All Signs Point North
by Brent Rogness
Photography by Thru Him Photography
Fargo North soccer’s Michelle Crary knows a thing or two about transitions.
Scoring thirty career goals for the NDSU soccer team from 2004-2007, she was a solid, steady presence during the team’s era of migration to Division I.
Today, she enters her third season as coach of the Spartans’ girls soccer squad. The Winnipeg native has constructed an unlikely state champion merely blocks down the road from where she made a name for herself collegiately.
Crary has already claimed a North Dakota State High School soccer championship title, and she returns the majority of the contributors from last year’s team to make another run at the crown this spring.
The former college standout can’t help but take the field with her players during practice and help push them to the next level. Undoubtedly, there will be more of that in 2016.
“She doesn’t go lightly,” says first team all-stater Molly Sarafolean of Crary’s practice appearances.
It’s Crary’s experience that has helped captivate the girls’ attention, as they put faith in her to push them to new boundaries, just as they did last season.
“Coach is a confidence builder. We’ve built up a big respect level (for her),” says co-captain Kalli Baarstad. Reciting one of Crary’s main philosophies, “It doesn’t matter what age you are. If you want it, go get it. There’s never a perfect moment.”
Baarstad’s 2016 co-captain, Lacie Johnson, says respect for her coach started to develop about a decade ago.
“I remember going to NDSU games and seeing her play when I was younger. When she got here, I listened to exactly what she said,” says Johnson.
In recent seasons, Fargo-area high school athletic success has tilted either to the south or west ends of town. Working with a depleted roster void of 12 outgoing seniors, Crary’s Spartans turned in a 2015 season that shifted some of the balance back to the top of the compass.
“We were a really young team,” remembers Crary of the 2015 North soccer squad. “They continued to learn throughout the season. We had some tough losses. I kept pushing them. We got to state and it started to click.”
For the Spartans, the road to a state championship was indeed long, winding, and unexpected. In fact, their journey to a title started with sputtering and smoke before it even left the driveway after a 7-0 season-opening loss to Davies.
“The first time we played Davies we got crushed,” recalls junior midfielder Ruth Hegstad. “After losing to them like that, we got to see how far we had come.”
The loss drove Crary to keep the girls focused on the road ahead, while improving daily and not playing outside of themselves.
“I am very competitive and I put a lot on myself to push them in a certain direction,” says Crary, who players often refer to as ‘Marty’ (her maiden name is Martinez). “I teach so they understand and play to their strengths. You can’t turn a player into something else.”
The Spartans gradually picked up momentum, going 2-1-1 in the next two weeks after the Davies loss. This set the stage for a win that both players and Crary point to as a true turning point in their 2015 season: A 2-1 victory over Shanley on April 23, 2015.
“The first time we beat Shanley was a big deal,” says Peighten Watson, a junior midfielder/forward who earned a spot on last year’s all-tournament team.
Baarstad was the team’s lone captain last season, and her teammates point to her as a quintessential leader on and off the field.
“At first we felt a lot of pressure, but having Kalli as a captain really helped,” says Hegstad. “She brought us together.”
“She was our rock,” Sarafolean says in praise of Baarstad.
As a tandem in captaincy that’s already made an indelible mark on the program, Johnson assisted Baarstad for the first goal of the state championship game. The senior leaders know the importance of their role, but also embrace the qualities the underclassmen bring to the table.
“Last year I was the only captain. I realized that captain is just a name and everyone has a leadership role,” says Baarstad.
On a team loaded with talented and battle-tested juniors, Baarstad looks forward to continuing the team-building process on and off the field, picking up right where they left off last year.
For example, in the 2015 state quarterfinals, North watched higher-seeded teams, including Davies, stumble while they shut out Minot (another higher seed) to advance to the semifinals. As the bracket started to shift more to their favor, the team made it a point to come together and have fun along the way.
“We didn’t feel any pressure. We stayed loose and relaxed,” says junior midfielder/forward Megan Zander. “After quarterfinals, we went back to the hotel and said, ‘We can do this.’”
Sporting cornrows in their hair and covered in faux tattoos, North’s green crop of soccer junkies continued their surprise attack on the state tourney bracket, knocking out Bismarck Century 3-0 in the semifinals before toppling Bismarck High School 3-0 in the title game.
The team recalls other opponents wondering if they were taking the experience seriously enough, especially when noticing things like Johnson’s ‘sleeve’ of SpongeBob Squarepants tattoos. Ultimately, camaraderie triumphed.
Having learned to walk the fine line between playing hard and having fun, Johnson plans to make sure the most important team aspects are handled with care.
“We all have our type of leadership we bring to the team, but I want to be a leader that makes sure we stay humble throughout the season, not just expecting to win,” says Johnson.
Moving forward, the Spartans are out to show last year’s conquest was no fluke.
“I’m really excited for proving ourselves. A lot of people say we can’t do it,” notes Watson.
No matter how the season plays out, Baarstad, who is committed to playing at Concordia (Moorhead) next season, knows the future of Spartan soccer has never looked brighter.
“They are such hard workers and they’re such caring individuals,” Baarstad says of the underclassmen. “When we leave, we’re leaving the team in really, really good hands.”
Hungry for more, the Spartans aim for an Eastern Dakota Conference championship, something they did not accomplish last year. From there, they know anything can happen.
As they learned last season, it can be mastered with teamwork, confidence… and perhaps a few more of those SpongeBob tattoos. FMSV