PORTLAND — Concordia University’s women have become an annual fixture at the NAIA soccer national tournament.
The school’s men are a little new at getting this far.
But both are Bama bound.
Both squads of Cavaliers are among 16 teams each for men and women battling next week in Alabama to claim national championships — and both have Vancouver representation.
Hannah Kimsey’s coach calls the junior center midfielder and first-team All-Cascade Collegiate Conference selection the team’s “maestro,” a distributor role relished by the Columbia River High School graduate.
For the men, Evergreen High School graduate Septi Danciu is a prolific scorer as a junior forward and the CCC player of the year. River graduate Jared Brace has battled injuries for back-to-back seasons, missing All-CCC honors as a senior for the first time after garnering conference honors in each of his first three seasons, but the forward is still a solid contributor when his body allows.
Concordia’s men, 16-3-2 and CCC champions after a 12-1-1 conference regular season, are the No. 16 seed and will face top-ranked Lindsey Wilson (20-1) of Kentucky at 2 p.m. Monday in Montgomery, Ala. The Cavaliers defeated Embry-Riddle of Arizona 3-1 in the opening round at Portland.
The women, 16-2-2 and CCC champions after a 7-2 conference regular season, are the No. 8 seed and will play unseeded Cumberland of Tennessee at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Orange Beach, Ala. The Cavaliers defeated Cal State San Marcos in overtime in the opening round, also at Concordia’s new on-campus Tuominen Yard field.
Happier across town
After garnering honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference honors as a freshman at Portland State, Kimsey transferred to Concordia last year.
“I’m a lot happier here,” she said. “It’s been a good transition for me.”
It has also been good for the Cavaliers.
“She’s kind of our maestro in the middle,” coach Grant Landy said. “She’s very technically good, great at switching the point of attack, can defend, can attack and create chances. She’s had an exceptional season for us.”
Kimsey has four goals and six assists for 14 points this season, including a game-winning goal, and has started every game for the Cavaliers. She has put 15 of her 42 shots on goal.
“I would say I’m more of a distributor,” she said of her role, continuing: I’m kind of in the middle of everything, I guess.”
That is right where Landy wants her.
“Our center mids kind of play off of each other, and I give them a lot of freedom to get forward when they need to,” he said. “Hannah likes to have the ball at her foot, and she’s very creative. I definitely like her getting forward.”
Kimsey, who played on a state championship team as a River senior in 2009, said the Cavaliers’ success this season has been driven by unselfish play.
“I think our greatest strength is that we’re like a family and we work for each other,” she said. “It’s been the underlying theme of our team to work for each other.”
In that context, she said, back-to-back late-season CCC losses to Northwest Christian and Northwest University may have been a reminder the Cavaliers needed.
“It’s helped us move forward,” Kimsey said. “I think it was a good thing in the long run, just to teach us that we have to show up for every game and any opponent can beat you on any given day.”
The Concordia women are playing in the NAIA tournament for the 11th consecutive year. Last season’s title run fell just short with a loss to Lee University of Tennessee in the championship game.
Winning a national championship is obviously the ultimate goal, and last year’s disappointment only serves as another reminder, Kimsey said, that “staying focused” is the key to success.
“At the national tournament, there are a lot of games in the same week, so part of it is staying healthy, doing the right things and eating right — and just prepare yourself for each game and take it a game at a time,” she said. “We’re a little more experienced because we do go year after year, but it’s new every year.”
Foes now teammates
Vancouver’s pair on the Concordia’s roster were rivals in high school, and teammates before in club play.
They are glad to be reunited as Cavaliers.
Danciu has 19 goals and six assists for 44 points, with nine game-winners and 48 of his 81 shots on goal. He has also converted seven of eight penalty kick opportunities. He was on the All-CCC second team as a freshman and first team each of the last two seasons.
“Septi’s a great player,” Brace said. “We had battles in high school, and even in club. Even here at practice, I enjoying playing with him and against him. When you’re playing against good players, it only makes you better, so it makes me happy when I’m playing on the field with him because we connect well and find each other and always look to pass to each other and find open spaces to create goals for the team. Over the years, it’s been really good to see him grow as a player, as well as myself when we’re working together.”
Brace was CCC Newcomer of the Year as a freshman in 2009 and first team All-CCC in each of his first two seasons. He was a second team selection as a junior. This season while limited by injury to 14 of the team’s 21 games, he has five goals and four assists for 14 points, putting 15 of his 22 shots on goal.
“He’s a talented player,” Danciu said. “He’s a crafty one. He can always change the game. He’s really good on the ball. He’s got some foot skills that not a lot of people have.”
Changes in college
Brace said that his lingering groin injury has “just been kind of bothering me off and on” for two seasons, but he continues to work to contribute to the team’s success.
“It’s been pretty difficult and rough, especially with how I started off my first couple of years here, but I just do whatever I can do for the team when I’m back,” he said. “I try to rehab it and go through it and do what I can, but it’s been kind of rough knowing that I can’t put my full out there a lot of the time. I try to work through it the best I can.”
Always a forward in his soccer career, Brace said he has adjusted to not “being the go-to guy or whatever it might be” as much now, but he is determined to make an impact when he can.
For his part, Danciu set single-season and career scoring records at Evergreen after emigrating with his family from Romania in 2005.
Continuing as a scorer in college is much more difficult, Danciu said, because college players are more serious about the game and working hard on their skills.
“It’s a lot harder, because everybody in college is working hard,” he said. “In high school, you kind of just get, ‘Oh, I’m out here for fun.’ In college, the fun is in working hard. People are very talented, and they’re here for a reason.”
When his own hard work was recognized with the conference player of the year award, Danciu did not know what to think.
“I was thinking how blessed I am,” he said. “First, I just want to thank God for giving me the ability to go out there and perform at a high level, then of course I want to thank my teammates and my coaches for always pushing me to do better in practice, because college soccer is all about working hard.”
Under the radar
Danciu and Brace agreed that the key to the team’s success has been unselfishness — playing for each other and trusting each other on and off the field.
“Nothing’s going to change for us,” Brace said. “We’re just going to play our game and do the best we can.”
Losing the regular season finale to city rival Warner Pacific was disappointing, Danciu said, because it spoiled the Cavaliers’ bid for the first unbeaten CCC season in program history.
“I don’t want to say it’s a good thing we lost, but it definitely got us back on track,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’m happy that we lost, but now look at where we are.”
Where they are is about where they will be next week. At nationals for the second time in program history — the first was in 2008 — is not the place to be intimidated by an opponent’s record or ranking.
“It’s going to be a really good experience,” Brace said. “We’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation, but I look forward to something like that. I think it’s going to be a really neat experience for all of us. It’s going to test us, but we’re not scared at all. We’re going to go in there with our heads high and play our game. We’ve got nothing to lose.”