This season marks the first year the Kansas State women’s soccer team will compete in the Big 12 conference. Both the players and coaches have been counting down the minutes for this moment.
“Truthfully, we have nothing to lose,” head coach Mike Dibbini said. “Every single team in the Big 12 picked us last, and I think we’re better than that. I believe that our players will come out and compete in every game and hopefully scare a few teams.”
The Wildcats will face Texas Tech in their first ever Big 12 conference game in Lubbock, Texas, today. There will be lots of jitters and excitement for both new and returning players; they will be relieved nonetheless as K-State soccer in the Big 12 is starting at last.
“I think this is such a cool experience being in the Big 12,” junior captain Haley Sutter said. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time, so I think just getting to play awesome teams will be exciting, and just getting to see how we match up with these teams will be really cool.”
Last year, the team played an exhibition-like season, giving them the opportunity to face well-established, mid-major teams across the country. The coaching staff scheduled these games diligently in hopes of preparing the team for the rigorous Big 12 they knew they’d be playing in this year. The Wildcats traveled to play both the University of Oregon and Oregon State to start off the season, facing two very respected Pac-12 opponents.
“We learned a lot going to Oregon and Oregon State in terms of Pac-12, and it took a lot out of us,” Dibbini said. “We played two Power 5 opponents, and I think we need to focus our attention more on recovery and what we do in terms of keeping them fresh in those games and matches. Without freshness and without us being prepared, it can get scary.”
Jessica Smith, assistant coach for the soccer team, will play a major role going into this Big 12 conference. Not only did she have a successful playing career at the University of Kansas, she was also on their coaching staff from 2011 to 2015. Smith’s experience in the Big 12, both on and off the field, will be a key factor in the soccer team’s success this year.
“The game is changing every year and teams change, so I do have some advantage,” Smith said. “I do have experience in this conference, but I think even for me, I’ve been out of it for two years. The challenge for all of us and the staff is to get into those first couple matches and make sure that we are preparing the team.
“I try to use my experience, as far as how quickly we have to play and what kind of environment do we really need in training, to actually make sure that we are competing in the matches,” Smith continued. “I try to bring that every day and make sure the standard is where it needs to be.”
The Wildcats have 24 underclassmen on their roster this year, which is uncommon for most Division I programs. Both Dibbini and Smith emphasized how crucial their role on the team is this year, and they have proven their importance by featuring several freshmen on the starting roster this season.
“We have several newcomers who are playing pretty significant minutes,” Smith said. “Then we have some that maybe aren’t playing as much, but are challenging in practice and doing a really good job of helping us be competitive. I think they’re all playing their own unique role on the team, but I think going into the year, we knew that we were going to have a few younger players who were going to be playing a little bit more. It’s definitely changed the dynamic when you have so many different personalities on the team. It makes for a fun environment.”
Although the freshman class has made a tremendous impact on the Wildcat roster, the upperclassmen have helped them adjust to college soccer and prepare them for the Big 12 competition.
“I think it’s helped because you really don’t know what to expect from each team and everyone’s different,” Sutter said. “So having that experience, we can teach them on and off the field and kind of tell them what to do and what to expect. Whether it’s the pace of the game or how physical it’s going to be, it’s good to have that knowledge and try to give them a heads up. Our girls are adapting super quickly, so it’s helped a lot.”
The team got a taste of the Big 12 last year in their inaugural season when they faced the University of Texas late in the season, losing 2-0 to the Longhorns.
“This year, we’ve tried to implement better speed of play and training more physically,” Smith said. “When you’re battling against your teammate in practice, you’ve got to challenge her in order to prepare her for the matches. I think we try to raise the level of competitiveness so that we’re ready when we get into Big 12 play.”
Coaches, players and fans will be in for a treat this year as the Wildcats will host West Virginia University, Baylor, Texas and the University of Iowa at home in their inaugural Big 12 season.
“It is going to be a challenge,” Dibbini said. “However, I feel that there will be some games where we will make it interesting. As long as our girls and our players buy in and believe, you never know.”