Predicted to finish tenth in the MWC, many saw this season as the beginning of a rebuilding project for women’s soccer. Nobody would have batted an eye had they lost to Grinnell; there would have been no riots had they fallen to Lake Forest.
Instead, the Prairie Fire stand at 8-1-2, and are completely unrecognizable from years past. It’s easy to see where the doubt came from: Having steadily lost upperclassmen and featuring a whopping 29 freshmen (compared to zero seniors) on the roster, it would have been reasonable to expect a steep learning curve for the new recruits. And it would have been especially easy to conform to the stigma that already existed around the program.
“There was no winning tradition here and a distinct lack of confidence surrounding this program,” Head Coach Paul Lawrence said. “You don’t win games like that.”
You do, however, win games by pulling in the biggest recruiting class for soccer in recent memory, a class that features a large amount of club experience and players who are ready to compete at a collegiate level. Such a large class, and moreover such an even class, is conducive to success.
“Other teams’ scouting reports call us ruthless,” freshman Sierra Daniger said. “That’s the mentality we want, to leave everything on the field and to hold nothing back.”
The size of the team has a large part to do with that. In addition to unconditional support on the sidelines from 30 other teammates, the knowledge that the person right in front of you or right behind you on the depth chart is only marginally better or worse fuels competition every day at practice.
“This is a completely different environment from last year,” sophomore Kayla Brown said. “We all have the will to win as well as the skill to win.”
Nonetheless, to an outside observer, the lack of seniority is troubling. In addition to a lack of experience at the collegiate level, the fact that so many players were willing to simply jump ship once Lawrence came around is both troubling and puzzling for a coach vying for a culture change.
Rumors mill about Lawrence that he is too demanding as a coach, too emotional and too divisive, hence the exodus of so many players following the departure of former head coach Melissa Joseph.
Junior Theresa Birzer, who has played under both Joseph and Lawrence, believes their coaching styles couldn’t be more different. Joseph was more laid back, she says, and catered to a more casual audience. Lawrence, however, recruited people ready to play, and moreover, ready to win.
While not directly responsible for it, Birzer credited Lawrence for being a part of a sweeping change within the Knox athletic department: Over the past several years, the notion that Knox teams are destined to lose has gone out the window.
“There has been an awesome change within the athletic department as a whole,” Birzer said. “Every sport is pushing not only their own players, but all other teams. It’s created a culture more born in optimism and success.”
This is why a young team is a blessing: They don’t have the expectations that other teams have had weighing them down. They aren’t familiar with the fact that women’s soccer has a history of poor performances in conference contests. Instead, they come out to every game with the expectation that they will emerge victorious.
“We feel like we’ve set a standard for the level of player we’re looking to recruit,” Lawrence said. “In creating a winning culture, we allow ourselves a lot of flexibility and the ability to recruit the top players in the area.”
While proud of his recruiting push, Lawrence acknowledged that the sheer volume of players creates the potential for ostracization. Hence the family program he started, in which each sophomore or junior took a couple of freshmen under their wing.
“We do miss the senior perspective and the experience that comes with it,” Daniger said. “But we’ve found a way to facilitate success without it. It’s forced some of the sophomores and juniors to grow up quickly, and they’ve thrived.”
Lawrence has received this question a lot recently: Is it reasonable to expect a continuation of the success this team has experienced?
“We try not to think about that too much,” Lawrence said. “We try to dedicate each week to the opponent at hand, and focus on taking care of that firstÉ That said, there are no easy games in this conference, so we can’t let up.”
Indeed, the Midwest Conference is only getting better. What used to be a division dominated by a select few has blossomed into a legitimate free-for-all that Knox is clearly in the thick of. The schedule, however, is merciless. Following a pair of conference games at home over the weekend, Knox has to play four straight conference games in enemy territory before closing out the season at home against Cornell.
Like any good team, this Prairie Fire squad is unified in their vision for the future. To the last individual, each player (coach, too) stated their goal was to be in the top four in the MWC when the season ends. Such a finish would earn them a spot in the MWC tournament, which would be the team’s first appearance since 1995.
If such a goal sounds out of reach, think again: In tying Lake Forest last Saturday, the Prairie Fire combatted a team that returned 23 players, including five All-Region players and one All-American. They held even with a team that shattered the record for conference wins in a season (they were 21-1 overall and 10-0 MWC), and who opened the year ranked 14th in the country. Simply put, playing their best, this team has the chance to be one of the country’s best.
“If we drop off for even a second, we will not be able to achieve that goal,” Lawrence said. “But if we work as hard as we have been, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.”