It’s not that Heather Dyche doesn’t have lofty goals heading into her first season as coach of the University of New Mexico women’s soccer program. She and her Lobos certainly have plenty, but the former Eldorado High two-sport star isn’t one for making promises when it comes to wins and losses or NCAA Tournament berths.
She does, however, have one solemn oath.
“To set a standard of professionalism and make sure we’re a pillar of the community,” Dyche said.
“This group of girls is incredible. Unfortunately, some of the media around them hasn’t represented that correctly. Part of our goal is for people to understand what great players, and what great people, they are.”
And the Lobos also plan to win their share of games.
“We want to win the conference tournament, we want to go to the NCAA Tournament – that should be the goal every year,” Dyche said Tuesday, less than a week before the Lobos play their fall exhibition opener against Fort Lewis.
At the Tuesday news conference, Dyche discussed her team’s outlook, her debut season as UNM coach and the Lobos’ tumultuous past season.
The latter, of which, she had no part.
“It was a really difficult year, I won’t sugarcoat it,” senior Olivia Ferrier said of the 2014 campaign, which began with a initiation ritual gone haywire. “Everyone was watching and judging us. It started out really rough. As the season progressed, it kind of went away. But we know a lot of people will be watching and judging us again this year.”
Which Dyche said is fine.
“We’re going to turn a negative into a positive,” Dyche told the Journal. “Anytime anyone is looking at you, as long as what you’re doing is positive, it’s great attention. For these guys, they took (what happened last year) and it made them such a tight-knit group and made them so invested in moving in the right direction. … Every one of them took responsibility for what happened and learned from it.”
A year ago, the program made huge local and even some national news for an initiation of the team’s nine true freshmen. Two were taken to the hospital because of excessive alcohol consumption. Later that day, freshmen twin sisters Danielle and Devin Scelsi quit the team, withdrew from school and returned to their home in Orange County, Calif.
After a UNM investigation, athletic director Paul Krebs determined the initiation – which included players being sprayed with a substance he compared to windshield-washer fluid, forced to change outfits, leaving them in just their bras and panties at one point, and ending up at a big party where they consumed alcohol because of “peer pressure” – was hazing.
The team’s season opener at Texas Tech was canceled, head coach Kit Vela was suspended for one week without pay and every member of the team – excluding the seven remaining true freshmen who were hazed – were suspended for one game.
Then assistant coaches Krista Foo and Jorge Vela (Kit’s husband) received letters of reprimand.
It was the second major embarrassment for Vela’s UNM program in recent years. In 2009, Lobo Elizabeth Lambert made a number of dirty plays against BYU in a conference tournament game, grabbing a Cougar player’s ponytail at one point and yanking her to the ground. The video went viral and was even shown on ESPN and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
After last season, in which the young Lobos finished 10-6-2 (7-2-2) and got to the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals before losing to Wyoming in overtime, Vela’s contract wasn’t renewed and her assistants were not retained.
Krebs said, “There’s no escaping some of the issues that have occurred, and I don’t want to minimize what happened.” He also added that “expectations were not being met” on the playing field.
Enter Dyche, who had never been a Division I head coach but had worlds – literally – of experience with the game.
Dyche, 36, played college soccer at Nebraska and Florida State and has coached at numerous levels of national club soccer and given clinics around the globe. This summer, she spent about three weeks coaching and giving clinics in Antigua, Saint Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean.
“It’s something, that when I was being hired, I made sure I would still be able to do,” Dyche said. “I think it’s rewarding for me to be around players who have never been around it. It’s coaching at its purest form. … They just want to learn it for the love of the game.”
Dyche had previously coached and given clinics in other spots around the world.
She also attended this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, where she worked much of the time with U.S. Soccer.
Dyche said she will continue that type of work in the future. For now, however, it’s all about the Lobos – and getting them ready for Monday against Fort Lewis and on Aug. 21 for their official opener at home against Florida State.
“The defending national champ, the number one team in the country and my alma mater,” Dyche said of FSU, where she graduated in 2002. “You can’t write a better script for us.”
You could, however, write a worse one. And UNM found that out at this time last year.
“Not again,” said senior goalkeeper Cassie Ulrich, who is from Rio Rancho. “We’re not going to have any sort of initiation.”
Senior Dylann O’Connor, who was at Tuesday’s news conference with Ulrich and Dyche, said, “We haven’t started any new specific traditions, but I think the whole culture of the program is shifting a little bit to a place where … there’s no hierarchy. Obviously, the freshmen have to prove themselves – but that’s going to have to be on the field.”