LEUZZI: There’s reason to think women’s soccer can finish their rebuild and win in 2022

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Photo by Isabel Bonebrake

Marquette women’s soccer celebrates after a goal in it’s 5-0 win over the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Sept. 4 at Valley Fields.

Five years ago, the Marquette women’s soccer team was in the final stages of one of the greatest stretches in program history.

From 2009 to 2017, the Golden Eagles were 134-54-18 overall, winning 80% of their matches in the Big East. Additionally, Marquette earned five conference regular-season titles, two league tournament titles and five NCAA Tournament appearances.

From 2010 to 2013, out of 41 Big East games, they only lost once and only tied once; every other game was a win. There also was a pair of appearances to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament during that span.

Markus Roeders was the program’s guiding force. Then something switched in 2017. Suddenly, the Golden Eagles slid from dominating the Big East to winning five conference games in two years, which handed Roeders his only two losing seasons in his career. After the 2019 season, he abruptly stepped down after 24 years.

The Golden Eagles have not appeared in the postseason since 2017.

With Roeders’ hurried departure, Frank Pelaez stepped in.

Pelaez, who served as a longtime assistant coach under Roeders for 19 seasons, returned to Milwaukee as the program’s fourth head coach in December 2019 after a five-year stint as an associate and assistant coach on the Loyola University Chicago women’s soccer staff.

Now in his third season, the narrative has yet to change under Pelaez. But the greater context matters. Each of the last two seasons, Marquette has knocked on the door in hopes of breaking its drought but has missed the postseason by one game each year.

And yet, one core piece of Pelaez’s philosophy keeps building: culture.

In sports, no one can predict the future. The same can be said for a program’s rebuild – it is like an experiment. Each year the experiment is tested by bringing in new parts until the experiment creates fantastic results: a winning women’s soccer program.

And one controlled variable in Pelaez’s roster makeup is “homeowners” and not “renters.”

For each of the 29 members on the team, the players are living here on campus at Marquette and not simply renting Valley Fields, whereas if you’re owning it, you’re going to take care of it more, you’re going to put more effort into it.

To the Golden Eagles, who were picked to finish eighth in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, building success on the pitch is as important as impact in the clubhouse. There is no handing out keys to just anyone either. Entering this season, Pelaez added five first-years and five veteran transfers to his already 19 returners from last season.

His search for replacing a combined 326 appearances, 243 starts, 24 goals and 25 assists across five graduating seniors was perhaps most vividly demonstrated by the talent and depth he brought in through the NCAA transfer portal.

There have been signs of progress made.

The first example of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel came last season. Under Pelaez, the Golden Eagles had its second straight winning season finishing with a 9-8 overall, 5-5 Big East record.

Midfielder Katrina Wetherell earned her third all-time and second straight All-Big East Second Team selection after leading the Golden Eagles in goals (five) and points (12). Forward Maggie Starker netted a pair of game-winning goals while recording four total on her way to being named to the All-Big East Freshman Team.

In her second consecutive season where she started every game, Rachel Johnson had another breakout season under Pelaez as she finished with a career-high in goals (four), assists (three) and points (11).

And perhaps more importantly, it has been well documented there is a “team first” mentality amongst each of the 29 members on the team. Midfielder Hailey Block is a prime example of that.

Block, who is in her third season playing for her hometown team after transferring from Southeast Missouri, finds herself in a new role on the team this year. After two seasons entirely on offense, Block has shifted to a more defensive role on the team.

“She will do whatever it takes to be on the field and help her team out,” Pelaez said following his team’s 5-0 win over the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Sept. 4. “I talk to her and tell her I need you there and she just gives me that stern look, nods and goes ‘I am good wherever you want me.'”

Having the luxury of a versatile roster also has its benefits, perhaps most notably with team chemistry.

“None of us are just an outside right back, none of us are just a forward,” midfielder Alex Campana said. “Frank put us in whatever position, and we can all adapt to it.”

Again, the Golden Eagles entered the season without high expectations from those within the conference. They play in a conference that currently has two ranked teams and a third receiving votes in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 Poll.

But if there is one thing that I have picked up the last two seasons covering Pelaez’s squad, the outside noise is blocked from within and not something that will become a roadblock to their goals. After all, they do play in a blue collar city like Milwaukee.

So it is time to acknowledge and believe that Pelaez has this program heading in the right direction and back to its winning traditions.

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.