Southwest Tennessee Community College hopes its new soccer program can become a place for great soccer in Memphis.
by Nathan Shelby
Southwest Tennessee Community College is launching what they hope will become a stable and competitive women’s soccer program this season. The city’s largest community college has added women’s soccer as the sixth athletic program offered by the school, joining men’s and women’s basketball, cheer, baseball, and softball. This year, the Saluqis will be competing in Division III of the National Junior College Athletic Association, and next year will be competing in Division I. The Saluqis will mostly be playing teams in Mississippi, but will face a few teams from St. Louis as well.
For players like Freshman Goalkeeper Taylor Savage, Southwest’s new program has become a place that reignited her love of soccer. “I wasn’t going to play anymore, I had made the decision to be done with soccer, but then [head coach Brandon VanCleave] found me and convinced me to give it a shot at Southwest. I’m so glad he did because it revived my desire to play again.”
Perhaps what makes this inaugural season for Southwest soccer so special is that it truly was a creation of the community. Coach VanCleave recounted the program’s beginnings, saying, “it’s really interesting because the force that got this team going actually came from outside the school, not inside. Some of the parents, especially Hannah [McKinley’s] dad, got the ball rolling to bring this program here. We only have 3 colleges with soccer programs, and there are way more great soccer players in this city than can play at just those programs.”
The program itself isn’t the only thing new at Southwest, as this post will serve as Brandon VanCleave’s first foray into head coaching. Despite this being a new position, however, VanCleave’s history with the game is long, and his roots in the Midsouth run back all the way to the beginning. “I’m a passionate person about soccer,” said VanCleave. “It’s what I grew up doing. I started when I was about 3 years old, my dad coached here. I know everyone in the soccer community here, which is very tight-knit.”
VanCleave had a very successful career playing for the University of the Ozarks for three years, holding top ten spots in the Eagles’ record books for goals, assists, and points. This year will be his third as a collegiate coach, with previous stops including assistant coaching roles at the University of the Ozarks, Limestone College, and, most recently, Neosho County Community College. Despite his success as a player and assistant, he was surprised at the opportunity given by SWTCC. “Coming to Southwest feels like fate. I was coaching in Kansas, and coach Bartels called me up and told me they were starting a program at Southwest and that I should apply. I told him I didn’t think I had enough experience yet as a coach, only having coached two years. I got an interview with the AD Sherman Greer and he’s really energized to get this program going.”
What VanCleave looks forward to the most about the job is just how unique a situation it is. “Coming in as a coach in the first year, the fact that everything is on me is great. Being in control of how the program goes is really cool. Plus, the fact that everything we do is the first time it’s done is really unique. I want to make sure that everything we do is right the first time, not just because it is the first time, but because you really want to build it the right way. It’s exciting for sure!”
Coach VanCleave will not be building this program alone however; he brings with him local coaching Director for the Germantown Legends and personal friend Ted Bartels. “I’ve got a great assistant coach, coach Ted Bartels, who has grown up, played, and coached here as well, and I have a ton of respect for him.” Coach Bartels is a respected member of the Memphis soccer community, having coached at Germantown High School before moving to the Legends.
With a coaching staff set, the Saluqis began what is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a brand-new program: recruiting. Often, it takes years of painstaking relationship building with area coaches to get the best players available. This, however, is an area that Coach VanCleave feels his history with the game gives him the biggest advantage. “The cool thing about being from here and having played soccer here my whole life is you really get to know every soccer coach in the city — Lobos, Legends, Midsouth — and even the smaller clubs that only have one or two teams.”
With the depth of community soccer involvement in Memphis, VanCleave feels that their recruitment strategy will be to build a team that represents the whole community. “I know Lobos is really the top club in the city right now, but my goal is to recruit people from each team as best as I can. But the big thing I want to focus on is High School. It’s not the clubs, but you really get to see girls playing together from all the different clubs in the city. We aren’t really focusing on one club or school, but we really are looking at every team we can in Memphis. We might go out of state occasionally, but we want this to be a Memphis team. I’m from Memphis, and everyone who is from here knows that no one reps this area like those that grew up here. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder to really compete on a national scale and show what we got here in Memphis.”
It was this strategy that saw the Saluqis sign players from 8 area high schools, and it is the strategy that Coach VanCleave intends to continue into the future. “When the season starts, myself and coach Bartels will be out there at every single game we can, hopefully pick up some great players from [High School and club] teams.”
Building a Foundation for the Future
Looking towards the season, both player and coach echoed the emphasis on developing the character traits needed to build a strong and competitive program. “Our goals are first to finish the season with the girls we have on the team right now,” said Coach VanCleave. “That may seem really basic, but to push through a whole season with all the trials and effort it takes to do well in school and play soccer says a lot about a player.” Savage echoed this, saying, “Teamwork is definitely the main goal of the team. We are all new teammates so we have to learn how to work together and play together.”
Beyond just character and team chemistry, the team has set high goals for themselves, while maintaining a sense of context on where they are as a program. “When it comes to wins and losses, we have a talented team. Right now, we want to work on fitness, that’s our number one thing, but the talent is definitely there. As far as expectations go though, it’s all about them and it’s all on them. I’m just here to kind of conduct and make it the best experience they can have. And they’ve set some high goals, they want to go .500 on the season, which will be really tough with some of the competition we have, many of them with an established history. The good news is, if the girls can accomplish their goal of winning half their games, we have a chance to make a regional tournament, which would obviously be a great additional goal for the team. That being said, we do have opportunities to get a couple wins here and there. My personal opinion is, even if we just get a win or two, I’ll be ecstatic. You only get two months to really recruit players, and what’s really special about the girls we recruited is a lot of them didn’t think they’d get another chance to play the game. So, just getting out there and playing with pride and sticking together through a tough season will be big for us to start building this program.”
When asked about the style of play, Coach VanCleave was honest about the current realities of his team, while expressing hope for development. “This year, we will definitely start out with a defensive style, probably a 4-5-1 until the girls can really get into shape. That’s the difference between the high school and college level, everyone at the college level can play 90 minutes consistently. We aren’t at that level yet, so right now we are going to be playing a defensive game. Now with that being said, as a coach, I have an attacking mindset, so when we get our defense worked out, we will start working on the attack. I don’t like playing kick ball, just launching long balls from the back, so I really hope to be able to work out of the back. Our goal isn’t to stay hunkered down all season, so we really want to be an attacking team once we can get there.”
A Point of Pride
With all the excitement and frustration of starting a new team, what Coach VanCleave hopes for his program the most is that it can be an outlet for girls in this city who may not have had a ton of opportunities elsewhere. “This is going to be a great place for girls to come play, and to get their chance to move up to the next level. I want to help however I can, be it academically or athletically, and with the number of girls in this city who never get the chance to pursue their dream of playing soccer, we want to be another place were that dream can happen.”
In addition, Coach VanCleave hopes that his program can be a point of pride for the community, and perhaps even change some people’s perceptions of Southwest Tennessee Community College. “We would love the community’s support. I know we are a new team, and we’re from Southwest, which has a bit of a stigma, but people need to realize that we’re changing things. The school’s really working to change their image, and I want this soccer team to be the start of that process.”
The Saluqis will play their inaugural home match and season opener this Saturday Aug, 26th at 11 a.m. vs Mississippi Gulf Community College. The game will be played at St. George’s Independent School (High School Campus), 1880 Wolf River Blvd, Collierville, TN 38017.
For more information on the program, visit http://athletics.southwest.tn.edu/womens-soccer/default.html.