A Winning Attitude
Nov. 5, 2008
LOGAN, Utah -
By: Dave Archer, USU Athletic Media Relations
In her six years as head coach of Utah State's women's soccer team, Heather Cairns has been able to describe her squads in a number of ways. Talented, inexperienced, surprising, hard working or a slew of other adjectives may have been tossed around to describe teams from the past. But this year, she's got a new word to describe her team, one no other coach in the team's history has been able to use before.
For the first time in their history, the Aggies can lay claim to that title, as the team captured the 2008 regular season Western Athletic Conference crown after posting a perfect 7-0 league record.
"To be able to bring a championship home to Utah State, it's been this team's dream for as long as I've been here," Cairns said. "That's been our goal. We've come close a few years, and to have finally reached it; we're just so excited."
For Cairns, much of her team's success this year can be attributed to the development of many of her players and the sheer number of weapons the team possesses. In the past, Cairns said she's had to rely on one or two strikers to create the majority of the offense and score goals. This year, however, has been a much different story.
"We've had nine different players score goals in conference play. That's amazing," she said. "Our attack is so diverse. We don't have one or two players that we have to count on to get on the board for us. It's just that diversity in the attack that's really helped us."
A number of Cairns' players, including senior Candice Clark, have also noticed the difference in the team's style of play this season.
"I think our confidence level has definitely gone up," Clark said. "In the past, we've had one or two players where we'd get the ball to them and let them do all the work. Now, it's like all of us have a role, all of us do our own thing and it's making it possible for us to win games without having just one or two people do it."
While the accomplishment has been nice for the entire team as a whole, it's marked the culmination of a long time goal for the six seniors, who have seen both the highs and the lows the program has gone through over the past few years. Along with Clark, seniors Kiersten Nilsson, Ali Griffin and Alyssa Lowry started with the team in 2005, which saw the Aggies finish with a disappointing 7-9-4 record. But for fifth year seniors Lisa Willardson and Jessie Malaska, who started with the team during the 6-11-1 season in 2004, the climb to the top of the WAC has been especially sweet.
"It's been really good, it's been nice to see our program grow and extend," Willardson said.
Nilsson added, "It's been kind of a cool ride. As our class has progressed, it's been fun to be a part of it and be on a team that's been winning. The feel of the team right now is just fun, it's fun to be winning."
So what made the difference this season? What made it possible for the Aggies to take that proverbial step up and carry the program to the next level? That all depends on who you ask. According to Cairns, it's been valuable leadership from her six seniors that has helped the team win this season.
"All of them bring something a little bit different," she said. "What they all bring is great leadership in a lot of different ways. Each one of them is very unique and I think that helps them to be a great group of leaders."
Ask the seniors, however, and they're quick to deflect the credit to the rest of the team, especially the younger players who have come in and made an instant impact on the team.
"The first couple practices, seeing the freshmen that were coming in, all of us thought, `Wow, they're a talented bunch,'" Griffin said. "They helped fill in gaps that we had, that was definitely helpful."
Whatever the reason, it became obvious as the season progressed that this year's team had the opportunity to be a special one. Even with a slower start to the season, which saw the Aggies finish 5-7-1 in non-conference play, the team never lost its swagger and confidence heading into the WAC season.
"At the beginning of the season, there was kind of a lull where we couldn't find our groove," Nilsson said. "But throughout the year, our leadership has stepped up, especially in practice. We make it known that we're here to work hard, and I think the underclassmen have followed that lead."
That hard work led to a perfect conference run, a regular season championship, and most importantly, a top seed and momentum heading into the WAC Tournament this week. While the team is proud of what they've been able to do so far this season, it knows there's a conference championship to win and an NCAA tournament berth to secure before they can relax and take it all in.
"We need to keep the momentum going," Cairns said. "I think our team's pretty focused. We're proud of what we did, but we realize there's a bigger prize out there, and that we do have to stay focused. We're in a good mindset to do that. There's a lot of good things to be done the rest of the season, and we can't be satisfied with where we are."
Griffin added, "We need to keep working hard and playing emotionally on the field, keep the winning attitude."
It's that winning attitude that has carried the Aggies to this point so far, and one they know can carry them even farther this season.