Winning a national championship is nothing new for the University of Maine Fort Kent’s women’s soccer team.
A 2-1 victory over Florida National University on Sunday in Virginia Beach, Virginia, gave the Bengals their third United States Collegiate Athletic Association championship in four years.
But this UMFK squad began the season without a leader after new head coach Scott Fogarty left for Converse College in South Carolina four days before the start of preseason.
The Bengals then lost two exhibition games against Canadian opponents by a combined 28-0.
“So the men’s soccer coach [Oniqueky Samuels] ran our practices and the track coach [Matt Dyer] worked with us on our conditioning,” senior defender and co-captain Dakota Martin of Fort Kent said.
Enter Alex Smith.
Former UMFK men’s soccer coach Bill Ashby recruited Smith, who spent one injury-riddled semester at UMFK before transferring to Union College in Kentucky where he was an honorable mention All-American in 2014.
Smith was coaching at a college in Ohio when friends in Fort Kent notified him about the UMFK women’s coaching vacancy.
He applied and landed the job and began the second week of the team’s preseason camp, becoming the Bengals’ fourth coach in 2½ years.
He immediately met with Martin and the other co-captain, senior defender Ruth-Ann Lorman from Jamaica.
“I asked them to analyze the program, the strengths and the weaknesses,” Smith said. “I followed that up with one-on-one meetings with each of the players. I wanted to get to know them and for them to tell me what they expected from me as a coach.”
Smith also put players in different positions where he felt they would best help the team.
“He did an excellent job,” Lorman said. “He was organized and ready to go right from the start. He did a lot of experimentation in the preseason, seeing what worked for us and what didn’t.”
The team originally had just 14 players but Smith went on campus to recruit players — some who hadn’t played soccer since high school — to expand the roster.
“All of the players were phenomenal. They were very supportive. They wanted to win and they wanted to get better. That was the spark that kept us going,” the 26-year-old Smith said. “I wanted to make sure they were having fun and learning.”
Lorman said practices were productive and competitive and Smith also had integrated some “fun activities” like a game against a group of alumni.
“He kept us motivated to want to [win a national championship],” she said.
Martin and Lorman admitted they were frustrated before Smith arrived,
but it all worked out in the end when UMFK topped Florida National University in the title game after winning a two-game semifinal series against Mississippi University for Women. UMFK won the second game 3-2 in double overtime after battling to a 1-1 tie in the first game.
UMFK junior striker Tolu Oyeniyi from Calgary, Alberta, who scored the deciding goal in the championship game off a pass from Venezuelan Angely Carreno with five minutes left, was the tournament most valuable player.
Carreno also scored the double-overtime game-winning goal against Mississippi University for Women.
Junior midfielder Tonny Pereira, also from Venezuela, scored the first two goals in that match while Oyeniyi produced the lone goal in the 1-1 tie.
Pereira and Californian midfielder Yuliana Sanchez were chosen to the all-tournament team along with Lorman and goalkeeper Lexy Mitchell from North Carolina.
“We peaked at the right time,” Martin said. “Whenever something is made harder to attain, it makes it more rewarding.”