The recent turnaround in Eastern Washington’s soccer fortunes has been so swift, it’s hard to find a defining moment.
Most fans reckon it happened 18 months ago with the hire of coach Chad Bodnar, but he offered up his own hero: last year’s senior class.
When Bodnar was hired in December of 2013, the Eagles were coming off a 3-15 season that saw them finish last in the Big Sky Conference while scoring 12 goals all year.
But instead of bowing out meekly last year, the seniors helped Bodnar pick up the pieces.
“That group had lost a bunch of games, so for them to buy in and create a culture of winning, that was a high for me,” Bodnar said. “Now people are excited about our program.”
And why not? Last year, the Eagles won eight matches – the second-most in school history – and returned to the Big Sky tournament for the first time in five years. This year, they’ve already won 10; no matter what happens in the last five regular-season matches, this will be their best season ever.
Folks have noticed. “This morning, even one of my professors came up and said, ‘Hey, you guys are doing really well,’ ” Eagle midfielder Tasha Luu said earlier this week as the Eagles (10-2-1 overall, 4-1 in the Big Sky) prepared for a two-game home stand that Bodnar calls the “biggest weekend of the year.”
Wins on Friday against Northern Arizona and Sunday against Southern Utah would almost certainly put the Eagles in the postseason and keep them in contention to host the six-team Big Sky tournament.
Much of the success is tied to the local recruiting pipeline Bodnar developed soon after replacing George Hageage. Ten of his 32 players are from east of the Cascades, including leading scorers Chloe Williams (Lewis and Clark High) and Savannah Hoekstra (Central Valley).
“They wanted to to change the culture, and that sounded good to me,” said Williams, a first-team all Big Sky pick last year. This year she has nine of the Eagles’ 24 goals, along with five assists.
“We have to change the perception of Eastern soccer,” Bodnar said. “We are going after the best kids in the area, and there are some good players in Spokane,” said Bodnar, who adds that assistant Max Weber knows “has identified all the top players over the next two years.”
Other local recruits include Taylor Lane and Shayla Weiler from University; Laci Rennaker and Paige Gallaway from CV; and Luu, who took an unlikely path to Cheney after playing at Colville High.
With no clubs in Colville to boost her development, the lightly-recruited Luu landed at Spokane Community College. Among SCC’s conference rivals is Walla Walla Community College, where Bodnar went 210-15-11 over 11 seasons.
Reassured by SCC coach Jim Martinson that Bodnar and Weber had what it takes to succeed in Division I, Luu joined him at the next level.
“They know the game so well, and they spend 99 percent of their time invested in our team,” said Luu, adding that she appreciates Bodnar’s easygoing style on the practice field.
For Bodnar, that means “I joke with them and I get on their case when they mess up,” but said his focus is getting the players “to understand the reasons why we were hard on them.”
The payoff on the investment came earlier than expected, with a five-game improvement last year. “We had that mentality to fight through and get that result at the last minute,” said Luu, who saw the Eagles’ last seven matches decided by one goal.
This year, Eastern opened 2-1-1 before embarking on a school-record eight straight matches before falling 2-1 in double-overtime last weekend at Montana.
“Those things happen,” Bodnar said. “But to be honest, if you told us at the beginning of the season that we’d be (10-2-1), that’s pretty good,” Bodnar said. “But we’re bouncing right back this week.”
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