The men’s and women’s soccer programs at Heartland Community College set records this year on and off the field, but the historic end to the season almost didn’t happen.
Both Hawks’ teams reached the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II finals for the first time in their 15-year history. Both reached the national semifinals and finished with 11-1 records.
Sophomore Bekah Nielsen, a Normal West graduate, was Mid-West Athletic Conference Goalkeeper of the Year and a likely choice for First-Team All-American for the HCC women. Nielsen allowed only three goals all season.
However, the Hawks’ goal of getting to nationals was nearly derailed by the coronavirus. Both teams suffered outbreaks shortly before the postseason began.
Nielsen said none of the players suffered major complications, but having to quarantine for two weeks cost them key practice time, along with vital endurance.
“We thought it was over and we weren’t going to be able to play postseason, but we got through COVID and we got our lungs back and we made it to the national tournament which was crazy,” she said. “I feel like there were a lot of obstacles.”
1 coach, 2 teams
The men’s team went through the same COVID challenges late in the season.
Sophomore Alex Schulze was goalkeeper for the men’s team. The native of Munich, Germany and transfer from Laredo College in Texas, was named Region 24 Goalkeeper of the Year.
Schulze said the two teams very much felt like one during the season. Both squads had the same head coach, Jovany Macias. Also, their game and practice schedules paralleled, and they always watched the other team’s matches.
Schulze said it was a friendly competition.
“Who’s going to make it further, who’s going to lose first (we thought), but it never took over,” Schulze said. “We always motivated each other, too, so. It was a good dynamic between both teams.”
Nielsen added it also was a great cultural experience so many of the male student-athletes were from other parts of the country or from overseas.
Nielsen and Schulze were both named NCJAA Academic All-Americans while Heartland student-athletes set a new record for academic performance this year that consisted mostly of remote learning. The teams finished with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.23 for the recently completed school year. That marks the third year in a row Heartland Hawks athletics teams set a new high point for academic performance.
Schulze said he was grateful to have one class meet in person, while the rest were online. He said getting schoolwork done required a lot of discipline, since students spent most of the year confined to their living quarters.
“All of the stuff you don’t really see from the outside, what hard work we have to do for the school to achieve those grades,” Schulze said. “You have to motivate yourself to do it and it works.”
Schulze studied marketing at Heartland. Next season, he will transfer to Francis Marion University in South Carolina. Schulze said he may go back to Germany and hopes to continue playing soccer after college.
Nielsen said the closeness of the two teams helped her with her studies, since she could collaborate with other students on assignments.
“I felt like we leaned on each other for assistance with homework,” Nielsen said. “That was always good because we lived so close to everyone.”
She said it was difficult to learn through asynchronous instruction, where students have more freedom to work at their own speed. She had one class online in the spring. Nielsen is studying agriculture and plans to play another year for the Hawks.
Nielsen said she’s grateful Macias, a first-year coach, offered her the chance to return to soccer this season. She gave up the sport for a year after leaving Robert Morris University (now Roosevelt University) College in Chicago, where she had an athletic scholarship.
“I said, ‘I don’t want soccer out of my life. I want to be on the team.’ He gave me this opportunity and I’m so thankful that he did because I have loved every minute of this season.”