Kyle Halfpop starts to talk, and the blue-gray afternoon sky, after holding off for so long, opens up.
Sleet begins to fall diagonally as the wind, with no trees, buildings or hills to slow it on its journey across the infinite Minnesota prairie, rushes in from the east. It whips the tiny frost pellets across the flat patch of faded-green grass that the Minnesota Crookston soccer team calls home, taking with it the last vestiges of summer, and the soccer season itself.
On a clear, warm September morning at this same field, the Golden Eagles began their season against Michigan Tech. The game ended, as all but one of their games this season would, with a defeat.
Friday, the Golden Eagles dropped the final one of those contests, a 3-0 loss to Bemidji State. The Beavers, one of the NSIC’s best teams playing against the NSIC’s worst team, scored in the 14th minute, 58th minute and the 78th minute.
It was a fitting, and predictable, end to a season that transpired in a totally predictable manner.
In July, Minnesota Crookston’s head coach of seven seasons, Joe Alianiello, departed the Red River Valley to take a job closer to his family, at Division III Juniata College in Pennsylvania. A month later, Minnesota Crookston plucked Halfpop away from the University of Sioux Falls, where he had been an assistant for the last three seasons.
Under any other circumstances, Halfpop’s hire would have gone without a hitch. At Sioux Falls, he helped the Cougars cut their goals-allowed average nearly in half, and helped them to twice as many wins as they had in the three seasons before his arrival. Halfpop arrived in Crookston knowing a thing or two about the NSIC and knowing a thing or two about how to help a struggling program.
But even in the best of circumstances, new coaches often have to face a trying Year Zero as they make their mark on their program. This, with a team that had gone 1-29-5 in the last two years, was Year Negative One.
The abruptness of the coaching transition made it just about impossible for the Golden Eagles and their inexperienced, thin roster to create an identity, adjust to Halfpop’s coaching style or much less, win games.
But there were signs. After a 7-0 loss to Minnesota State, Minnesota Crookston allowed more than a goal less per game the rest of the way. It scrapped, clawed and even scored a few goals of its own with the occasional long ball. And on Nov. 5 against Minot State, it paid off.
Maggie Peterson and Latafale Nieumeitolu found the net within the first 14 minutes. Five minutes after halftime, Vanessa Shelton found the net for what would prove to be the winner.
Down the stretch, all the Golden Eagles wanted was something to hang their hat on, to remember a season of changes and challenges by. They got it with one game to go.
“There was literally tears coming out of my eyes, I was so happy,” said senior Jacqueline Burke. “It was just great that we got to end the season with at least one win, something really positive.”
Burke might have felt it more than most. She came into the program as a “terrified” freshman from Alaska and ended it as a team captain. Originally a goalkeeper, she became a forward as a sophomore and started at midfield and in defense this season.
And after all of that, Burke and Minnesota Crookston’s other seniors — Paige Pettit, Lindsey Daml and Mika Rodriguez — were tasked with not only fighting against everything to earn positive results on the field, but selflessly shaping the program’s culture, building something they wouldn’t get to see through until completion.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they wouldn’t jump at the chance to do so.
“We instantly all clicked and once we did that we started getting comfortable,” Burke said. “And it's to the point where I don't want to be done. I'm not ready.”
“Very unique situation for them,” Halfpop said. “They've handled it great, they've led by example, they've held their teammates to a high standard and they've led since day one.
“I wish they could see the fruits of their labor beyond just this one season. Because of them we can build this team going forward.”
Some of that was on display Friday, not in the scoreline, but in Halfpop’s assessment of it. All three Bemidji State goals were mistakes for the Golden Eagles or plays he thought his team could have defended better.
What that entails is this: Minnesota Crookston believes in the improvements it has already made and believes that it’s enough to be competitive right now. True or not, that attitude is undoubtedly meaningful.
“I’m so thankful that this program has Kyle,” Burke said. “It sucks that I only got one season with it because I'd love to have more time. I know he's gonna turn the program around and create some positives. He's all about attacking and going forward.”
Now, Halfpop will have the chance to go forward in another sense. Expectations will naturally be higher next season. Athena DiMario Done, already third in program history in saves, returns in net. Peterson, Nieumeitolu, Shelton and Kiya Gere, lead a growing core ahead of DiMario Done. And with no more games, Halfpop will devote more time to recruiting talented players to Crookston, planning the offseason and instilling his coaching ideas.
“We got a group that's gonna work hard and compete,” Halfpop said. “And then just the fact that we're gonna have a lot more time together, really get some things established … really focus on the individuals. Just because it's been so quick we'll have a lot more time to do that, so hopefully next fall you can see little bit more of our identity.”
Of course, even without considering where the Golden Eagles are as a program, that’s a lot to accomplish in just nine months.
So Halfpop, when asked when that process starts, matter-of-factly answers with: “Tomorrow.”
Then, bundled in a black Minnesota Crookston parka and sweat pants, he walks off into the offseason.
Beyond him, the landscape turns gray, bleak, unforgiving. Such is life on the pitch for the Golden Eagles, even in the best of weather.
But they won’t stop battling, even as winter rages on.
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