The Maryville College Women’s Soccer team’s unique approach and close-knit dynamic have been pivotal to their success in the 2023 season — and now those traits have catapulted them into national playoff contention.
After winning the Collegiate Conference of the South (CCS) championship 2-1 in double overtime on Saturday, Nov. 4, the members of the team awaited word on whether they would receive an NCAA Division III tournament bid on Monday. Normally, conference champions receive automatic bids — but because the CCS is a new conference, championship teams must wait until year two for a guaranteed NCAA tournament berth.
Maryville College Women’s Soccer play was good enough, however — finishing 15-3-3, including a 7-0-1 conference record — to get a coveted bracket spot: The team will face Washington University of St. Louis on Saturday, Nov. 11, in the first round of NCAA D3 playoffs.
Much of that success can be traced directly to the soccer setup on the MC campus: Maryville College is one of the only schools in the country with a combined men’s and women’s coaching team, fostering strong athlete camaraderie. This close bond sometimes leads to misconceptions within the campus community.
“I’ve heard us called a cult before,” goalkeeper Sophie Turner (‘24) said. “It’s just because the team is tight, and players don’t have many friends off the team.”
Head Soccer Coach Pepe Fernandez, who has been at Maryville College since 1989, explained that the team dynamics extend to more than just soccer.
“They are all just really good people and good friends to each other,” Fernandez said. “They are a collection of friends first and soccer players second. And they are an important and valuable part of the Maryville community.”
With an average team GPA of 3.6, these athletes excel athletically and academically.
“Record-wise, it’s one of our top regular seasons of all time,” Fernandez added. “It’s been a good team, one of our best.”
Experienced leadership has contributed to the successful season, with six seniors returning to the team.
“It is really different from last year, in that we have almost everybody back…but we [also] have some really good young players,” Turner said.
The young players are supported in their growth as athletes, students and friends within this tight-knit community, mentored by their more experienced peers. The seniors on the team rotate the team captain position between games, sharing leadership responsibilities and working towards shared goals.
“They lift each other up on and off the field,” Fernandez said.
Turner echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of their communication and closeness.
“We’ve all been actually friends this season, and everyone has just meshed well personality-wise,” she added. “We’re teammates and friends first, and we will handle the rest after.”
To achieve this cohesiveness, the soccer players and coaches put in a lot of legwork.
Fernandez explained that the Division III athletes take personal responsibility for their training during the off-season. They participate in a weight program, Performance Training Inc. (PTI) and 24 days of spring training.
Specialized training varies based on the position that a player holds. The training for a goalkeeper is vastly different from the training of a midfielder, explained Turner.
“Everyone’s a little different. My training is focused more on weight-lifting, reaction time, and sprinting,” said Turner, speaking from her experience as a goalkeeper. “The girls are all just trying to play as much as possible.”