Forward thinking

Captain, scoring leader Sara Cushing leads the charge for a Tiger Women’s Soccer program in transition.

By LUCAS FAHRER

Breaking the school record for scoring was a goal within a goal for Sara Cushing ’16.

When the senior forward found the back of the net for her 60th score in a Doane uniform, it was actually a small stepping stone on the way to bigger and, hopefully, better things to come.

“I was excited, but I feel like my team and other people were just as excited if not more than I was,” said Sara, who broke the record—held by Stacy Vendetti ’01 for 14 years—in a 2-0 shutout of Mount Marty Oct. 3 at Al Papik Field. “People were waiting for me to break it, so it’s nice I finally did. Now we can focus on the rest of the season.”

That’s where the unfinished business remains. The four-year starter out of Papillion and the rest of the Tiger Women’s Soccer program have their sights set on establishing a new foundation under first-year Head Coach Amanda Mason—and they don’t want to wait to be successful.

IMG_0288-crop.jpg“For us seniors, it’s our last year,” Sara said. “So we’re hopeful and we’re striving.”

The goal is to get back to a place familiar to Sara and her fellow seniors: winning and having fun doing it. Like their freshman year, when Sara was the Great Plains Athletic Conference Offensive Player-of-the-Year and her team-leading 22 goals coincided with a 14-6 record and 2012 Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament title. In the GPAC championship game, Cushing accounted for all of Doane’s offense against rival Hastings, sealing the Tigers’ first-ever berth in the 16-team NAIA national tournament with a hat trick.

That’s the kind of player—loads of talent and a natural leader—any coach would be excited to inherit. Especially a first-time head coach like Mason.

“She not only is a really good player, but she’s a leader for us,” Mason said. “She sets by example on the field and off the field. It’s nice to have somebody like that who can take charge.”

Together, they’re looking for a turnaround. While Sara, a first-team all-GPAC performer each year at Doane, has found individual success, the Tigers are still searching for a winning recipe. The group has 13 wins and a losing record in conference play (8-11-1) in the last two seasons combined. To move forward, these Tigers will need Mason, the program’s first-ever full-time head coach, to lead them there.

“I like her—and it’s nice to have our own (coach),” Sara said through a laugh. “She was a good player from what I know, and she can relate to us. Structurally, she’s smart about the game, too.”

The team has seen its share of change in the last few years. Sara’s class was recruited by former coach Greg Jarosik, but before they suited up for him, he left to coach at William Penn University (Oskaloosa, Iowa). His replacement, Jeff Voigt, led them during the record-breaking 2012 season. Just three years later, with Voigt reassigned to focus solely on the men’s team, the Doane women have Mason, a new scheme and identity.

“It’s been about us as players looking to each other as a team because we haven’t had a coach in place the whole time,” said Kelly Mozena ’16 (Lone Tree, Colorado), a co-captain with Sara and Hastings College transfer Kylee Horton ’16 (Papillion). “It’s been about our own initiative. Sara and I look to each other and Kylee and some of the other leaders on the team to keep that same mentality and keep us going forward.”

The mental game is where Sara and Kelly, friends ever since they met as teammates their first year, have a unique perspective; both are studying sociology and see the lessons they learn in their major carry onto the pitch all the time.

“I see it in Sara a lot—we’ll learn something in the classroom and I’ll just look at her and we know this happened at practice yesterday,” Kelly said. “It’s like learning everything right after we’ve learned it in the classroom.”

That’s what informs Sara’s decisions as a co‑captain on the team. She speaks to each of her teammates differently, in a way that gets the desired response, because according to Sara this squad “has a lot of different personalities.”

DSC_4459300-crop.jpgMason tasked Sara and other veteran players to put an emphasis on laying a groundwork off the field so the team can open up more possibilities on it.

“We’re working on setting a standard for the next generation,” Sara said. “In our team meetings, we came up with characteristics we like: determined, passionate, strong, playing as one as a unit. (Coach) emphasizes that but it’s also collaborative—we came to a conclusion as team that this is what we want to stress and be aggressive.”

Coaches and teammates alike call Sara “the whole package,” and she’s seen as a leader’s leader. As a center midfielder, Kelly has one of the best vantage points to watch Sara upfield playing off of her teammates to create scoring opportunities.

“I guess I’ve always seen her as a leader. She’s that person that sparks my energy,” Kelly said. “On the field, she’s one of those players that’s easy to learn how to play with. She’s really good at communicating what she wants and how she plays. She works with people to develop plays. She knows how to involve them and how to utilize everyone’s strengths and use them off of hers.”

This may be her last season as No. 21 in a Tiger uniform, but Sara is considering a future in soccer. It could be playing. Or, since she wants to further her education—which will also include a bachelor’s degree in psychology this May—she is considering moving on as a graduate assistant for a college program.

“She’d be a really good asset to a program,” Mason said.

In the here and now though, with Doane chasing another memorable postseason, it’s going to take a forward-thinking forward to lead the way. And adding to the scoring record along the way wouldn’t hurt either.

“Its pretty neat that I was able to leave a mark on the program,” Sara said, “and luckily it is still early on in the season, that maybe I can keep adding to the record.”

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