"You know when you walk into the Wooden Nickel and people are talking about women's soccer that things have changed."
Athletic Development Director Tim Steinbach offered that observation during a recent Advancement staff meeting, and it sums up succinctly the buzz surrounding the upswing in the SMSU soccer program's fortunes.
The Mustangs lost to Duluth 2-0 on Friday in the Central Regional finals after knocking off two nationally-ranked teams on their way to the title match. They had a 16-3-2 record heading into the match, and the NCAA berth is the first in program history.
"It's been crazy," said Autumn Hayes, a redshirt junior and a captain of the Mustangs from La Crescent.
Hayes gives credit to soccer coach TJ Buchholz's emphasis on conditioning as a big reason for the team's success. "Once a week, usually Tuesdays, we spend just on conditioning. Coach Buchholz makes it fun, so it's basically team competitions. We don't do typical sprints, we do running competitions, so you want to win. It's fueled us to work as hard as we can in all workouts. Everyone on the team hates to lose."
A one-credit course she took last spring from Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Dr. Jeff Bell got her to thinking. The course, VO2, was designed to improve aerobic power. "The body's maximum ability to use oxygen during exercise to generate energy," said Bell.
Hayes saw a 9 percent improvement from the beginning of the class to the end. From that came the idea for her topic at the upcoming Undergraduate Research Conference on Dec. 4. Her poster presentation is entitled "Effects of a Season on the Physical Fitness of Division II Women Soccer Players at Southwest Minnesota State University."
Her research was based on the 'repeat mile' conditioning drill done by all soccer players. "We run a mile, and it has to be under 7:30. We rest two minutes, and we run our second in under 7:15," she said.
Results of the repeat mile were measured in August and October. What she found - to her surprise - was that the team averaged a 14-second improvement from the first mile to the second when tested in October. "That's insane to see such an improvement, especially non-starters who don't get as many minutes. We focus a lot on fitness. It was great to see that work pay off."
A strong second half has been the hallmark of the Mustangs this year, and Hayes said the team's fitness has been a key. "Some teams get tired and can't produce. That's when we start rolling. We don't go as deep as others off the bench, a lot play 80 to 90 minutes - a lot in soccer - and that endurance helps."
Hayes is the daughter of Joe and Joni Hayes and comes from an athletic family. An older sister, Brittany, played soccer at Youngstown State and a brother, Eriah, graduated last year from MSU Mankato and is playing professional hockey with the San Jose Sharks. She also has another older sister, Ruanna.
Hayes said she's thankful to be a part of what has become a very special season. Yet it was just a year ago that the discovery of a blood clot in her brain almost ended her soccer career altogether.
"I had bad headaches during the season, and heading the ball almost made me black out. I was sick, nauseated and was vomiting."
She was told to rest for a week, and woke up before a weekend game with Winona covered in sweat. "My body was pulsating, my hands were cramped up. I crawled to the bathroom and vomited acid for an hour. It was the most excruciating thing I'd ever gone through in my life."
Reluctantly, and at the prodding of her mother, she went to the doctor, where the blood clot was discovered. She was in intensive care for a week, and was on the blood-thinning drug Coumadin for three months to clear up the blood clot. "It was stressful. I was going to school and getting my blood checked 3 to 5 times a week. "
The SMSU roster is dotted with players from warmer-weather states such as California, Florida and Arizona. Yet it's a former four-sport athlete from a small program in southeast Minnesota that's brought so much to the team's success.
"She's a phenomenal leader. One of the best I've ever been around," said Buchholz of his midfielder. "Some people have it, some don't. She has it."
"It's a different culture we wanted to build here," said Hayes, who was injured her freshman year and watched the Mustangs go through a winless season. "(Coach Buchholz) brought a whole new persona to the team. He brought in a lot of girls from various places, and we've blended. California girls play with a different style - they have more flair and aggressiveness to their game - and that meshes well with how we play. He brought in a diverse group, and that gives us diverse roles on the field.
"I think a lot of the girls want to make a name for the program. It's exciting to be able to start something new, and maybe open eyes to a program that people had been oblivious to."
Just ask the folks down at the Wooden Nickel. They'll tell ya.