Defenders have always been the unsung heroes of soccer, but freshman defender Kelly Dopke is looking to change that mindset.
The California native has excelled in the backfield for the Idaho soccer program, anchoring the Vandal defense as the team blew past Big Sky opponents with an unbeaten conference run last season.
â€œAt the collegiate level, defense is huge,â€ Dopke said. â€œIt is of great importance, because defense is what wins championships. If the other team doesnâ€™t score, it at least ends in a tie.â€
The defensive mentality of Idaho head coach Derek Pittman is what initially drew Dopke to the Vandal soccer team as a recruit from Arcadia High School.
â€œAs a defender, he said he wanted someone who would compete in the air, and thatâ€™s what I do best,â€ Dopke said. â€œI compete in the air really well because of how tall I am.â€
She said she also was encouraged by her exposure to the training environment of the program.
â€œWhen I came for my official visit, the atmosphere of the team was absolutely amazing,â€ Dopke said. â€œEveryone was so united and were playing for each other. That whole atmosphere made me feel like this would be a great place to come.
She said she was officially sold on the program after a discussion with Pittman as to the types of defensive recruits he was seeking.
â€œDefense is not all about playing ticky-tacky, itâ€™s about finding people wide and keeping composed,â€ Dopke said. â€œThatâ€™s what drew me in, because I am a composed player on the ball. If need be, I can kick it as far as I can to clear it, but I want to win the ball in the air and be aggressive.â€
She said the Vandalsâ€™ defensive mentality is a huge component to the teamâ€™s success.
â€œItâ€™s a huge impact, because despite being the ones not getting the recognition, you have to know your role on the team,â€ Dopke said. â€œI donâ€™t care if I get any rewards or not. Stopping the other team from scoring is all that matters.â€
The Vandals finished the regular season with a 9-0-1 record, earning the Big Sky Conference regular season title.
â€œIt was definitely something special,â€ Dopke said. â€œWe came a long way from the beginning of the season and summer, working as hard as we possibly could. It truly showed in our performance because we came together as a team and took off from there.â€
She said she was excited to be a part of collegiate program that exceeded initial conference expectations.
â€œI think it was really special to join a team that was expected to place ninth in the league and to come out on top,â€ Dopke said. â€œIt absolutely shows that people underestimate us as a group of individuals. It shows that when we come together as a team, anything is possible for us.â€
Dopke said the team is currently drawing inspiration from a penalty kick loss to Northern Colorado in the Big Sky postseason tournament.
â€œIt was devastating at the time, but now we know what we are looking forward to,â€ she said. â€œIt was bittersweet â€” we didnâ€™t win it, but it shows us how close we are. With that much more effort, we can get the championship.â€
Dopke said the loss was a little easier to take once the team received conference championship rings last month.
â€œItâ€™s truly humbling to know that our program came this far,â€ she said. â€œPeople didnâ€™t think we would be able to do it. Itâ€™s just the icing on top of the cake, knowing we get the rings now, but next year we can try and earn some more.â€
Josh Grissom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GoshJrissom