Kansas State soccer coach Mike Dibbini returned from a recent recruiting trip through Europe with a souvenir and an important story to tell about it.
Anyone who enters his office gets the details.
The souvenir is a Leicester City scarf, which he displays prominently in front of his window. The story is about how he purchased it while attending the final match of Leicester’s unlikely English Premier League championship this season.
“It’s a story I want to tell,” Dibbini said. “It is an inspiration to us right now. They had 5,000-to-1 odds against them. I am looking at our first Big 12 year and I am like, ‘Ladies, it could be done. Just look at this. Let’s stay positive and believe and see what happens.’ ”
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One day, Dibbini hopes K-State can accomplish the college women’s soccer equivalent of Leicester City and win a Big 12 championship. For now, K-State only resembles Leicester because of its humble beginnings.
Leicester was relegated to the third tier of English professional soccer in 2008. The Wildcats started off small, too. So small that K-State soccer didn’t exist at this time two years ago and remains three months away from its first game. It won’t embark on a full Big 12 schedule until 2017.
This past year, the team featured 12 players who spent most of their time conditioning and scrimmaging against K-State’s club squads. Still, that was a step in the right direction. Dibbini originally worked out of a first-aid closet and had nothing to show recruits. No office, no practice field, no stadium – just his vision for what this startup soccer team will eventually become.
He didn’t feel like a coach. He felt like a salesman. Only he didn’t have much to sell.
“We would all want to say we are going to come out and do very, very well, but it’s going to be a process,” Dibbini said. “There have been a lot of challenges. I don’t know what to expect. I can tell you, on paper, we have talented players. But we won’t know how good we are until we get out there. It’s going to be an up and down process.”
One that Dibbini predicts will have more downs than ups, at least in the short term. Unlike most college sports, in which high school prospects commit as juniors and seniors, the best soccer players tend to commit as freshmen.
So Dibbini likes the way K-State’s roster is shaping up for 2019. He thinks he is making lasting ties with players and coaches within Kansas, California and Europe. In the meantime, he will coach a squad filled with transfers and late bloomers.
“We were just looking for the best players we could possibly find, regardless of position,” Dibbini said. “The interest level was high and we got some good players, but now we are at a point where we are looking for the best players at particular positions.”
K-State will likely start with a disadvantage in terms of talent and experience, especially in a conference with nine established teams, but there is one thing it won’t lack: fan support.
The soccer program has already received donations from 1,079 boosters – in 38 states – that total $112,500. Some fans wore K-State soccer scarves to basketball and football games last year.
“People ask about soccer everywhere we go,” athletic director John Currie said. “It has gone even better than I expected in terms of levels of excitement. There will be great interest.”
Hali Sutter says there already is. A sophomore defender who transferred from Memphis and grew up in Overland Park, she says the team has dedicated fans before its first game.
“I hear from people all the time who say they can’t wait to come to our games,” Sutter said. “The stands will be full. We even have some super fans, which is amazing. They already know everyone on our team, and they talk to us on Facebook and Twitter. That is a really cool thing I didn’t get from my old school.”
The support has been reassuring. Sutter said it was difficult to transfer to a program that lacked so much. Some friends asked if she knew what she was getting herself into. It took her until this spring to adjust to life without games or a full roster.
“We are all super excited about that first game,” Sutter said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Dibbini is more eager than anyone to return to the pitch. The task of building a team from scratch has not been as enjoyable as actually coaching one.
He misses that part of the job so much that he often pretends to be a coach while watching professional matches, making mental notes of the substitutions and strategy changes he would make if he were on the sideline. He has gone so far as to do this while watching his children play youth games.
“I am itching to coach,” Dibbini said. “Eighteen months without getting out there and managing a game, it’s been hard.”
Things will get easier next season when K-State’s roster tops 30 and the Wildcats play 16 games.
The results may not be pretty at first. K-State will start out as the underdog. But the vision for long-term success is already in place.
“We have something special here,” Dibbini said. “I’m confident we can compete right away. I am a big visualizer and a big problem solver. If we can just get our players to come together and do the same I think we can surprise some people.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett