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On Target

Women's Soccer Steams Ahead in Pursuit of National Title

Donna Jolliff
Donna Jolliff

Juergen Huettner was in a bind.

St. Louis Community College’s women’s soccer coach, who would be leaving with his team at 3 o’clock for Independence, Mo., and a game against Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, would be unable to make it to practice at 1 p.m. Instead of calling off the practice, he simply turned over leadership duties to his captain, Jessica Smugala, and the rest of his sophomore class for the day.

Huettner knows that college athletes can be notoriously fickle. He also knows this year’s group of women’s soccer players at STLCC is not your average team. While many college coaches may question the level of productivity that would result from players policing themselves, the Archers have earned that level of respect from their leader. Others are also taking notice.

A bystander who happened to be at the Meramec field that day took inventory of the scene. A full roster of players yelling at and exhorting each other, running at full speed from drill to drill, with no coach in sight. Days later, the bystander sought out Huettner to compliment his team.

“They said they had never seen anything like it,” Huettner said. “They’ve never seen a team practice as hard and as intense as they did without a coach there. I was very impressed to hear that.”

Such a scenario was a long way removed from the soccer program Huettner took over when he received the head-coaching job for STLCC-Forest Park five years ago. Huettner took over a program that lacked the numbers, the player leadership and the level of recent success that his team currently enjoys.

“After I got the job, I looked at the team picture from the previous year,” Huettner said. “There were 11 players. No subs. Nobody expected anything. They just wanted to fill out a team.”

While the program at Forest Park began to take root under Huettner, it flourished when he was named head coach after the program became districtwide in 2011. Recruiting became much more fruitful, and in two years’ time, Huettner and assistant coaches Alex McDonald and Mike Cucchi have built a title contender.

Great Expectations
The lean years of pre-Huettner Forest Park soccer have moved so far in the rearview mirror, they become unrecognizable in contrast with the Archers of today.

The Archers established themselves regionally last year, defeating Parkland College in the district playoff following a Region XVI title to earn a spot in the NJCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament. The program’s meteoric rise under Huettner has not been lost on his players, who take a measure of pride in their role in the turnaround.

“Going to nationals for the first time in 10 years, we made history,” sophomore defender Donna Jolliff (Seckman) said. “It’s just a great feeling that people will remember us, our team.”

A year later, STLCC is armed with many of the same impact players, who seek to push the program a step further.

The Archers opened their season with exhibition games against three area four-year schools, and went 1-1-1, including a win over NCAA Division III’s Webster University and a 1-1 tie against McKendree University, a Division II program. The team opened the regular season with another 1-1 tie, this one against Eastern Florida State College (formerly Brevard Community College). Brevard finished last year as the second-ranked team in the nation. While players expected to make a title run this year, it was the Eastern Florida State game – perhaps more than any other – that gave them a glimpse of where this team could finish.

“Last year, I don’t think we really knew what to expect (at nationals),” Smugala said. “We played hard teams last year, but at nationals, it’s a whole different level. We couldn’t play up to that level then. This year, playing the teams we played in Florida, we know a little more of what to expect. Tying the second team in the nation, that was a cool feeling.”

A Complete Program
Huettner hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel with the Archers. There’s no smoke-and-mirrors in his approach, nothing particularly revolutionary. But what he does have is a determined coaching staff whose preparation and efforts in the offseason have charted a much different path for STLCC women’s soccer.

“It’s really pretty simple,” Huettner said. “We have a good team because we have great players, and we have great players because our coaches have been working hard in the offseason to recruit. If you’re sitting around waiting for players to come to you, it’s not going to work.”

In that recruiting, Huettner has sought players who not only possess college-ready skill sets, but also the character and adaptability that has been a hallmark of his teams. The result has been a self-motivated team with excellent chemistry and players who keep each other accountable – with or without coaches present.

“Family is a big part of working well on a team,” Jolliff said. “If your family is not connected, you’re not going to connect anywhere else. When we’re perfect with each other on and off the field, it shows. It showed a lot last year when we went to nationals, and we’re making our way again.”

It’s that level of expectation, that striving for perfection, that has been a direct reflection of Huettner. While the Archers look nothing like the team that Huettner inherited, his vision for the program has not yet been entirely fulfilled.

“We take pride in (the success),” Huettner said. “We’re very proud of where we are, but we don’t want to rest. We’re not satisfied with just being good. There’s no question about it.”