COLUMBIA — As the morning fog lifts at Stephens Lake Park, it uncovers bright orange soccer cones scattered across a large, grassy field. Eighteen women, in sweaters and shin guards, run drills to prepare for their first soccer game as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes.
This season, Stephens College will have a soccer team for the first time since it joined the American Midwest Conference within the NAIA in 2004. The Stars will make their debut at 1 p.m. Saturday at Cosmopolitan Park, Field #6, against Missouri Baptist College.
In the spring of 2012, a small committee of athletic and academic advisers met to discuss the future of soccer at Stephens.
Deb Duren, the Stephens College athletic director, said that the presence of soccer at other AMC schools and Stephens' availability of student athletes and field access were factors in the decision-making process.
Students such as senior Elsie Vieira have been looking forward to this addition for years.
"I've wanted Stephens to start a soccer team since my freshman year," Vieira said. "I'm super excited that they finally made a decision to add a soccer program."
Vieira, who played soccer in high school, has been playing in informal leagues around Columbia for the past three years in order to get her fix. Her excitement about the new team can be seen in her on-field demeanor. She commands the pitch, directing her teammates through drills and offering words of encouragement to those around her.
The senior said she's looking forward to the season, despite knowing how much work will be needed.
"The school has made it easy — providing us with a great practice space and finding girls that are interested in playing," Vieira said.
In preseason practices that began Aug. 13, Vieira was one of just eight players on the team. Because the decision to add a soccer program didn't come until springtime, Stephens was unable to do any serious recruiting. Once classes started, interest in the team grew, and so did the roster. The Stars now have 18 players.
"We have a unique college athletic scene," Coach Xander Kennedy said of the team's makeup. "The players were not heavily recruited. They're simply young women with an interest in the sport."
They're young women who don't mind running sprints across cold, dew-covered grass as the sun rises.
"Our youth and inexperience may show once the season gets underway," Kennedy said, calling the end of practice after participating in a shooting drill with the team.
Kennedy, who has been an admissions counselor at Stephens for the past four years, is no stranger to the game of soccer or to fledgling teams.
"I started kicking a soccer ball when I started walking," he said.
Kennedy grew up in Warrensburg and was a founding member of both his high school soccer team and the town's first traveling team. He's not hesitant to get out on the field during practice to offer drill demonstrations or a good laugh to the team members.
"He's a great coach," Vieira said. "You can tell he knows and loves the sport."
The relationship between Kennedy and the team is an important factor for this first season. They both agree the team's focus isn't going to be about winning this fall. Their main goal is not only to be great athletes, but also to be good students.
"It's a satisfying team to be a part of," Kennedy said. "You get to be active and a part of something. No egos involved."