DECATUR — St. Teresa girls soccer coach Connor Smith will always have a connection with this season's senior players.
Four seasons ago, when those players were freshmen, Smith was first-year assistant coach under Tom Cantwell while he was also playing soccer for Millikin's men's team. Two seasons later, following Cantwell's resignation, Smith took over as head coach.
"It was mainly my first opportunity of being on a bench with the team and traveling as a coach," he said. "I was really excited to have the opportunity to be the head coach. Having gone to St. T, I knew what they were expecting and what we were all about. It was an honor to keep on working here and continue to be at a place that I loved playing for and making new memories."
Smith and that core group of freshmen — Tara Grueter, Lauryn Pugh, Rylie Danner, Jeanna-Marie Wilson, Grace Lehmann, MaKenzee Velchek and Camryn Wagner — grew to be a strong group that led the Bulldogs to the best season in school history, advancing to the Class 1A Super-sectionals and making Smith the Herald & Review Area Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.
"They started what this program has become all about. All of them have left a legacy behind," Smith said. "They competed every single game and became what we are all about. They are role models to the younger players. It’s sad to see them go. Some are playing in college and I’m excited for what the future holds for them."
Wagner, the team's all-time leading scorer and Illinois Soccer Coaches Association All-State selection, will play for Millikin next season. Danner, a midfielder and team captain, is joining St. Ambrose University and Velchek, goalkeeper and all-sectional selection, will play for Elmhurst University.
The players saw improvements in Smith as well.
"I felt like as an assistant he sat back but as soon as he became head coach he really took control and figured out how to work with us," Wagner said. "It was probably kind of difficult being at a college and then dealing with high school girls again but towards our senior season he cranked down. He wanted to win, we wanted to win and I think he took control and was determined to get us as far as we went this year."
In past seasons, the Bulldogs' offense ran nearly exclusively through Wagner, the Herald & Review's Girls Soccer Player of the Year the past three seasons, but 2019 brought a wide open offense that saw 93 goals total scored. Wagner again led the way with 27 goals, while freshmen Grace Buxton (18 goals), Ryenne Wagner (11 goals), and junior Kaylee Kleist (nine goals), added a lot of support.
"We had 93 total goals this year and that came from literally everyone on this team," Smith said. "It wasn’t just Cam. It came from all the levels. It was a good balanced group."
Smith said his trio of assistant coaches — Stan Livingston, Jeff Archer and Leo Berger — each bring an important piece to the team.
"Stan coaches at (Mid-State Soccer Club) and he’s one of the smartest people I know when it comes to soccer and strategies, formations and footwork. He sees everything," Smith said. "Jeff has helped the past couple season as the goalie coach. He has gone a great job with MaKenzee Velchek and will be Mid-State’s goalie coach as well.
"Leo does everything that the other coaches don’t like to do for us. Leo brings his personality of being friendly and talking to everybody. The girls love having him around because he is someone the girls can go and talk to and he asks them how their day is and maybe brighten their day a little bit. He always has a smile on his face and he can cheer them up if they are having a down day."
As the playoff run continued, season-ending injuries to back players Lauryn Pugh and Mackenzie Claypool tested Smith in his preparation for playing future-state champion Columbia in the super-sectionals.
"We knew from the film that (Columbia) team was going to be out-of-this-world talented. We had to focus on defense and pack it in and hopefully we can get a lucky one. We had to make a lot of adjustments and we were hoping to get the ball out to our fast players, Cam and Grace, and when that day came, we found out that Columbia was a different talent level," he said.
The loss to Columbia gave the returning Bulldogs players a window into what is required to take that next step.
"Next year will be a little different. I know it will be a younger team but I think the leadership that the seniors brought will carry over to the younger players," Smith said. "I think having gone this far a lot of them will understand what it is going to take to even go further and make it to state."