Bramlage Coliseum erupted into cheers on Thursday — and August isn’t exactly the time of the year that’s been known to occur. But the Kansas State soccer team was on the court taking photos for the team media day, and decided to celebrate by using the baskets to play “knockout” with a soccer ball. Showing their competitiveness, when the game came down to just a couple players, the decibel level in the building began to increase.
When head coach Mike Dibbini heard the cheers, he didn’t seem surprised. If anything, he said it was things like this that make him feel confident about his team in the fourth year in program history.
Chemistry, he said, is the Wildcats’ biggest strength.
“Our leadership and team chemistry has been solid,” Dibbini said. “For a first practice in our four years that we’ve been together, I feel pretty darn good right now. I just look at it, and there is an identity in the attack. We definitely have to work on our defense, but we haven’t covered yet. Our first few days have been offensive-minded, playing out of the back, connecting passes, reading and understanding each other, the relationships on the field between them, defenders and midfielders, midfielders and forwards, goalkeepers and defenders has been the best I’ve seen in four years.”
The offseason hasn’t been all fun (and basketball) games. The Wildcats made several necessary moves, like reloading on talent and compensating for the loss of associate head coach Jessica Smith. The Wildcats signed talented freshmen and hired Kat Benton.
These are things every Big 12 team has to deal with, but this program hasn’t been around long, so Dibbini is fighting losing talent while continuing to instill a culture and style of play.
“You don’t have as much time to be very selective in the recruiting process,” Dibbini said. “We are bringing in the best player that we can find, the best fit that we can find to have a team-first (mentality). Then you learn more about your team as you go along, trying to combine transfers at a high level and incoming freshmen and then trying to figure out each other’s character and behaviors. It’s difficult.”
One of the seniors Dibbini had to account for losing was defender Haley Sutter. She started all 18 games and a key contributor for the team last season, playing strong minutes in big moments, including a game-winning goal against Oral Roberts on Aug. 24.
“Those are always going to be tough shoes to fill,” Dibbini said. “She brought a lot of experience, tenacity and was that backbone. But I feel pretty good about what we have returning and what we have coming in to fill those shoes. Never replaceable, but we are going to continue to build off what we’ve been trying to do from the very beginning, which is to play out of the back and be stout on the defensive side.”
Dibbini said he feels confident in his freshmen, saying they already are solidifying their place on the team. He mentioned freshman Caylee Thornhill, Shae Turner, and redshirt freshman Bailey Nemechek — who was sidelined with an injury in 2018 — were showing composure and making plays early into their collegiate careers.
“(Bailey has) had a really good practice here the last couple of days,” Dibbini said. “I could see her finding her groove. She’s a pass-first player, but she is a playmaker, and especially in last night’s intersquad scrimmage, she looked sharp. We just want to make sure we are cautious because it’s a long season.”
Dibbini credited the team’s cohesiveness to the leadership of its seniors, who he said have “been through the trenches” and already experienced the major highs and lows of playing on a new, but competitive, Big 12 soccer program.
Even with all the barriers Dibbini and his team have needed to overcome, he said this is as good as he’s felt about a team since the program started.
“Once you’ve gone through the trenches and the experience of understanding each player and knowing each player, spending more time with them, building relationships with them and communicating with them, it becomes a lot easier,” Dibbini said. “I think starting the program from scratch is extremely difficult. It’s challenging. Even though we were very competitive for a brand new program and stayed in every single match, there are a lot of challenges to it. But I feel really good about this group. Our leadership has been exceptional. That’s how far we’ve come along, but it goes back to that our senior class has learned so much in the past three years.”
K-State picked last by league’s coaches
The Wildcats have a lot to prove in 2019, as they were selected to finish last in the 10-team conference in the Big 12 soccer preseason poll, voted on by the league’s head coaches.
West Virginia was picked to finish win the conference, with Baylor and Texas rounding out the top three spots.
Directly above the Wildcats in the poll were Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.