Last winter, the future of the St. Olaf women’s soccer team was looking bleak; after limping to the finish line with a string of six straight losses, the Oles ended a disappointing season with their second losing record in as many years. Furthermore, head coach Jeremy Driver elected to step down as head coach after ten consecutive seasons leading the team, and with only five members out of the 24-player roster returning as seniors leadership was scarce. Expectations for this fall were low.
Evidently, however, nobody seems to have informed first-year coach Rachael Sushner of these obstacles. Against all odds, the Oles and their new leader have silenced all doubters during the first two weeks of the season and are poised to put up their best record in years.
Sushner, a former all-region soccer player herself during her undergraduate days at Skidmore College, took the head coaching job in January after serving in assistant coaching roles for Wellesley College, Clarkson University and, most notably, Washington and Lee University. During the last three seasons with the latter, she helped lead the Generals to an impressive 45-8-3 record. Her knowledge and history of success have combined with a strong emphasis on teamwork to make the women’s soccer team a serious contender – a 180-degree turn from a mere season ago.
“Our main focus this season is to play as a team,” Sushner says. “This means being organized, defending as a unit, pressuring hard and going at the other team with numbers. We have some really good athletes in our team and we are taking advantage of this… although it’s not always pretty, it’s been effective for the players we have and we feel good about it.”
Taking advantage of a cohesive whole rather than relying on a few individuals has been an enormously successful strategy that has helped the Oles topple some of the conference’s mightiest opponents, culminating in a convincing 3-1 victory last Saturday over previously undefeated Gustavus. True to Sushner’s word, St. Olaf divvied up the glory in an honest team effort with three quick goals from Lauren Martin ’17, Claire Bash ’20 and Abby Stets ’18, the latter two of which came off of razor sharp corner kick assists from Grace Bestler ’17. The Gusties later responded with a goal of their own to make it an honest contest, but the Oles were in control from the opening seconds. When the final whistle blew, St. Olaf walked away with its fourth victory this fall, equalling its total for the entirety of the 2015 season a mere two weeks into this one.
Sushner notes how a creating a positive atmosphere has contributed to the team’s rapid turnaround.
“We try to have an environment where it’s okay to make a mistake and your teammates and coaches will encourage you to be better next time,” she said.
Sushner immediately prioritized fostering this air of positivity when she took charge of the team.
“I believe this type of environment is the best way to succeed and walk off the field feeling good about yourself instead of frustrated or lacking confidence,” she said.
Beating Gustavus was a great leap forward for the relatively young team, but the real challenges begin on Saturday when Concordia will attempt to halt the Oles’ momentum. The contest is the first of nine straight conference bouts that will define this season as either a true Cinderella story or merely a positive step towards future success.
“Every single game we play is difficult because our conference is really tough,” Sushner said regarding the games ahead. “Constantly learning difficult lessons is challenging – it’s exhausting and stressful, but it’s also what makes it so rewarding when we do succeed.”
If the first two weeks are any indication, the Oles are going to keep succeeding and feeling rewarded; under Sushner’s guidance of teamwork and positivity, they’ve transformed into a serious threat capable of keeping pace with the conference’s best.