Bahr returns to childhood field
Armstrong Atlantic standout leads team to semifinals
As the daughter of an U.S. Navy officer, Kelli Bahr moved around a lot as a child. But the one place she always felt at home was on the soccer field, especially Pensacola's Ashton Brosnaham Park on the Florida panhandle -- the site of the 2011 NCAA Division II Soccer Championships.
Bahr, a fifth-year senior defender for Armstrong Atlantic, moved to Pensacola when she was 10 years old as her father Randy became the commanding officer at the Naval Air Station on the Gulf Coast.
It was where Bahr began to get serious about soccer, and joined her first club team -- the Pensacola Futbol Club -- which practiced and played at Ashton Brosnaham Park.
"My club coach was Louie Sahine -- and other than my college coach, he was the coach that had the most influence on me as a player," Bahr said. "Without him, I probably wouldn't be playing college soccer. He shaped me into a centerback because he was a centerback. He thought that we should all dream big, and we did when I was 12 years old."
Bahr's U-13 club squad claimed the Florida Youth Soccer Association Cup state title in 2001, becoming the first Florida panhandle team to win a state club soccer title, regardless of age class. On Dec. 1, Bahr will come full circle as the Pirates take on Saint Rose in the NCAA Division II semifinals on her childhood field.
"Other than my family, soccer has been the only constant thing in my life because we have moved around so much -- every two or three years," Bahr said.
Soon after winning the state championship, Bahr's family moved again, this time heading north to Wisconsin. Bahr's soccer career continued to flourish, and she helped Middleton High School claim a state title in 2006. Colleges in the region were interested in Bahr playing for their programs, but by chance, she ended up heading back to a warmer climate.
Armstrong Atlantic head coach Eric Faulconer had coached Bahr's older sister in soccer camps when he was living in Tallahassee, Fla., as the coach of NAIA Thomas University. He was also friends with Bahr's former club coach.
"I saw her play at the CASL Tournament in Raleigh, N.C., and I recognized the name and started watching her play in what was her junior year of high school," Faulconer said. "I really liked her style and how she had developed as a soccer player, and so I made contact with her about coming to Armstrong."
"When he came to watch me play, he said, 'I saw you play when you were 10 years old,' " Bahr said. "He explained it to me, and then I remembered him."
With relatives in Jacksonville and a familiarity with Faulconer's coaching, Bahr knew her that the only Southern school recruiting her was where she belonged.
Faulconer had started Armstrong program from scratch in 2005, and Bahr arrived for her freshman season in 2007, starting for the Pirates immediately. There were hopes for big things down the road for the squad, and Faulconer had already proven that he could lead a young program to a national level after starting the Thomas program in 1999 and advancing to the NAIA championships in 2003.
"[Faulconer] said, 'We will be something someday,' " Bahr said. " 'We may not be now, but someday we will be.'
"We are now."
Bahr started her first two seasons, but in the preseason of her junior year suffered a knee injury that kept her out for the year. While she could apply for a fifth year of eligibility, she was waffling with the decision. It was the lure of concluding her soccer career in Pensacola helped sway her.
"I really wanted to graduate with the girls that I came in with," Bahr said. "I just couldn't heal quickly enough. Coach told me we'd be stronger in the future, we'd be deeper. He mentioned the NCAA championship being in Pensacola [in 2011]. He said, 'I can get you home. How awesome would that be to play your last game or games in the place where you started?' I said, 'You sold me.' "
Bahr's defensive efforts helped the Pirates compile an 18-2-3 record with an 0.83 goals against average this year. She earned All-Peach Belt Conference honors, as well as an All-Southeast Region nod for the second consecutive year.
"I think for her to be rewarded for her perseverance is great -- she's a fantastic student, and is already in graduate school," Faulconer said. "It is a storybook ending and we talked about it being a goal. When it started to hit her that it could possibly happen, I think it became more and more important to her. In the quarterfinal game you could see her emotion. After the game her mom said, 'Thanks for bringing my baby back home.' It is a neat full circle experience. She can walk off the field on the same field she grew up play on."
"When I last played there it was out in the middle of nowhere," Bahr said. "They had six fields and some lights, but nothing else anywhere around. I'm interested to see what it looks like because they built a stadium. When I lived in Pensacola, it was just grass and some goals."
Bahr's family, former club coach and several friends from the Pensacola area will be in attendance. She has contacted several former U-13 club teammates through Facebook, and expects at least six to come out for the game. She has not seen any of them since she was 12 years old and moved to Wisconsin.
"What a good way to go out," Bahr said. "I couldn't ask for anything better. I can't imagine a better way to leave this program."
The championship will also be a homecoming of sorts for Faulconer, who lived in Tallahassee and worked in governmental affairs when he changed career paths in the late 1990s. Although he never played soccer at the varsity level in college, he was a member of the men's club team at Florida State and coached various club squads.
"I never intended to coach college soccer -- that was the farthest thing from my mind," Faulconer said. "A friend of mine was the men's coach at Thomas University in Thomasville, Ga., and in 1998, he asked me to work with his goalkeepers as a volunteer. At the end of the year, the president of the university asked me to start the women's program there and I said I would give it a shot."
Before arriving at Armstrong in 2005, Faulconer led the Lady Night Hawks to the NAIA National Championships in 2003, also earning NSCAA Region Coach of the Year honors, and for the last three seasons his Thomas squad was ranked nationally in the NAIA. Armstrong is making its first appearance in the NCAA semifinals.