BRIDGEWATER, Va. – Under the direction of Bridgewater head coach Mike Van Horn the women’s soccer program has undergone quite a transformation over the past several years.
Several seasons ago, Van Horn’s squad adopted the slogan “Witness the Rising.”
For anyone paying attention in recent seasons, the Eagles have certainly been a program on the move.
The Eagles moved from near the bottom of the ODAC, to the middle of the pack and, last year, to the conference championship game.
A year ago, the Eagles could see the mountaintop. The next step is landing on top of the mountain.
Going into this season, the Eagles were picked fourth in the ODAC preseason poll, barely missing a third-place nod. One ODAC coach cast his first-place vote with the Eagles. The usual suspects – Lynchburg, Virginia Wesleyan and Washington and Lee – were ranked 1-2-3. Roanoke was right behind the Eagles in fifth.
During Van Horn’s building process, the Eagles believed they could compete and defeat the top teams in the conference. The best in the conference, however, managed to turn back Bridgewater’s attempts at joining the conference’s upper echelon.
Things changed in 2012. Now, the Eagles know they can compete and defeat the top teams. In the first round of the ODAC tournament, Bridgewater advanced past its main nemesis, the Roanoke Maroons. In the semis, nationally-ranked Virginia Wesleyan went down. In the title game, the Eagles played well in a 2-0 loss at nationally-ranked Lynchburg.
There’s a big difference in thinking you belong and knowing you belong.
“Last year we proved we deserved to be in the championship game,” senior Melanie Waters said. “That was a big step. It’s definitely a confidence booster. When you start beating those teams ahead of you, then you start to earn their respect.”
The next step for the program may prove to be even tougher.
“Can we beat the top teams consistently? That’s the next step for the program. We have to show that we can do it again,” Conner said.
The two seniors believe the team has the talent, the focus and the motivation to make another title run.
“We’re young, but we have a lot of talent,” Waters said. “As upperclassmen we have to lead the way.”
The attitude within the program is different now than when the two seniors arrived on campus as freshmen.
“We came in on the front end,” Conner said. “The program was building. We were getting better every year and closer every year. It was a building process that’s still going on. This year’s freshmen come into the program and they know what we have done. They know we played for a championship last year. They know how close we are.”
The goal for the program over the past several seasons has always been the same – win a conference title. As Waters and Conner prepare for their final season, that goal seems much more attainable.
“That goal seemed to be way out there,” Conner admitted as Waters nodded in agreement. “Now we know it’s within our reach. It seems much more real.”
The Eagles had an interesting start to the season as a 3-0 lead in the opener against Greensboro was wiped out by a long weather delay, forcing the game to be declared a no-contest.
Bridgewater responded a day later to defeat a solid Dallas team by a score of 4-2.
“The early non-conference games are really important,” said Waters. “It’s a chance to develop our team and our depth before we get to the ODAC games.”
“Early in the season you have to show that you can take the things we work on in practice and take them from the practice field to the game field,” Conner said. “We have to show we can do those things with speed and accuracy.”
In the first two games, the Eagles showed that they may once again be a team capable of contending in the ODAC.
As Conner stated, consistency will be the key.
“The teams ranked behind us are going to come after us hard because they know beating Bridgewater will be a good win. The teams up top aren’t going to overlook us,” Conner said. “Can we play our best on a consistent basis? That’s what we have to do.”
That question will be answered over the next nine weeks.
If the Eagles can answer yes, the team could once again contend for the coveted conference title.