Celebrating 25 years of Kansas Soccer

by Carlee Mahan

LAWRENCE, Kan. – This Sunday, the University of Kansas women’s soccer team will celebrate its 25th anniversary as a program. However, past and current players alike, along with head coach Mark Francis, reflect on the 25 years as more than just an outlet for physicality or sport. For many, this team has provided a sense of family, support and, even greater, a symbol of a momentous future for women in athletics.

In 1995, Dr. Bob Frederick, the university’s athletic director at the time, announced the addition of a women’s soccer program to its six-sport-wide women’s athletics roster. This announcement came 27 years after the university solidified the opportunity for women to compete at the collegiate level in 1968. The six founding sports — basketball, volleyball, softball, swimming, gymnastics and field hockey were introduced just four years before the Title IX law was passed in 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination. The courageous women who donned the crimson and blue for those first teams pioneered a movement that has defined the Kansas Athletics department and the university as a whole ever since.

Kansas Jayhawks
The inaugural Kansas soccer team in 1995.

“The early days were hard,” Audra Worrich said, a member of the first team in 1995 and Kansas’ very first recruit. “Our field was not ready so we were bussed to Kansas City to play in Overland Park for home games, most of the fans in the stands were our family members, sports equipment was still based on men’s sizes so all of our gear was extra large and we shared all facilities with the men — imagine big football linemen soaking their feet in an ice tub alongside us.”

Worrich was one of the first captains for the team and tallied the first-ever assist in program history.

“The most fantastic part of this is that Sarah Korpi, who scored that goal, is one of my best friends to this day,” Worrich said.

While the program was still in its infant stages, Mark Francis received his offer for head coach in 1999, just four years after the foundation; a position in which he remains today. Throughout his 21 years in this role, Francis has certainly coined his own unique sign of success on the program. Not only has he accomplished the title of “winningest coach in program history,” but he has also led his squad to eight NCAA tournaments, 16 Big 12 championship tournaments and guided six of his players to all-american status.

I’ve been here for 21 of the 25 years, that’s quite a few,” Francis said. “So, it’s cool because I’ve coached a majority of the players that have come through the program.”

Kansas Jayhawks
The 2004 Big 12 Championship team

Though it’s easy to recognize him for his continued devotion to the program and prosperity he has garnered, Francis credits his players as being his favorite part of coaching at Kansas.

I enjoy working with the players and getting to know them, you see them change quite a bit from 18 to 21,” Francis said. “So it’s kind of cool to see that happen and how they progress as athletes and how they learn to compete at this level and be part of a team that’s something bigger than themselves.”

The team, throughout the years, has relished victory after victory and has hosted players from all over the world, but the one common theme among the girls who have played — past and present — is the outstanding sense of allegiance and pride. Whether that is a pride to be a member of a history-making unit, a pride for the ongoing accomplishments the team collects or a pride to have the opportunity to play the sport that they love and influence a younger generation of women while doing so, it’s a pride nonetheless and pride well-deserved.

“Over the past four years, we’ve become a team that makes it to the post season every year. It’s not even a question anymore — we make it,” senior defender Addisyn Merrick said. “I just want to continue that and raise the bar and raise awareness for women’s sports in general. I want people to understand that soccer is a sport that universally brings people together and I want that to show at Kansas.”

This weekend, the coaching staff will host a barbecue for the current players and the alumni who are returning for the game. After that, there will be a playful scrimmage between all of the players, staff and alumni and then the returnees will be recognized before the game on Sunday. The celebration stands for more than 25 years of establishment, it is a symbol for a hopeful future of everlasting success.

“I feel like my teammates and I will forever have a place in KU athletic history,” Jen Silvers, a freshman on the ‘95 team said. “To know that KU Soccer is truly a first-class program and recruiting some of the best players — not only in the country but in the world — is very exciting.”

Kansas Jayhawks
Lois Heuchan celebrates after her golden goal against Missouri in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

As for the future, everyone seems to be on the same page: national championship.

“I’m super proud with how far the program has come and I hope that the girls appreciate all of us that came before them,” Worrich added. “We paved the way for the future and it feels pretty damn good.”

The No. 14 Kansas Jayhawks will host the Kennesaw State Owls at Rock Chalk Park on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 12 p.m. The match will be streamed live via Big 12 Now on ESPN+