COLUMBIA — Stephens College head soccer coach Xander Kennedy is no stranger to building things from the ground up.
Whether it was playing on his town's first traveling youth soccer team as a sixth-grader or on his high school's inaugural soccer varsity team as a sophomore, Kennedy has always been intrigued by grassroots efforts in the sport he loves.
So when administrators approached him in the spring of 2012 about coaching Stephens' first soccer team, Kennedy knew he couldn't say 'no.'
"I think I have some insight into what it takes to start a team," Kennedy said. "I have never participated in soccer at the highest level, but what I have done is been a part of initial efforts. I know the growing pains that a team needs to overcome to be successful."
Few could have predicted just how extreme those growing pains would be for Stephens in its first season; the team went scoreless through nine games while conceding at least five goals in each game.
Kennedy, whose only previous experience coaching was with a youth team in Kirksville for a few years while studying at Truman State University, attributed the program's slow start to lack of recruitment time — most high school seniors had already committed to play elsewhere when the team was introduced in the spring — as well as the lack of a general soccer background among the players.
"The reality of the situation quickly became clear, but I think easing my way into coaching at this level was a good reminder of what it takes to be successful in this game," Kennedy said. "Maybe that is what I needed."
The 32-year-old native of Warrensburg describes his mindset heading into the 2013 campaign as "cautious optimism with a healthy dose of realism."
"Now that I have been through a season, I know the level of competition to expect," Kennedy said. "I just look forward to the games playing out differently this year, and us putting up a good showing."
Kennedy said he is impressed by his team's commitment this year, something he believes is a direct response to the mentality of his three new captains: sophomores Dani Wilson and Michaela Daniels and junior Kenzie Andrade, a transfer who has the most thorough soccer background on the team.
"The commitment to the team as a whole is night-and-day different from last year," Kennedy said. "Our captains have demanded dedication and the rest of the team has responded well."
"Last year, we would have six or seven players show up to practice; this year, everyone is there, even those who are injured."
Overall, Kennedy recognizes that the growth process for the Stephens soccer team won't happen overnight and there will certainly be more obstacles to face this year.
Yet, it is the idea of building a successful program step by step that gets Kennedy excited about going to practice every day.
"I enjoy sharing my passion for the sport that I love with this new generation of young adults," Kennedy said. "I love admissions work, but there is something so gratifying about being on a field with a bunch of people working towards the same goal. Few things can compare to that."
Stephens kicks off the 2013 season 4 p.m. Friday against Spring Hill College at Cosmopolitan Park.
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