One of the most difficult jobs for a coach is finding the right amount of youth for your roster. The Missouri Western soccer team will have plenty of youth taking the field this fall. With only three seniors on this year's team, coach Chad Edwards hopes that those senior's experience is enough. "We have seniors with lots of experience and they understand what it takes to be successful," Edwards said. One of those seniors, Cassidy Chappell believes the toughest part is learning how to play as a team. "We've been working on learning how each player plays and how to get better at attacking," Chappell said. The Griffons finished last season with a 9-8-1 record--the best record in program history. Western added nine new players to this year's roster and they want those players to continue to help the program succeed. "We've talked to the players about not having the new players have that feeling of heartbreak," Edwards said. Last season's leading scorer returns for her junior season. Forward Bridget Blessie led the team with five goals last season, starting all 18 games for the Griffons. "She's a great kid, works so hard," Edwards said. "That's what I appreciate about her, I know what I am going to get out of her every day." Defense has been the strength of the program the last few years--yielding 0.80 goals per game last season. It is the Western offense that has struggled in previous seasons. The offense averaged just 0.94 goals per game in 2015. It will be up to players like Blessie to improve in that area in order for the Griffons to compete for an MIAA championship. "We just have to have the mentality to score, to finish," Blessie said. "We want to beat teams 3-0 and to be known as an attacking team, not just a defensive team." The Griffons will also be tasked with replacing their All-MIAA goalkeeper, Sarah Lyle. Lyle had to leave the team for personal reasons. Taking her place will be either Lexie Martin or Paige LaBadie. "Lexie has really stepped up and Paige is still getting use to how we do things here," Edwards said. "I have confidence in whoever starts for us next Friday." The Griffons start their season in Arkadelphia, Ark. at the MIAA/GAC Challenge. The team knows that they must perform better on the road this season. Western was 6-2 at home, but just 3-6-1 when not playing in the friendly confines of Spratt Stadium in 2015. "We talk about being really good Sunday players and when you're on the road you're in the hotel and you may not be as focused in your training session on Saturday," Edwards said. Missouri Western was picked to be fifth in the preseason MIAA Coaches Poll. They will start their conference schedule against two teams who were picked to finish in the bottom of the conference before facing off against last season's conference champion, Central Missouri. In the eyes of Blessie, this Western team is just as talented as the team from Warrensburg. "I think maybe they are more patient on the ball, but I believe we play with more heart and toughness," Blessie said. The team knows where they want to be at the end of the season--and they know who they must beat and what it will take to finish at the top of the MIAA. "There is always that team that you want to reach, that you want to beat," Blessie said. "And that is our goal, to beat UCM and to be like them and with our talent and heart. I think we can be." The Griffon's first match will be against Harding University on Sept. 2 and their first home game will be Tuesday Sept. 6 against Bemidji State University.
Known mostly as the home of one of the wealthiest men in the world, for a zoo and as the the center of the college baseball world each year, Omaha is home to many great attractions and also to a 21-year old girl who spends each fall tormenting MIAA opponents on the soccer field. Redshirt junior Bridget Blessie grew up just outside of Omaha, Neb. Blessie grew up competing with two older brothers. “I was always trying to keep up with them, whether it was shooting hoops or playing in the streets,” Blessie said. Bridget’s desire to compete started at the age of four, spending afternoons playing sports with the neighborhood kids. Blessie was the only girl on her street, but she learned young that no one, parents included, would give her any sympathy. “I would go complain to my parents, but they would just tell me I needed to be better than my brothers,” Blessie said. Bridget began her soccer career at the age of four, playing in a co-ed league. “I was an energetic child, I was unable to ever sit still,” Blessie said. “I tried volleyball, but there just wasn’t enough running.” Soccer was a perfect fit for the young girl from southeast Nebraska. Though she enjoyed soccer as a kid, her love for the game began the first time she watched the World Cup. “I was watching it and realized—this isn’t just a neighborhood game…this is huge,” Blessie said. Her talent and competitive side led her to the Elite Girls Academy. Youth soccer took a huge jump in the 1990’s, going from 1.6 million kids to three million in 2000. The overall number of kids has stayed about the same, but the boy-girl ratio has changed over the last 10 years. The ratio now is almost 50/50. “I think a lot of it is the talent is growing,” Blessie said. “The seventh and eighth grade kids are much more talented now, compared to when I was growing up.” Youth academies like the one Blessie played in allows kids the opportunity to get the best training and the chance to travel the country to participate in tournaments. “My favorite part was getting to travel to San Diego for a tournament,” Blessie said. The overall talent that is assembled in the EGA gives athletes the competition needed to bring out the best in them. “Every girl that was on my EGA team was a college commit,” Blessie said. “I have one friend who went to Penn State and actually won a national title.” There are numerous girls that Bridget played with during her time with the EGA that went on to play at schools such as North Carolina, Miami and Marquette. “They really know how to develop you and they know how to prepare you for college,” Blessie said. One of Blessie’s biggest rivals has not always been the opponent on the other side of the field—but staying healthy. She had an offer from a Division I school before hurting her knee in the San Diego tournament. “They told me they would re-evaluate me and I was getting strong again and then I hurt my knee again in high school,” Blessie said. “I ended up having two surgeries while in school.” Bridget was born with slanted knees and so she was at a disadvantage from the beginning. It tested her work ethic, her drive and it would have been very easy for her to move on from that chapter of her life. Coaches, family and teammates did not allow her to quit. “I didn’t give up—and I have so many people to thank for that,” Blessie said. Bridget has excelled in almost every aspect since moving to St. Joseph. She has been named to the MIAA Academic Honor Roll the last two seasons and was First Team All-MIAA on the field last season. “They say that you’re only as strong as your weakest link and so I push myself to not ever be the worst player on the field,” Blessie said. There are very few things as important as winning to Bridget, and she proved that last season by setting a school record with four game-winning goals. “I hate the feeling of losing more than I enjoy the feeling of winning,” Blessie said. This season starts a new chapter for the redshirt junior who is always looking to improve. She struggled once again with knee pain during the 2015 season, and once again was forced to go through surgery to clean up her knee. The hardest part of the off-season was not being able to practice with her teammates. “I would stand on the sidelines and beg the coaches to go in, I didn’t care if I went in as the goalkeeper,” Blessie said. Bridget spent the off-season working on getting herself into playing condition. She has no desire to sit on the sidelines anymore and feeling like she was letting her team down by not being out there. The Griffons will need their leading scorer from the last year if they are to have any chance at competing for championships—but working hard is not an issue when it comes to Blessie. “I have been working hard to become a better shooter, to get more shots on goal,” Blessie said. Missouri Western has seen dramatic improvement from most of their teams. Soccer has had two of its best seasons the last two years, softball has been solid, and women’s basketball recently celebrated an MIAA championship. The success of other athletes does not go unnoticed, and the need to be just as or more successful than other sports is a common thing on Western’s campus. “We support each other, but you also don’t want to be the worst sports team on campus,” Blessie said. After her career of taking care of business on the soccer field, Bridget hopes to move on to a business career. Majoring in marketing and finance, the soccer star hopes to one day work for a sports franchise like the Chiefs or even pursue a career with the FBI. “But who knows, I have even given some thought into going to law school,” Blessie said. Though she excels on the field, Bridget is like any other college student. She works a part-time job making coffee in the hospital and likes to binge-watch Netflix shows late at night. But it is her work on the field that she wants to be remembered for. “I want to be like Mike Hill, even though I didn’t go to school with him, but I know who he is,” Blessie said.
A historic season for the Griffons finally met its end in Oklahoma. Western’s season was full of promise and potential, and for the most part, it lived up to that. The Griffons found themselves winning more games faster than any other team in program history had, and also won the most games in program history. To end the season, Western had an opportunity to capitalize on some games and move into a position to host this post-season game, but lost three of the last four games, including two to No. 1 Central Missouri. This left Western in sixth place heading to Oklahoma to play Northeastern State. The Griffons squared off against the RiverHawks last Wednesday in a game that head coach Chad Edwards described as, “one of the best all season.” After the first 45 minutes of the tournament match, the two teams were even, although Western was able to put up more shots. The second half was just as close. Up until the 85th minute, the game was still tied. That’s when McKenzie Musella of Northeastern changed the game. From 20 yards out, Musella fired one that was just too much for Sarah Lyle to reach. This put the RiverHawks up 1-0 with just five minutes to play. Western could not find an equalizer. The fact that the game was such a hard fought battle was the roughest part of the loss. “Our team put every ounce they had until the last second and, unfortunately, we just came up short," Edwards said. "We certainty gave them all they could handle." The season ended, but there is a lot to be taken away from it. “Overall, you have to look back and say this season was a success,” Edwards said. The head coach of the Griffons insisted that the success this season would not have been possible without his seniors that lead this team. “Right now, it is hard for the seniors to see in the moment, but when they look back and reflect, they will be proud of what they were able to accomplish," Edwards said. "Our seniors have built this program up to be a program to be reckoned with.” It was the mentality that this program took on this season that lead them to be able to take such great strides. Edwards could vouch that there was something new and alive in the team this year. The biggest change, in his opinion, was the team’s confidence. “We knew we could play with any team in this league,” Edwards said. Moving forward to next season, Edwards is ready to see where this new found confidence can take the program. Until next fall, it is back to work for Edwards and the Griffons.
A weekend full of potential for the Griffons fizzled out when they took to the road this weekend to face Central Missouri and Lindenwood. Going into this weekend’s road trip, the Griffons were riding a three-game winning-streak, their first of the year. With the opponents of Central Missouri and Lindenwood ahead, the Griffons hoped to at least split the weekend series. The trip to Warrensburg did not go as planned. Western would fall behind early in the first half (1-0) when the Jennies scored in the 16th minute. The second half did not go much better as the Griffons would give up two more goals, one immediately after the half in the 46th minute, and another about 10 minutes later in the 55th minute. Western fell to the Jennies by a score of 3-0. This was the first time this season that Western has given up more than one goal in a game. The defense and goal keeper Sarah Lyle just could not keep the #10 team in the nation out of the net this game. The Griffons then traveled to play Lindenwood on Sunday in what would become another frustrating loss for Western. The Griffons had defeated Lindenwood 2-1 at Missouri Western back in September and hoped to take a season sweep against the Lions, but fell by a score of 1-0 on the road. The only goal scored in the game came in the 44th minute and Western believed it to be a controversial one, arguing that Lindenwood was off sides. “If we were fortunate enough to have replay, it may not have been a goal,” head coach Chad Edwards said. This wasn’t an excuse, as coach also reiterated the fact that the Griffons have to find a way to score. Although Western had more of an offensive presence, they never were able to find the back of the net. This two-loss weekend is a minor setback for the team, as they move forward with only two games remaining. The Griffons are now tied with Emporia State for sixth in conference, but must face Northwest Missouri State this Friday on the road in a make-up game, because of the cancelled home game. Western must also face Central Missouri again this next Sunday to wrap up their season. The Griffons have a record of 8-6-1 and still hope to make the most of the rest of the season. With two victories this upcoming weekend, Western could still slide into the top 4 in conference and get to host a conference tournament game at Spratt Stadium. Edwards said that he is aware of the challenges ahead, but has faith in his team. “We still have a chance to host a playoff game and Northwest is a team we need to beat,” Edwards said. “UCM is a tough team, but we are looking forward to that challenge again.” This weekend will be the final two games of the regular season for Western before postseason play begins next Wednesday.
[caption id="attachment_25727" align="alignnone" width="300"] Sydney Andrews heads the ball defenders close in on her Friday against Nebraska-Kearney at Spratt Stadium. Zack Papenberg | Photo Editor[/caption] The Griffons were on top of their game this weekend, as they won both games for the first time since the first week of the season. Friday’s matchup with Nebraska-Kearney was the tale of two halves. The first half was a series of missed opportunities by Nebraska-Kearney. The Lopers put up six shots, but only had one on goal, which Western goalkeeper Sarah Lyle handled. At halftime, neither team had found the net and were scoreless. The second half was an offensive assault by the Griffons, with the help of Sydney Andrews and Katie Kempf finding the net for the first time this season. By the end of the game, four goals were scored between the two teams, three of which were netted by the Griffons. Andrews scored two goals in the Griffons victory less than 20 minutes apart from each other. Kempf found the net late into the second half with an assist from Sydney Cluck. Nebraska-Kearney wouldn’t find their way to a goal until it was far too late to pull off a comeback. Western emerged victorious by a score of 3-1. The Griffons play was what head coach Chad Edwards called, "beautiful soccer." On Sunday, Western went up against Fort Hays State for the first time this season. Though the game was not near the mismatch that Friday was, Western still found their way to their third consecutive victory. Bridget Blessie would find the net for the fourth time this season in the 61st minute. This would be the only score, as Lyle had another standout performance with nine saves. This is the first time the Griffons have won three straight games this season. Edwards calls it a “huge comeback” from the rough loss to Washburn last weekend. After the undefeated weekend, Western moved to No. 5 in the MIAA. To host an MIAA tournament game, the Griffons must find their way into the top four in the conference. Another important qualification the Griffons are working towards is to secure a place in the National Tournament. To do this, the Griffons must remain in the top six in the region. With a critical weekend ahead, the Griffons hope to pick up momentum at just the right time. Western travels to Central Missouri this Friday. The Mules are No. 1 in the MIAA at an overall 12-2. The team feels as if this is the best position they can be in heading into the match up with UCM. “Going out on a high this weekend, and with them just losing to Northeastern, gives us the best shot to do well against them,” Drew Mantlo said. Western plays Central Missouri twice over the final weeks of the season. On Sunday, Oct. 25, Western will go for a season sweep over Lindenwood on the road.