The Carson-Newman Eagles were not so long ago a power in women’s soccer. They had gone to back-to-back Final Fours as recently as 2004 and 2005. Coming into the 2015 season, that seemed like a distant memory.
The Eagles haven’t been to the post season since 2009, and in the years since, it has been a struggle to compete. Four years ago, they turned to head coach Richard Moodie to find that new identity and return Carson-Newman to glory.
Moodie, a Carson-Newman alum, was named the head coach of the men’s soccer team five years ago. A year later, he took on the double duty prepared to rebuild the women’s team. Moodie saw his men’s team reach the National Championship game in 2013, but since he took over the women’s team, the results haven’t been the same.
Moodie knew it would be a a slow process to get the Eagles back to the heights they once enjoyed. So he recruited and patiently waited.
“It’s always difficult for the players and coaching staff when a new coach comes in,” Moodie said. “I think it’s important that when a coach signs a kid that they sell them on the idea of what the team is trying to do. All these kids that are on the field now share the same understanding that I do. In fact I told them, ‘Hey here’s what we got to do to get to here’, and they were all in agreement. They wanted to be this level of player.”
His first season saw a 3-11-2 record. He followed that up by a 6-7-4 record while impressively leading the men to the NCAA finals, only to fall back to a 3-13 record to end 2014. Entering the 2015 season, the Eagles were projected to finish ninth in the 12-team South Atlantic Conference.
“Last year we had a good team,” Moodie said. “The results don’t really show the team that we were. We were good in possession of the ball, but everything that hit our goal went in. We were outshooting teams 27-7, and losing to teams 2-nil. That was our season last year.”
What a difference a year makes. The Eagles have seemed to find that old glory, as they soared to a 18-2 record, completing the sweep of the SAC regular season and tournament titles and head into the DII National Championships as the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region.
RELATED: DII Women's Soccer Rankings
He and his coaching staff’s patience paid off, as the recruits they brought in have bought into the Eagles new team philosophy.
“It’s so important for the chemistry now, it’s a real family feel,” Moodie said. “The environment we’ve been able to create in the locker room is unbelievable.
"The girls are very humble, they still go into every game and feel they are still the underdog. The coaching staff is really humble because we know we are a team that won just three games last year.
"But the girls don’t take anything for granted. They come out with the right attitude every game, they know they are going to have to work harder than the opposition.”
This is an Eagles team that has beaten nationally ranked teams to get to the top of the SAC. This is a team that has reeled off 11 straight wins since losing to Anderson on October 3rd.
“After the Anderson loss,” Moodie said, “we started second guessing. When we beat Wingate [four games later], that was when the girls really believed we could do it. But the two games we lost were huge turning points, it was a wake-up call.”
This is also a team that had one conference win a season ago and now sits at No. 13 in the nation and SAC Champions.
“They don’t really care about the rankings,” Moodie said of the excitement amongst his team. “If you ask any of our girls they will tell you it doesn’t matter. We always tell them trophies are good, but we want to create memories and have a great experience playing soccer whether we win trophies or not.”
Winning certainly helps to make those memories fonder. And they are winning behind a solid core of young players.
Entering the season, Mikayla Gregg and Helen Seed earned preseason First Team All-SAC honors. While the team became stronger as a whole, it was junior Julianne Herrity that stole the limelight en route to the SAC Soccer Player of the Year.
“She’s an unbelievable player,” Moodie said of Herrity. “She’s someone that when we signed her we knew she was special. I told my assistant that Julianne was going to be the best player in the conference and sure enough she was.
"On and off the field, she’s a great student, a great person, a fantastic role model and one of the most humble players I have ever met. Everyday she is out there on the field doing more and more. She is not in it for the individual accolades, she’s more excited about the team and us winning the tournament.”
Also earning postseason accolades was Freshman of the Year Varim Ness.
“When we were trying to transform the program and turn it back into a nationally ranked team,” Moodie explained, “we started looking back at players that used to play for the University. Varim was a friend of a former player.
"She played at the top level in Norway. She’s a freshman but her maturity exceeds that of any 18-year old coming out of high school. The discipline in her training… we’ve given the girls a couple days off and she’s still out training and trying to do more.”
Moodie said that this season has been a team effort. “We’ve got a great goalkeeper and a fantastic offense.”
The offense is indeed fantastic. It is an offense that ranks No. 16 in DII with 7.71 points per game and No. 18 with 2.82 goals per game. Those staggering numbers shouldn’t be surprising as Carson-Newman has scored in every game played this season.
“We go into every game knowing that no team has stopped us from scoring,” Moodie said. “Win, tie, or a loss we have scored in every game this year. We've got that element of confidence about us, and knowing that gives them hope that we are in it, whether we are winning or losing.”
The Eagles earned a first-round bye, where they await the winner of Friday’s bout between Wingate and Anderson. Moodie is no stranger to Wingate, as the Eagles beat them twice this season, most recently in the SAC Championship game.
“If I asked the girls whether they wanted to play Wingate or Armstrong,” Moodie said, “it wouldn’t bother them one bit. At this point they are just excited for any game. For us to have beaten a team like Wingate, we got to give them a lot of credit. It’s not like we beat a bad team. That’s a very good team, very well coached.”
While Moodie has his young squad remaining humble, while he has them enjoying the moment instead of looking ahead for what the future may hold for the 2015 Eagles, the Final Four has to be on any coach’s mind.
“When I was in the finals with the boys in 2013, I looked at my assistant and I told him, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if you had the same coach of two programs take both teams to the Final Four,'” Moodie said. “He and I just kind of joked about it.
"But sure enough — two years later — both teams are in the national tournament. If we went to the Final Four — oh my goodness — that would be unbelievable.
"This year, truthfully, we just wanted to compete in the top half of the table. There was no talk of regional or national recognition. It’s a win-win either way because we are in the national tournament and that exceeded the expectations even of our coaching staff. But here we are… a Final Four? Any coach would be crazy to turn that opportunity down.”