Cheney, Wash. – Fresh off setting a new school record for Big Sky Conference victories and earning a spot in the league tournament a year ago, one might think that, as a new season rolls around, the emphasis would be on chasing wins at all cost instead of on the process required to become a winning program.
For second-year head coach Chad Bodnar and the Eastern Washington University women's soccer team, the process, not immediate results, is the primary focus heading into the 2015 season.
That process gets underway with an exhibition match this Friday, Aug. 14, against Gonzaga. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. PT at the EWU Soccer Field.
Bodnar set the bar pretty high during his inaugural campaign in Cheney a year ago, leading Eastern to a record five conference triumphs and a return to the Big Sky Tournament following a five-year absence.
"We really haven't talked about last year," Bodnar said. "We've focused more on the process than on where we want to be at the end of the year. It's a long, grinding season, and if we can reach small milestones along the way and keep the process in mind, we'll have a chance to improve on last year's success."
Maintaining a focus on the process is going to be key for Bodnar and his staff this year as they integrate 19 new faces into the program. The Eagles said farewell to 10 players at the conclusion of the 2014 season, including six starters. Eastern's 2015 roster consists of 13 freshmen and 11 sophomores, and just 12 of EWU's 31 players have experience at the NCAA Division I level.
Despite fielding such a young and inexperienced squad, Bodnar is confident that the group will come together and continue to grow.
"The culture of our program continues to move in a positive direction towards where we want it," said Bodnar. "It will certainly take some time for cohesion to develop between the newcomers and the returners, but everybody here wants to get better and keep improving. Credit to our returning players for accepting the new players with open arms and for understanding that a competitive environment makes for a better team."
The Big Sky's coaches have recognized EWU's improvement under Bodnar's leadership, picking the Eagles to finish seventh in the preseason coaches' poll, the program's highest predicted finish in five seasons. This despite losing the program's all-time leading scorer in Cassie Black along with three defensive starters and goalkeeper Nathalie Schwery, who started 42 career games between the pipes.
The first one to admit he does not take much stock in preseason predictions, Bodnar says the team is not thinking about what others assume this year's squad can accomplish.
"There are not many people who remember which team was picked where at the beginning of the season," Bodnar said. "Instead, they remember who finished where at the end. The onus is on us to continue to work and improve throughout the season."
One of the reasons the league's coaches are taking notice of the Eagles is the budding partnership of sophomore forwards Chloe Williams and Savannah Hoekstra. Williams, who earned First Team All-Big Sky accolades last season, and Hoekstra, who was an Honorable Mention All-Big Sky pick, combined for 12 of EWU's 27 goals a year ago, giving the rest of the conference a preview of what the next three years may look like.
Also back up top are senior Alisha Stott, juniors Paige Gallaway and Ua Ruedy and sophomore Caylah Lunning, all of whom featured for Eastern last season. Bodnar also signed a handful of players to add even more speed and athleticism to his attacking options while sophomore Delaney Romero is eligible following a redshirt year.
"Chloe and Savannah both had tremendous seasons, and we return a number of other attacking players, as well," said Bodnar. "We added Alexis Stephenson, who is a very good player, is incredibly fast and has a great work rate. Delaney is probably the fastest player we have on the team, and Lexi Klinkenberg, a transfer from Western Washington, has scored goals in big games. Devan Talley has also looked very good in preseason and played at an extremely high level with her club team.
"It's going to be neat to see how it all shakes out up top," Bodnar continued. "The nice part is that we'll be able to rotate more bodies in and give players more rest so they aren't having to play 90 minutes every single game."
The midfield also sees the return of some familiar faces in senior Tasha Luu, junior Kiana Hafferty and sophomore Laci Rennaker. Bodnar is very high on UTPA transfer Aimie Inthoulay while he sees freshmen Allison Raniere and Gabrielle Gines playing key roles in different aspects of the midfield.
"Aimie has been really sharp in training," Bodnar said. "She's a crafty player who can nip balls into space for people to run on to. It's great to see somebody with that kind of vision and technical ability in the middle of the park.
"We have more depth and options this season and can change tactically because we have different types of players that bring different things to the game," continued Bodnar. "Gabrielle is a big, tall holding player while Allison brings a certain craftiness to the position. Being able to adapt to different styles will help us down the road."
Defensively, sophomore M'Kenna Hayes is the lone returning player from last year's backline, having started all 17 of the Eagles' matches as a freshman. Bodnar is toying with the idea of playing Luu and Rennaker at center back at times, and he sees freshmen Maia Inniss and Emily Bringgold working their way into the rotation, as well.
"We've got quite a few new faces coming into that area," Bodnar said. "M'Kenna has gotten bigger and stronger and has looked really good in training. We're looking at possibly having other players who played up top in years past play out on the edge this year. We'll continue to evaluate throughout our two exhibition games and the rest of camp and see who is going to rise to the top."
Goalkeeper is EWU's biggest unknown following the departure of Schwery along with the news that presumed No. 1 Alexandria Johnson underwent career-ending surgery this offseason. Bodnar brought in three new players to vie for the spot, the most experienced being junior Mallory Taylor, who earned Great Plains Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last season at NAIA member Hastings College.
"The goalkeeper position is wide open," Bodnar said. "We're hoping somebody grabs the reins and runs with it. We don't have any experience at the NCAA Division I level in that position, so there's not a lot known there other than what the three have done at their previous schools."
With youth at every position, it would be easy to chalk this season up as a rebuilding year. Instead, Bodnar is refusing to use the Eagles' youth and inexperience as a crutch, opting to view it as an asset when it comes to the continual evolution of the program.
"We're young, but we're able to mold these players into what our program needs," said Bodnar. "They don't have any bad habits to break with regards to winning or losing. We brought in a bunch of players that have played at a really high level of club soccer. I believe you stop being a freshman after about three games; after that, you've got to roll with it and not use it as a excuse."
EWU's squad will learn quickly what it is like playing a rigorous schedule as Bodnar has the team set for nonconference trips to Texas and the Chicago area in preparation for a tough Big Sky slate.
"We're going to places like Texas and Chicago because I want to put our team in the toughest possible spot at the beginning of the season so by the time conference games roll around, it's not a big deal," said Bodnar. "We did a good job of getting results away from home last year, and it's important that we continue to do that."
Learning to win, either at home or on the road, is part of the process of building a successful program. Continuing to improve and get better each week is also a key part of that process, as is understanding the importance of embracing youth and putting young players in big moments.
Winning will come.
Right now, it's all about the process.