Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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Undefeated Clark women’s soccer team has bonded into a powerhouse

Penguins to host Skagit Valley in NWAC quarterfinals Saturday

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

On a recent afternoon inside a classroom at the O’Connell Sports Center, the Clark College women’s soccer team has gathered to watch a game that will determine who the Penguins face in the playoffs.

While Clark last played one week prior, Spokane and Skagit Valley do not have the same luxury. They’ve drawn a Northwest Athletic Conference regional game, with the winner earning a trip to Vancouver to play the Penguins on Saturday, just three days later.

At halftime, Clark head coach Peter Pickett gives the team an assignment. The players split up into four groups, two each representing Spokane and Skagit Valley. They’re tasked with figuring out a plan for that team should they advance, including the formation the Penguins prefer to run against them, how they want to defend and lastly, what are some ways Clark can attack their opponent?

When the players return to share their answers, it turns out most of them are thinking the same thing. Pickett and assistant coach Kayla Beard continue jotting down ideas on whiteboards as the second half gets underway, still scoreless. If the game goes to overtime, Pickett tells the players they’re free to leave, but many ask if they can stay to see how the game finishes. In the end, Skagit Valley advanced past Spokane on penalty kicks, setting up Saturday’s 5 p.m. game at Harmony Sports Complex.

The Penguins find themselves in this position after finishing the regular season 12-0, winning their fifth straight NWAC South Region title and earning a first-round bye. Yet going into the season, that success was far from a foregone conclusion with a team made up of almost entirely new faces. Unlike in past years, when there’s been a natural transition from one class to the next, the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic created an awkward gap for the program.

“Junior colleges will transfer out half their roster every year, but it’s very interesting when you have everyone coming in (at once) and then you’re having to explain to them the culture, rather than showing them,” Pickett said. “Most schools have upperclassmen in place to keep the culture together.

“We had to kind of create that on our own.”

Of Clark’s 19 players on the current roster, only one, Kiara “Kiki” Kallie had played for the Penguins in 2019. Drawing on that experience, she knew the team’s connectivity would dictate how far they would go.

She talked with Pickett to learn more about each player, and set out to get everyone acquainted. When the pandemic kept them all from gathering, that meant creating group chats and organizing FaceTime calls for the team to connect. Kallie’s ability befriend everyone and “break the ice,” has been invaluable for the Penguins, Pickett said.

“Seeing mostly new faces, I kind of took it upon myself to make sure everybody was connected,” Kallie said. “Everybody was around each other all the time, we all did everything together so we would connect on a different level on and off the field.”

Building the connection off the pitch was the first step for players. When the team convened Aug. 1 to begin training, players and coaches recognized the immense individual talent on the roster, largely made up of players from Southwest Washington and the greater Portland area.

The local group includes Kallie (Washougal), defenders Emily Langdale (Camas), Jamie Jeschke (Hockinson), Sophia Green (Skyview), Morgan Nebels (a Vancouver resident who attended Portland’s La Salle), midfielders Raegan Griffith (Columbia River), Annabelle Nguyen (Union), Adamaris Jimenez-Cifuents (Skyview) as well as forwards Anna Neal (Prairie) and Shalece Easley (Columbia River).

The cohesion didn’t come right away. Occasional moments showed the group’s lack of familiarity with the program. Before each home game, the team goes to a building near its home field nicknamed “the igloo,” where players get ready and huddle for a pregame talk. The only problem was, prior to the team’s Aug. 7 alumni game against former Clark players, the team couldn’t find the building.

“Usually, the sophomores will lead the freshmen to the igloo on the first day,” said defensive captain Adilynn “Addie” Brotnov. “Half an hour before we’re supposed to start warming up, we’re walking around trying to figure out where this freakin’ building is, and Peter shows up and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, this is a completely new crew.’ None of us had any idea of the traditions, the culture of what the team is supposed to look like.

“Thinking back on it … it’s definitely one of the founding moments of realizing, OK, yes there’s this big legacy behind us, but again, we get to decide who we want to be.”

Clark scheduled its preseason slate against a host of four-year programs in Oregon and Washington. Prior to a game against Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Clark coaches could sense some intimidation and feelings of uncertainty among their players as they looked across to the Willamette team warming up. But once the game started, and Clark played Willamette to a 1-1 draw, the belief grew.

“The biggest thing I remember is the energy on the sideline,” said Beard, a Battle Ground High graduate who played at Clark from 2017-18. “Everybody is on their feet, they’re cheering, they’re excited, they’re screaming for their teammates anytime anything happens. That game, it really clicked for us … It was like, this is Clark. This is who we are.”

“I think after that game, and moving into the next games, we really started believing, ‘Wow, we could be that team,’” Picket added.

The preseason slate, during which the Penguins did not lose a game, carried over to the NWAC regular season where they had an overwhelming 56-3 scoring advantage.

The back line and goalkeeper Presley Gauthier have combined for 10 shutouts. The midfield has been instrumental in getting Clark going. The attack, led by Kelli Huskic and Brynn Lukens, have blossomed in their first collegiate seasons with a combined 22 goals and 14 assists.

The coaching staff hasn’t been shy in telling players about the recent history of the program, namely, the streak of NWAC South Regon titles. At first, players  were wide-eyed looking at each other upon realizing the tradition they were expected to follow, Brotnov said. Over time, they’ve embraced it. With each additional practice and game they’ve played together, the pressure has almost subsided.

“Sitting on five consecutive conference champs, you don’t want to be that team to kind of stop that,” Kallie said. “We had Peter, not pushing us, but telling us, this is what Clark is about. We wanted to continue the tradition. We wanted to be southern region champs once again, we want to win the whole thing, showing Clark just keeps getting better and better.”

As the team watched Spokane and Skagit Valley play, they thought about the position they were in. On one hand, they have fresher legs, more time to prepare and the homefield advantage. They also have yet to experience win-or-go-home stakes of Saturday’s game, whereas their opponent has.

“That feeling of uncertainty, and maybe hesitancy or fear sometimes when you realize this could end, we haven’t felt that yet,” Pickett said. “For us, it’s just making sure when Saturday comes we approach it with a bit more courage than fear or hesitancy because we haven’t felt that.”

Then again, the team has gone through a lot of firsts together this season, and so far, they’ve met each challenge.

“I think this team is going to surprise a lot of people, and I think this year is our year, for sure,” Kallie said before a brief pause. “I have a feeling.”

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