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College Soccer: Local players eager to defend OVC Championship at SEMO

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It was 367 days ago when the Southeast Missouri State women’s soccer team won the 2019 Ohio Valley Conference Regular Season Championship by defeating Tennessee Tech 3-2 Oct. 27 at Houck Field, which was the Redhawks eighth OVC title in program history.

If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic postponing the 2020 fall season to be played this spring, SEMO would have one regular-season game left on its schedule and perhaps would’ve already won another conference championship.

Instead, the Redhawks are forced to wait to defend their title, but they are using this extended offseason to their advantage by training and continuing to build chemistry on and off the field.

Four players on SEMO’s roster are already very familiar, though, as they have now been on the same team or played against each other. These Redhawks are former area players junior forward/defender Lauren Welker, sophomore forward Megan Heisserer, sophomore midfielder Taylor Nelson and freshman midfielder/forward Emma Brune.

All four of these women played for the Southeast Missouri Soccer Club — ran by SEMO coaches Heather and Paul Nelson — growing up as Brune, Heisserer and Nelson were all teammates, while Welker played one age group ahead of them. However, the teams would scrimmage and even play from time to time.

“I think what SMSC has prepared us for as kids is hard work and work ethic — that is one thing the coaches and supervisors of that club completely drive,” Nelson said. “They want you to do the best you can do, and if you’re not going to give 110%, you’re not going to play. I think that kind of mindset was engraved into our brains when we were in like third grade.”

Heisserer and Welker were first-time teammates when the Redhawks won their sixth OVC regular-season title and went 11-5-1 overall, 8-1-1 in conference play and were undefeated (7-0) at Houck Field last fall. Heisserer finished fourth on the team in scoring with 10 points (four goals, two assists), while Welker helped SEMO’s defense record four shutouts and had seven shots on goal.

“[Megan and I] didn’t know each other too well from high school, but now in college we live together,” Welker said. “We’ve really clicked well together, and I feel like I relate so much to her in so many ways. She’s a hard worker and an awesome player to play with.”

Prior to last year, Heisserer and Welker faced off in high school as Megan won two Class 2 State Championships at Notre Dame, and Lauren led Jackson to reach the Class 4 Final Four for the first time in school history her senior year. Nelson was Welker’s teammate and in the starting 11 back when the Indians reached state in 2018, while Brune, who played at Saxony Lutheran, became the first girls soccer player in history to ever earn MSHSSCA Player of the Year honors three times.

“I expected that from us all because we were successful when we were younger on our SMSC team,” Heisserer said. “So just being able to go into high school on our separate ways and still being able to perform and be successful says a lot about how hard we worked growing up. It’s really got us to where we are today.”

Heisserer was a two-time Class 2 Player of the Year in her own right as she is Notre Dame’s all-time leader in points (378), goals (156) and assists (66). Welker was a three-time, Class 4 All-State selection for the Indians as she totaled 192 points (78 goals, 36 assists) her last three seasons.

Along with reaching the Class 4 Final Four together, Nelson and Welker also led Jackson to win back-to-back Class 4 District 1 Championships. As a senior, Nelson made it three-straight district titles with fellow 2019 graduates like Laura Bertrand, Emily Hermann, Mikala Liley and Natalie Miller.

“Not only was [Welker] one of my teammates, we grew super close with her going to SEMO and knowing all the stuff that I know about my parents and the program,” Nelson said. “She’s just a little beam of sunshine, like, I just adore Lauren. She’s so much fun and one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”

Even though they all didn’t go to the same school, former SMSC teammates Brune, Heisserer and Nelson commented on how they stayed in touch despite not going to the same school. They would also have a team reunion and talk after each game when they faced one another.

“Once we got to high school and kind of went our separate ways, I feel like we still always had that connection because we were seriously with each other every day, every week and every weekend growing up,” Heisserer said. “We’ve just always had that special connection with soccer, so to continue to do it past high school is really exciting.”

Nelson pointed out that she and Brune practically grew up together since they only lived one neighborhood away from each other. Therefore, the two have been best of friends since they were about seven years old.

“When I was actually at [the Nelson’s], we didn’t really focus that much on soccer,” Brune recalled. “Either she was always at my house or I was always at her house, so we were just having fun. … Growing up, Heather and Paul were like my second mom and dad. Now to have them as college coaches is an awesome feeling.”

Even though they weren’t on the same team until now, Brune and Welker both attended Trinity Lutheran. Their older sisters — Maddie Brune and Logan Welker — played high school soccer together at Saxony, so Emma and Lauren were able to keep in touch that way.

Brune, Heisserer and Welker all initially signed with SEMO, but Nelson actually decided to sign with Lindenwood and played in eight of the team’s 17 games her freshman year. Nelson transferred to SEMO during the offseason because she didn’t feel like Lindenwood’s coaching staff was the right fit for her.

“Having the security of knowing how my parents both act, coach and react really helped me make the decision to come home,” Nelson said. “I had always told myself I wasn’t going to be like my older sister, and I wasn’t going to go to SEMO. Here I am, and I love it.”

There were two other local players on last year’s OVC Championship team along with Heisserer and Welker in former Redhawks Jordan Nelson — Taylor’s older sister — and Cassidi Tomsu, who both played for Jackson. Nelson was one of SEMO’s primary defenders, while Tomsu scored three goals for a total of six points in 2019.

“It’s an awesome feeling that we can have so many hometown girls play for SEMO and get to play in front of the community,” Brune said. “A lot of us played SMSC through Paul [Nelson], so he did a great job building us into really good soccer players.”

Heisserer returns as the Redhawks leading scorer from last fall since Esmie Gonzales (12 points; four goals, four assists) and Jennifer Brien (11; four goals, three assists) graduated. Also, last year’s leading scorer and the 2019 OVC Freshman of the Year Hailey Block (18 points; eight goals, four assists) transferred to her hometown university Marquette over the offseason.

Heisserer said she was nervous heading into her freshman season because college soccer is “a completely different level of play.” Besides being one of the Redhawks top scorers, Heisserer enjoys playing at SEMO because she gets to do so in front of her family as well as the friends she made back at Notre Dame.

“My family travels to every single game, and that’s awesome to have that support system,” Heisserer said. “Really from the whole student body, SEMO soccer gets a lot of support from other sports teams and students, so that’s a really good feeling to walk out on the field and see your stands filled with people.”

Heading into this season, Heisserer has been focusing on getting control of the ball whenever a defender plays the ball up. Heisserer has also been working on her field vision to see who is open and what she can do with the ball to help her team succeed.

Hoping to be one of the top scorers along with Heisserer this spring will be Brune, who totaled 227 points by scoring 90 goals and 47 assists through her three full seasons with the Crusaders. Like thousands of other seniors last spring, Brune’s final season of high school soccer at Saxony was taken away from her because of COVID.

Brune and Heisserer were also named as The Cash-Book Journal Female Athlete of the Year, which was first established in 2019 during Heisserer’s senior year when she won it. Brune won the honor this past school year after being named all-state in basketball for the second-straight year combined with her 2019 season in soccer.

“Emma — she’s a tough player to play against that’s for sure,” Welker said. “She’s just so strong. When she puts her mind to something, she’s going to do it whether that’s taking the ball away from you or beating you down the line. Emma is also a great girl — she’s just so sweet.

“We played basketball together [at Trinity], so we were on the same team there. She’s a great teammate of course and is a super hard worker and everything. She’s the total package.”

Brune said she has been able to lean on Heisserer, Nelson and Welker through these difficult times by being able to talk to them about anything whenever she wants. The four also worked out over the summer by practicing their shots as well as running together as a part of the training packet the team’s strength and conditioning coach gave them.

Brune has described her first semester at SEMO so far as being a major adjustment especially during an ongoing pandemic. Even though she would rather be playing right now, one positive for Brune with the season being postponed is being able to ease into everything.

Some of the differences between college and high school soccer Brune has needed to adjust to have been not only the speed of play but time management. Compared to practicing only once per day at Saxony, SEMO has Brune running, lifting and practicing each day throughout the week. Along with balancing school work and soccer, Brune also has to focus on taking care of her body due to constantly being sore.

Despite the training regimen in college being much more demanding than high school, it hasn’t been that big of a jump for Brune since she trains every day on her own anyway. While her final season of high school soccer was canceled, Brune went to Saxony’s field to train every day regardless.

Every college athlete across the country didn’t know what to expect heading into the fall season since spring sports were canceled due to the pandemic. SEMO soccer has been able to practice along with doing individual workouts as players are restricted to mainly be around their teammates.

Welker, who has started a total of 19 games throughout her two years as a Redhawk, said spending all of her time primarily with her teammates has been a great experience. “It’s great having everybody on the team together with the different personalities and people you’re able to go to  and talk to. It’s definitely made us closer together and our bond stronger as a team,” Welker explained.

Brune describes all of the players on the team as “super fun and super close” while at the same time having a winning mentality. Brune said she notices this during practice and workouts because not only does everyone want to improve on their own, but they also want the player next to them to become better as well.

“I definitely want to do as much as I can, work as hard as I can and do anything I can to help the team,” Brune said. “[Lauren, Megan, Taylor and I] all have different strengths, and they all go really well together. Combining with everyone else on the team, I think we’re all going to mesh very well and it’s going to be really fun.”

During practice, Nelson said the team has been focusing on technical aspects of the game such as fitness and first touch. Players have been able to focus on their individual games since there currently aren’t games to prepare for.

SEMO’s upcoming spring season will be the first time Brune, Heisserer, Nelson and Welker all play on the same team. Some top returning talent for the Redhawks include senior midfielder Hannah Compernolle, senior forward/midfielder Lexi Grote, senior defender Lexie Hacker, senior forward Emily Holton, junior midfielder Kate Daus, junior goalkeeper Bailey Reddin, sophomore defender Natalie Jackson and sophomore forward Kennedy Jones.

As SEMO’s starting goalie last fall, Reddin finished 9-0-1 overall with 90 saves and three shutouts. Jackson was named to the OVC All-Tournament Team, while Jones had four points (two goals).

“I’m really excited to play with [Emma, Lauren and Megan] again,” Nelson said. “I know the other girls are excited, too, because I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that’s gotten to play with all three of them. I know how each of them are, and I think having them all on the field together is going to be insane. It’s going to be something people are going to need to watch for.”

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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