GREENFIELD — This is the year. Greenfield-Central head coach Erin Clark preached the message from Day 1. Not just this year mind you, but four calendar flips ago.
After spending a few months around the Class of 2017, back when they were still freshmen green, Clark had a feeling. Call it a hunch.
There was an intangible swagger surrounding her youngsters, now seniors. With abundant potential and heart, Clark knew what could be with four years of belief, but she didn’t merely rely on hope.
Story continues below gallery
Action was necessary, and it happened gradually, along with the streaming infusion of additional young talent the next three years. The goal became an expectation by 2016, and hard work became a culture.
Seeking their first sectional title since 2012, the Cougars bought in, led by the likes of seniors Jenna Allen, Reagan Collins, Sydney Burkhart, Rylee Hanson, Karoline Helgason, Katie Helgason and Tiffany Richmond.
Their faith in Clark’s direction helped them vanquish various obstacles this fall and put together a historic postseason run, earning their coach the honor of 2016 The Daily Reporter Hancock County Coach of the Year.
Finishing 7-8-2, the Cougars banded together after the loss of standout midfielder Katie Helgason in the first game of the season with a torn ACL. Willingly embracing new positions and responsibilities, the offense turned multi-faceted. The defense mimicked their coach’s playing day grit by locking down their opponents to three goals during the postseason.
They defeated Hoosier Heritage Conference foe and outright champion Mt. Vernon in a shootout 4-3 to win the sectional title after losing to the Marauders 3-0 during the regular season.
What came next was a bonus, beating Roncalli 2-1 for the program’s first regional game victory before falling 1-0 to Franklin Central in the title game.
Everything lined up for the Cougars in Clark’s fourth year at the helm, including her players’ commitment to an ambitious offseason training program, the invaluable support from her husband, Arty, the unofficial assistant team trainer, to the expertise of assistant coaches Brandon Steeno and Andy Flink.
A former standout at New Palestine High School as a girl on the boys soccer team, which led to a scholarship to Iowa State in 1996, Clark referred back to her collegiate career at the University of Indianapolis and passed along her knowledge.
Before graduating from UIndy in 2001, Clark played for the now-disbanded Indiana Blaze, a former USL W-League women’s soccer team based in Indianapolis.
She coached the first-ever girls soccer team at New Palestine in 1997 for one season and her teaching career moved her to South Carolina in 2001, where she continued to coach before making her way back to Indiana in 2006.
Clark was hired as the head coach at Greenfield-Central in 2013, and, “It all worked out,” she said. “It’s been good. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Nothing like this fall, however, for Clark, her team and the program, which is striving to build it’s numbers from the ground up.
“They’re already motivated for next year,” Clark said. “The culture is shifting, and that’s a good thing.”
The Daily Reporter sports editor Rich Torres recently spoke with Clark about the Cougars’ postseason journey, their success and the future.
Q: You mentioned this to me in the preseason, how much were you looking forward to this season. What did you know no one else did?
A: The first year I came here to coach the girls, who are now seniors, they were raw but they were excited. From the moment I started coaching that group, they sort of bought into everything I was trying to bring to Greenfield.
I just knew. I had this feeling that when these girls were seniors, something special was going to happen. Ever since they were freshmen, I told them that, ‘It’s going to be your year. Everything we’re doing is working up to when you’re seniors. Just go with me.’ They probably thought I was crazy.
Q: This season your team took a different approach to preseason training. How much did that boost the team’s confidence and ability?
A: The past offseason was when we really stepped it up and hired a strength trainer just for the soccer team. We used a lot of our fundraising money to have someone come in and really put together a weight program for us. Most of the girls had never lifted weights. Initially, they didn’t want to lift. They thought they were going to get big and muscly.
But little things like that were important, like trying to eat healthy. Those little things they bought into all came full circle this season.
Q: Could you imagine having a better senior group?
A: No. Of course, no offense to my other senior groups I’ve had in the past, but this is just a wonderful group of girls. Not just good soccer players, but just great people.
They made it easy to coach. They’re all best friends and get along with each other. Coach (Andy) Flink, who helped this year, had a picture of them from when they were 9. He was their coach and they were all on the same soccer team together. It’s very rare you have a group of girls like that.
Q: In addition to the seniors, you had a strong mixture of youth with three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup. How did that all flow together?
A: Obviously, the senior leadership is the beginning and not just with their soccer abilities. They helped bring the team together. We had four senior starters at the end of the year, so there was a good balance from every grade level. That’s sometimes hard to work in together, but they did a great job.
Q: That sectional championship game: what are you going to remember most from it?
A: I love to remember that day. The girls were laughing at me one day. I went out to get balls for our regional game, and I told them, ‘girls I just teared up at the field.’ They said, ‘coach what’s wrong with you?’ I had just looked at the goal where we had our shootout, and I envisioned that (last penalty kick) ball bouncing off the goal to give us the win.
That moment when the ball hit the post will be what I remember the most. The excitement I felt for the seniors and the underclassmen, all the work in the offseason that they really didn’t want to do in the beginning. They didn’t realize how much it was going to payoff in the end. I won’t forget that.
Q: How difficult was it losing Katie Helgason, who was projected to lead your team as a captain?
A: When she got hurt, I told myself the entire night, she’ll be back at practice tomorrow. When news came in that she tore her ACL and was out, it was hard on the whole team.
We met and talked. I told them, ‘Katie is a great player. She’s started since she was a freshman. She has been a focal point of our team for three years, but we’re going to get through this.’
It took us some games, though. We had to realize how to play without her because the girls relied on her so much. The girls really stepped up to do that.
Q: How excited are you for the future?
A: We’re going to miss our seniors, no doubt, but we have a lot of players coming back. We just had a meeting with our middle school girls last week to get them in our weight program that starts next week.
Our struggle is always going to be not having a JV team, so we’re really working on ways to get more girls in the program. We’re trying to get that middle school girls team going because right now it’s a coed team. I’m definitely excited about the future of the varsity, and winning should help our progress.