Before they could take the field, before they could compete, the K-State women’s soccer team needed to prepare, and while K-State’s football and basketball programs have built their successes through decades of tradition and work, the women’s soccer team has only had since 2015.
Lindsey Babcock, soccer administrator for the Wildcats, played a crucial role in kickstarting the soccer program at K-State, from recruiting the inaugural team to preparing a playing field. She said a big obstacle for the administration was recruiting and phasing in players.
“We could not just bring in 30 freshmen right away,” Babcock said. “We had to bring in transfers to have players that were freshmen all the way through seniors.”
College recruits for soccer often commit their eighth and ninth grade years, and schools often have their recruiting base done four years in advance. That certainly put K-State behind the eight-ball.
Nevertheless, K-State accomplished the task of assembling a team. Beginning in fall 2015, 10 student-athletes trained together while taking classes. With no games to be played, it was a long and grueling year
As time has gone on, just two of the initial 10 remain: Krista Haddock, a recruit from Hemet, California, and Haley Sutter, an Overland Park native who transferred from the University of Memphis. Both redshirted during the 2015-16 athletic season.
After reaching out across the country to find a coach, K-State found its match: Mike Dibbini.
Prior to leading the Wildcats for the past three years, Dibbini was the director of soccer programs at Kansas Wesleyan University. He coached both the men’s and women’s teams for eight seasons (2005-2012). After his time at Kansas Wesleyan, Dibbini coached two seasons (2013-14) at Cal Poly Pomona.
Kansas Wesleyan just so happens to be in Salina, Kansas. Having lived in Salina for many years, Dibbini has been a K-State fan and said “there was no doubt that I wanted to be here.”
He said he loved the opportunity to start the program from scratch. While it was a joy for Dibbini to become the head soccer coach at K-State, more obstacles have presented themselves along the way.
“As far as the program itself, there has been many challenges, but it’s been a great process,” Dibbini said. “Starting from scratch you don’t have anything. You have to build your culture, you have to build a base, you have to build the methods and that’s what we’re going through right now.”
Dibbini said he is grateful for how his players have bought into the growth process, saying “the student-athletes that we have are a blessing for the fact that they are working really hard to get there as quickly as possible, really surprising myself, the conference and the country.”
Putting all the pieces together
Hiring coaches and recruiting players are obvious tasks a new team must accomplish, but administration faced other logistical tasks such as a budget, facilities and the playing surface. Babcock said a big thing the administration did was call other schools and look at other established programs to figure out what to do in those areas.
Reception of the new sport has been great, and there has been no indication of lack of knowledge or passion of soccer from fans and students.
At the first-ever home match against Northern Iowa in 2016, a new record for NCAA Division I women’s soccer attendance in the state of Kansas was set, as 2,403 people attended. The inaugural season saw the Wildcats average the fourth-best attendance in the entire country, averaging 2,265 fans per match.
K-State was also the No. 1 team in the Big 12 a year ago.
Sutter said fan support is a confidence booster for the team.
“It’s just good to have that support system,” Sutter said. “That’s something that is huge here at K-State and it provides a fun atmosphere to play in. It’s a little bonus of playing here.”
Founding the team’s stomping grounds
Initially, the K-State soccer program had to hit the ground running without a permanent facility. It was not an easy to deal with, but they did it. That patience is being rewarded, as a brand new soccer facility is scheduled to be built in 2019.
On March 3, athletics director Gene Taylor announced that the fundraising goal for the project, which will also include renovations to the baseball complex, had been reached. The new soccer complex will break ground on Oct. 12, during the Wildcats’ game against Texas Tech. The exterior part of the project is expected to be completed in July 2019, with the interior part and finishing touches commencing on Dec. 31, 2019.
The soccer stadium will be equipped with numerous amenities including a locker room, players’ lounge, sports medicine area, a fueling station for the athletes, an equipment room and new coaches’ offices that will overlook the field.
It will also feature permanent, larger and more comfortable seating for fans, along with restrooms and concessions.
Making the players feel at home, as well as drawing recruits to K-State, are two benefits Dibbini sees with the new complex.
“The facilities, operationally, will help us in so many ways,” Dibbini said. “Having our own locker room and a lounge is going to give our student-athletes a home. It’s going to be important for this program, especially on the recruiting side as well. When recruits come to campus and see this nice, new building, it’s going to have an impact on recruiting right away and put us on an equal playing field with the rest of the conference.”
The road so far
In their inaugural season, the Wildcats achieved a 5-9-3 record. That season saw them play a non-conference schedule, although they did play the University of Texas. It was not until 2017 when they would play a full Big 12 schedule along with non-conference games. The team’s sophomore season resulted in a 6-11-1 record.
While the team improved in the win column only slightly, improvement can be seen in the way that the Wildcats have competed game after game.
The gauge Dibbini uses is to look at matches against common opponents in both seasons.
“Let’s take Central Arkansas and Texas, two teams we played again in our second year,” he said. “We lost to Central Arkansas and Texas, but we lost to them. We beat Central Arkansas this year, pretty convincingly [3-1 win], and we take Texas, top 10 in the country, to overtime [1-0 loss].”
If you ask Haddock, the future looks bright for this team.
“In games specifically, our girls grind, and I don’t think that’s an attitude that’s going to go away from our team,” Haddock said. “We’re the last team in the Big 12 to add [soccer], so we will always be the newest team, and I think even once we establish a reputation, it will be known that we had to work for it. Even when we even out our playing field, I think we will always be ‘blue collar.’ I think that is going to make it look good, because I think we will always be a tough team to play.”