By Ainslie Cromar and Riley Clarke,
Bundled in puffy black jackets and Clark College sweatshirts, 20 women gathered on the soccer field on Tuesday, bubbling with energy and lacing up their cleats.
It was barely 46 degrees, and jersey No. 6, Facienne Graham, dashed around the field conducting warm-up stretches and belting Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Teammates giggled and some even chimed in, until coach Sean Janson called them into a huddle. The playful banter gone, they listened to their coach and beamed with ambition as he discussed their next game.
Janson told his players that their opponents, Highline College, are just people, and people can be unnerved.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna win but we’re gonna be proud,” Janson said before resuming practice.
For the first time in the program’s four-year history, the Clark women’s soccer team will play in the NWAC semifinals on Friday.
Last year, the team took the NWAC South division title, but lost in the quarterfinals to North Idaho College.
“We felt like we left too early last year,” Janson said. “It was a devastating blow to all of us.”
Janson said the team, especially the sophomores, have focused the entire season on beating last year’s record.
“We knew we’d get an opportunity to win our division and play in the quarterfinals, so we just wanted to do everything we could to fix last year,” he said.
Clark (11-0-1) faces Highline (13-0-1) on Friday at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. Highline reached the NWAC finals last year, losing to Peninsula College.
“They are, year in and year out, one of the best teams in the conference,” Janson said. “They’ve knocked us out in 2014 and 2015. So that’s another hump that we want to get over.”
Janson said that facing Highline will be a challenge, but he thinks Clark’s focus on active recruiting and player retention will give them an edge. He said recruiting was different when he became head coach in 2014.
“Recruiting meant just finding bodies,” Janson said. “I had to have enough players to fill the team.”
Now, Janson said recruiting means finding people with unique skills.
“There has to be something about them that they do better than anyone else on my team,” he said.
Janson said it’s not just talent that matters; it’s also important to get to know the players. “Culture is everything for us,” he said. “And if they’re a jerk, it’s not worth it.”
Hannah Eakins, a Running Start student from Battle Ground High School, said she plans on traveling to Tukwila this weekend to watch the team.
“I’m excited that Clark is getting a name,” she said.
Eakins said she’s noticed how advanced Clark’s team is compared with other nearby college teams. She said that’s why she wants to join the team next year.
“I know a lot of these girls,” Eakins said. “Growing up I played with them, so I know they’re really great players. “They make a really good atmosphere and you know, it makes playing soccer extremely fun.”
Janson noted that Clark program hasn’t always stood out.
“There was a stigma, and I think that’s true for any local college,” he said.
But by focusing on moving Clark athletes into four-year schools, Janson said Clark has broken out of that mold.
“All the recruits I talk to now know that A, they’re going to come to Clark and play on a good team, and B, we’re going to send them on to a four year on scholarship,” he said.
Kayla Beard, a Clark defender from Battle Ground High, said that as a freshman, she’d pictured winning since day one. She is pleasantly surprised that it actually happened.
“I really wanted it for the sophomores because they deserved it, especially after last year,” Beard said of reaching the semifinals. “They’ve put in so much work.”
Beard said she often asks herself while on the field “what if this is my last game?”
She knows that for some of her sophomore teammates, it is.
Maddison Maffeo, left centerback and one of the team’s three captains, is one of those sophomores. “Personally, I am not sure if I am going to continue playing or not after Clark,” Maffeo said. With a nursing career in her future, she said she needs to focus more intently on school.
Maffeo said losing last year’s quarterfinals brought her to tears, but so did winning this year.
“It still hasn’t quite hit me yet that we’ve made history,” she said. “We’ve made such a big impact on the school,” she said.
Maffeo said she couldn’t begin to describe what it would mean to get even further.
“To make it past semis, that would be…” Maffeo said, trailing off and grinning ear-to-ear as she fumbled for the words. “We’ll get there when we get there I guess.”