COLUMBIA — Starting an NCAA Division I women's soccer program is a difficult task. Making it a premier team in a little more than a decade is remarkable. Making that team a contender for a national championship is astonishing, but that's the goal Missouri coach Bryan Blitz has given his team in 2009.
And believe it or not, it's an attainable goal.
The Tigers won their first Big 12 Conference tournament championship last season, and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. That was also a first for the team, which finished the season ranked 10th nationally.
Blitz, the only head coach the Missouri women's soccer team has had, has updated his team's goals entering the 2009. Now, Blitz says, it is all about sustaining success.
"Champions are consistent, not automatic," Blitz said. "We're not going to sneak up on anyone."
Blitz says he thinks Missouri can reach the level of consistency that Texas A&M, Texas and Nebraska have shown in Big 12 competition.
"We have the potential, but we still need to win an outright Big 12 regular season championship," Blitz said. "That said, I believe we can get to that level of consistency."
To reach that level, Blitz will lean on his senior class to lead a team that has nine freshman and a senior transfer. The biggest concern is the defensive unit, where senior center back Crystal Wagner will be the only returning starter.
Wager was selected to play for the U.S. under-23 national team in England this summer and was named to the 2008 Soccer Buzz All-Central Region second team. Wagner said she came to Mizzou because of the family-like environment Blitz created on the team. Wager says that bond has only strengthened in her time on the team.
"Coach Blitz is a great offensive coach, and he brings in great people to the team," Wagner said. "But he cares about us players like a dad. He's a father figure, a second dad, for all of us. He puts our well-being first, before anything else."
All-Big 12 midfielder Alysha Bonnick is from North Gower, Ontario, a suburb of Ottawa. She says that Blitz's off field help is just as important as what he brings to the players on the field.
"I love coach Blitz. He's more caring than other coaches at other schools," Bonnick said. "I'm big on family, and being from Canada, this team being so close has been great."
While Blitz laid the foundations for his program with a family atmosphere, the newfound national prominence has helped Blitz bring in recruiting classes full of players ready to immediately contend in the conference.
"There is definitely more interest from better players, but we still want to have the same type of team mentality — a blue collar, aggressive team," Blitz said. "All of our freshman have the ability to be impact players. It's going to be hard to pick a starting group."
Midfielder Haley Krentz is one of Blitz's nine freshman. Krentz, who played soccer at Naperville (Ill.) North High School, says her introduction to the college game has been a crash course, and that Blitz has made the transition easier than she imagined.
"Right from the get go, the team and Coach Blitz included the freshman," Krentz said. "The speed of the game was a shocker when I played in the first scrimmage, but Coach Blitz is constantly giving us advice before, after and even during the game."
Coming off a stellar campaign by a senior-laden team that made the NCAA tournament in 1999, Blitz's team was unable to keep the program's momentum rolling in 2000. After the success of 2008, the large 2009 freshman class will be called upon to avoid the shortcomings of the 2000 team.
When the Tigers won the Big 12 tournament championship in November, Blitz's squad took another step forward. Missouri had been to the Big 12 tournament title game four times before finally winning last season.
"That win was a culmination of a lot for me," Blitz said. "It was the fourth time in the final, and luck had to go our way at some point. But not many teams can consistently get there."
Winning an outright Big 12 regular season championship and advancing past the second round in the NCAA tournament are two challenges on the top of Blitz's list of priorities, but Blitz says the pressure to achieve those goals is great.
"Yeah, there's pressure, but pressure is a privilege," Blitz said. "I'm elated on where the program is, but we're hungry to do more."