NATCHITOCHES — Junior forward Cache’ Haley said the team talks often of Northwestern State soccer’s motto to “leave the jersey in a better place.”
The notion nods to players not just playing for themselves and for the present, but to honor the past and build a better future for the NSU soccer program.
The Lady Demons can illustrate exactly where “the jersey” is when they host Nicholls on Friday and Southeastern on Sunday in front of dozens of former NSU soccer players as the program celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding in 1996.
“We know the number on our back isn’t just about us as individuals,” Haley said. “It’s for the team, it’s for the previous players that wore your number.
“We play for all the alumni. We’re not just fighting for us, but we’re also for fighting for teams like the 2005 team that was the last to win a Southland Conference Tournament.”
After a win Sunday against Houston Baptist, the current NSU jerseys (9-6, 6-2 SLC) secured its SLC Tournament spot in Corpus Christi, Texas — the first time the Lady Demons qualified for the six-team tournament since 2008.
Fifth-year NSU coach George Van Linder said the team is honored to have past alumni reach out to the current team as the Lady Demons attempt to rebuild the NSU soccer tradition of a program that’s won four SLC Tournaments, one SLC regular season title and appeared in three NCAA Tournaments.
“Winning is special, and it’s not something we’re accustomed to right now,” said Van Linder, who led his 2016 team to five straight SLC wins, the second-longest streak in program history. “We talk about the NSU soccer tradition back in the day and the milestones they reached.
“We want to build a foundation to get back to being close to the top of the Southland Conference. It’s taken a little longer than we’ve wanted, but hopefully this year’s SLC Tournament bid is the first of many to come.”
In NSU’s first 13 seasons, the Lady Demons played in 10 Southland Conference Tournaments.
NSU’s second team in 1997 won a surprise SLC Tournament title behind four-time all-conference selection Holly Horn, who is the first and only soccer player inducted into the N-Club Hall of Fame.
Horn and coach Jimmy Mitchell lifted NSU to its only SLC regular season title in 2000, and the Lady Demons (15-8, 10-2) swept through the SLC Tournament to become the first Louisiana team to play in an NCAA Tournament.
Brittany Cargill won the league’s player of the year award in 2000, followed by Katie Priest (2002), Heather Penico (2005) and Erin Hebert (2007).
Mitchell led NSU to two more NCAA Tournaments (2002 and 2005) via an SLC Tournament title. The three NCAA Tournaments is tied for the most of any current Southland Conference program.
Carrie Greene, a member of that 2005 team, remains close to the NSU soccer program after serving in NSU’s student-athlete development and academics programs, eventually becoming an assistant athletics director.
“I love that this team is having this kind of success, but it killed me that it’s happening once I moved away,” said Greene, who left this summer. “I’ve texted with a few of them and congratulated a lot of them on social media.
“I know how hard they’ve worked to get here, and I couldn’t be happier for (Van Linder) and this team to see the fruits of their labor.”
Greene, who won’t be able to travel from her Charleston, S.C., home this weekend, said it’s important to the alumni traveling to Natchitoches to celebrate the history of the program to see the current team having success.
“Coming in as a freshman (in 2004), we knew what we were getting into by joining a successful program,” Greene said. “You take that on personally, and you work your tail off to continue that success.
“NSU was revered and respected in the conference. I love that this team is getting a taste of that, and I want these girls to go all the way and for the program to get back to the point where it was — successful consistently.”
NSU athletics director Greg Burke’s career is closely tied to the soccer program. NSU’s first soccer game was played within a week of Burke’s start as athletics director in 1996.
“From that moment, it has been an honor over the past 20 years to be a part of many great success stories,” Burke said. “It is so pleasing to see (Van Linder) guide this year’s team back to the conference tournament.
“Van Linder and this team respect the tradition and foundation established by coaches and players who have preceded them, and they keep that mantra front and center every day. By the same token, I think our soccer alumni would really like this team and how they play with such grit and perseverance.”
That grit is personified by this year’s NSU team posting a 6-3 record in one-goal matches, with all six of those wins coming in conference play. That’s a stark contrast to NSU’s 1-4 mark in one-goal games in 2015.
While the current Lady Demons will be focused on improving their place in the SLC standings this weekend (tied for third with Stephen F. Austin), Haley and Co. will be giving a nod to the past — who will be actively cheering on the sidelines.
“It’s always a good sight to see past alumni, even if you don’t know them,” Haley said. “It’s good to see their faces and know they used to be in your shoes.
“It’s great to know that we have their confidence and are making them proud.”