“My lesson to her is don’t be KK,” head coach Bill Hempen said, referring to last year’s go-to-girl, Caeley Lordemann. “There’s plenty of coaches in my life that I like, but I’ll never be them. I take some of the things they did, and I try to make them mine. And the things I didn’t like, I try to discard. It’s the same thing for her when she’s navigating these turbulent waters. It’s what’s going to keep the boat afloat and what’s not.”
After Lordemann’s graduation in 2019, a leadership spot was up for the taking. Junior forward Gracie Armstrong fit what the team needed, and with some help from the coaches, she was set up for success.
But they needed her to know to do it her way, not Lordemann’s. Different player, different style.
“All of the coaches have definitely been there to guide me every step of the way,” Armstrong said. “They all tell me ‘do not be too hard on yourself’ because I always have been. They always tell me it should be a natural thing and not forced.”
Though her path to this position wasn’t as straightforward as leaders in the past, she has taken on this challenge with excitement and a drive to learn.
She says she believes the team respects her stepping into this position and she likes to show how to do things by example.
“I don’t know that she’s a natural-born leader as much as she’s a natural-born soccer player,” Hempen laughed. “Its’s a tough game we decided to play. I don’t think she’s a natural leader, but I think she’s a great leader for our program. It’s what we need from her and she’s willing to give it a go.”
This switch in roles wasn’t necessarily unexpected for Armstrong. The junior had a history of leading her teams in the past, but with Lordemann’s graduation and a missed season, the opportunity came at her fast and hard.
As if stepping into a new role wasn’t stressful enough, Armstrong has big shoes to fill. During Lordemann’s senior season, the midfielder put up 11 goals and 63 shots. She also furthered her soccer career abroad with Santa Teresa in Badajoz, Spain.
Is there pressure on the junior to live up to such a role model?
“One hundred percent,” Armstrong said. “I definitely feel like there’s a high expectation to hold up, as KK left a good footprint here. It’s a lot of pressure to fill that role, but I also don’t feel like I have to be that exact player.”
Fortunately, Armstrong wasn’t walking into this new responsibility blind and she was able to learn from her predecessor. Lordemann and Armstrong shared a season together, and Armstrong was able to pick up on several tricks from the senior.
Hempen stated she still has some learning to do. Lordemann and Armstrong have a different leadership style which can’t be ignored. The junior much prefers to lead by example, and Hempen is willing to work with that.
“KK could grab the game by the back of the neck and just take over, and Gracie hasn’t figured out how to do that yet,” Hempen said. “That’s one of the things that’s probably most important to us right now, just finding a way for her to understand how and when to grab a moment and hopefully the players feed off of what she’s able to do.”
She has to walk the fine line between being the leader Lordemann was and finding her own identity as someone to look up to.
Even though a lot is falling on Armstrong’s shoulders during such a unique time in the program, her teammates support her taking on this challenge.
“I think everyone’s a different player, and I think Gracie is doing a great job of filling her own shoes,” friend and teammate Kristen Noonan said. “ She’s making a name for herself. I think she is developing into her own expectations. I think she’s just killing it and she’s just going to keep going.”