his athletes proud of their season regardless of the outcome. To say to a freshman, "you made a great decision, this is a style of soccer you're going to play and you great in it! Can't wait for the next three years." And to send the seniors off, like Heidemann, with a thank you for an amazing four years and for being a part of something special.
With another season beginning, there are many chances to win or lose. How a team handles the chances will help measure whether or not the year was a success. Coach Thomas has a vision for his team's success. And it is up to the athletes to execute that vision. With the building blocks in place, and the team leadership established, this team has the makings of a year that will be defined, not just by wins, but with pride.