written by: Alex Tostado
Valdosta State women’s soccer coach Mel Heinz has built two collegiate soccer programs from the ground up.
Heinz started Winthrop University’s program from scratch in 2003 and at VSU in 2011. Heinz saw much different results between the two programs, however.
During Heinz’s seven years at WU, the team compiled an overall record of 56-72-17. The Eagles went to two Big South Conference tournaments.
So far with the Blazers, Heinz has a 33-16-7 overall record with two national tournament berths.
Heinz learned plenty during her time with the Eagles, and she has brought that experience to VSU.
For instance, leadership doesn’t come naturally to some players.
“I didn’t realize these freshmen and sophomores coming in, by their junior and senior year, wouldn’t know how to (lead others),” Heinz said. “They didn’t know how to lead because they weren’t led by any other players.”
Heinz has put in place a leadership committee with her team that meets once a week. Players who are interested in becoming a leader can attend, and junior goalkeeper Olivia Mills has seen it firsthand.
“She talks to us about what leadership truly looks like,” Mills said. “She is always trying to instill leadership in us and confidence in us.”
Although Heinz struggled in the win/loss column at WU, VSU Athletic Director Herb Reinhard did not let that interfere with his decision to hire Heinz.
“(Heinz) had considerable success at Winthrop initially,” said Reinhard, who stands well under six feet tall. “Winthrop was trying to play Division-I soccer with three scholarships; that’s like me trying to play center in the NBA.
“Since we were getting ready to start our program, the idea of having someone who already started a program was very appealing. Her win/loss record didn’t mean anything to me because she didn’t have an opportunity to be successful,” Reinhard said.
The VSU soccer program has the equivalency of 9.9 full scholarships. Heinz can offer scholarships to as many (or as few) players as she wants as long as the limit isn’t surpassed.
Heinz admits to setting her standards low when she began her tenure as an Eagle. Her goal was to win a conference championship.
“When I started Winthrop’s program, it was, ‘Hey let’s just go win a conference tournament,’” Heinz said. “I felt like I had the bar a little lower at Winthrop, and maybe it was a little more realistic…Maybe winning a conference tournament was as high as we could go.”
From day one at VSU, the goal has been winning a national championship, and this is something she instills in her recruits and staff.
“(Heinz) has done so well at recruiting for what she wants that we (as players) are all on the same page for what we want,” Mills said.
Heinz credits her players and the support of Reinhard and the VSU community for the success she has had as a Blazer.
“When you are at a D-I program, you have a tendency of looking down on D-II (programs),” Heinz said. “When I came down (to VSU), I was pleasantly surprised by the mentality. I love to win and it was hard at Winthrop not to have so much winning.”
Heinz has embraced VSU’s tradition of winning to bring in more recruits.
“Honestly that’s what I use to sell recruits−‘Look, this is TitleTown,’” Heinz said. “I would brag about softball, (basketball, tennis and football).”
For the future recruits, Heinz will assess over 100 players during tournaments and will receive dozens of emails every day.
“Recruiting is just an everyday thing,” Heinz said. “Whether you are in season, out of season, in the summer, on winter break, you are constantly recruiting. Some days it is more because you get more time to put into it.”
The recruiting window to sign players closes quickly in women’s collegiate soccer.
“We already have three 2015 recruits that have already committed to (VSU),” Heinz said.
The recruiting process is not held to only the United States for Heinz, and she has a German and two English recruits set to play for her in the upcoming season.
“I like to have a couple of international (players) because I think it seasons the team,” Heinz said. “They bring in that confidence and a different culture that our American (players) don’t have.”
Heinz likes having the international players for off-field reasons as well.
“It helps kids learn different cultures and diversity and ultimately that’s what the world is, so if they can figure it out in four years, hopefully they do alright,” Heinz said.
Every practice, game and recruitment is a learning curve for Heinz and the Blazers.
“Just knowing what I didn’t think about at Winthrop is what I’m trying to do here (at VSU),” Heinz said.