COLUMBIA — At this time last year, the Columbia College women's soccer team was just an idea. An idea that didn't take shape for months.
The 18 players were scattered across the country, from California to mid-Missouri. No one knew what kind of team they would form or what the expectations would be.
Now, after a season of adjustments and learning how to play with one another, the Cougars find themselves one victory away from claiming the American Midwest Conference regular season championship. If they beat Park University on Friday in Parksville, the Cougars will hoist the trophy in their first year as a program.
Columbia College coach John Klein said he knew from the start that if his team came together, it would have a shot at the conference title. He said his team now plays with a balanced effort, sound defense and players can mount significant attacks.
"We're capable of playing with every team we face," he said. "We've got nothing to lose, so there's no reason to fall over against Park."
While the defense has been a strong suit of the Cougars all year, the team struggled with offense early on. Klein said his team would typically play as well, if not better, than its opponents, which included ranked National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics competition Kansas Wesleyan and Graceland. But the Cougars were unable to score enough to win.
The Cougars started the year going 3-7, including losing four of five games in mid-September. The defense conceded more than two goals only once in a game during their first 10 games, but the offense was inconsistent, shut out or held to one goal seven times.
Then, on Oct. 3 against Hannibal-LaGrange, things seemed to pick up. They beat the Trojans 3-0, the start of a six-game winning streak during which Columbia College outscored its opponents 47-1, including an 18-0 rout of Stephens College on Oct. 16.
Freshman forward Kelly Ross, who leads the team with 13 goals and 10 assists, scored 12 goals, including three hat tricks during the streak.
"In the beginning we were still getting used to things; we might've been nervous or goal shy," Ross said. "But once we got on that roll, our confidence got built up, and we became a threat in every game."
Now, at 9-8 and 6-1 in conference play, Columbia College is tied atop the AMC standings with Park (7-6, 5-0 in the AMC). The showdown on Friday will not only determine the conference champion, but the winner will also earn home field advantage throughout the upcoming AMC tournament.
While they've proven that they are among the top teams in the conference, Klein said they are still a step behind the top NAIA teams.
"It's been typical that we give good teams good games and our soccer's been consistent," Klein said. "But good soccer doesn't always equal victories."
Klein said Friday's game will come down to scoring. The defense will also have its hands full trying to slow the Pirates' pair of 14-goal scorers, senior forward Dana Hemmingsen, who also has 15 assists, and senior midfielder Juneille Watkins.
Should the Cougars come out on top, Klein said it would be a great accomplishment for the first class of Columbia College women's soccer players and benefit the program's recruiting efforts.
"I think this is something they really want, to feel the excitement of celebrating a championship," Klein said. "I hope they understand how proud I'd be of what they accomplished this year."
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.