When the Pacific Lutheran University Women’s soccer team tied the NCAA record for most ties in a season in 2012, many of the players and coaching staff, surprisingly enough, saw it as an improvement.
Seven ties overall and a sixth place finish in Northwest Conference is nothing to write home about, especially considering the league is comprised of only nine teams. But compared to the teams’ finish the year before, the Lutes had every reason to be optimistic about what the future held.
Seniors Hannah Bush and Blake Warner were sophomores during that record-breaking 2012 season, and they are now the last members of previous PLU head coach Lynnette Buffington’s final recruiting class.
After an seventh place finish during Bush and Warner’s first year in Fall 2011, PLU alum Seth Spidahl was hired in place of the departed Buffington. Flash forward to present day and the trio has helped the team bring the good times back to Parkland.
Bush, a Tacoma native and graduate of Stadium High School, and Warner, from Wheat Ridge, Colo., didn’t know what to expect coming into PLU.
Both girls joined the Lutes with winning mentalities; Bush having played for Washington Premier FC, one of the states top youth clubs, and Warner having won two state titles at Wheat Ridge High School.
PLU, on the other hand, had not been as successful. As with most teams that place in the bottom half of the conference, a lot of it comes down to the teams attitude.
“We played more for each other rather than the coach,” Bush said frankly. “It sucked when we lost, but we didn’t really know what to do about it.”
“She (Buffington) basically said ‘it’s up to you guys to fix it,’” Bush said.
Unfortunately, nothing got fixed, and the team finished the 2011 season with a record of 4-13-1.
“It felt like she lost her passion,” Warner said. “It seemed like it was just a job where she just showed up, coached us and then left.”
That was until Spidhal took the reigns.
After being told about the position by men’s soccer head coach John Yorke, Spidahl was selected as the number one choice out of four candidates for the head coaching role.
“When I was a student-athlete, PLU Women’s soccer was at the pinnacle of small college women’s soccer,” Spidahl said. “I have a lot of Lute pride and wanted to see if the we could raise the program back up to the standard of the past.”
And raise it he did.
A native of Anchorage, AK, Spidahl graduated from PLU in 1994, and instead of returning to Alaska, he decided to stay in Washington and coach. From 2001-2009, Spidahl was the assistant coach of the University of Washington Men’s soccer team, and helped lead the Huskies to five NCAA postseason appearances.
Despite coming from one of the top men’s NCAA Division I team’s on the west coast, Spidahl doesn’t see PLU as a step down.
“I left UW to gain more of a balance in my family life,” Spidahl said. “I still wanted to get back into coaching, and the Division III level has the sort of atmosphere I was looking for.”
It can take a long time to take a downtrodden team and turn them into winners, but Bush, Warner and Spidahl were all up for the challenge.
“Seth was definitely more hands on, and you can tell he really wants his team to do well,” Warner said. “He sends us emails at three in the morning and is up all night thinking about what will make us better.
“Thats something that wasn’t there before,” Warner said.
With Spidahls passion and eye for talent when recruiting, the team slowly started to play like a team that believed they could win.
During coach Buffington’s last year in charge, the defense was a mess and the offense was sputtering. A whopping 41 goals against and only 12 goals scored 18 games tells the story.
The 2013 season, Spidahls second in charge, could not have been any different.
This time, the numbers were flipped. The team, lead by Warner up front and Bush in defense, scored 31 goals and conceded only 16 in 20 games played, resulting in the programs first third place finish since 2005.
A youthful team with good chemistry and a winning attitude represents a stark contrast with previous seasons, and Bush and Warner have been vital to the transition.
“I’m very grateful for Hannah and Blake and their stick with-it-ness,” Spidahl said. “Hannah has been great for PLU, and PLU has been great for Hannah.”
“Blake has been a cornerstone of our attack since my first year here and has really grown to become a great captain and resource for the younger players,” Spidahl said.
After going from perennial losers to budding challengers, the team has set its sights on the NWC title.
“At the end of the day, PLU should be in the conversation for the NWC title every year,” Spidahl said speaking of the teams chances this season. “ If we enjoy the journey and the process, hopefully we are in that conversation.”
It’s safe to say that that conversation is already well under way. What would have been unthinkable three years ago is now a reality. The Lutes are currently sitting in first place with half of a season to go.