Jim Conlon returns, one Division II national title later

| Managing Sports Editor

Gaelen Clayton dribbles up the field in a head-to-head battle against the University of Chicago, a game that the Bears tied 1-1. (Photo by Emmett Campbell | Student Life) 

Jim Conlon departed Washington University women’s soccer in 2021 with a long resume of competitive national results: twelve consecutive NCAA appearances, nine UAA titles, and the magical first national championship in 2016. 

He returns after a one-year stint at Grand Valley State University with one more national championship trophy to add to the collection. 

After a nine-month period under interim coach Stephanie Gabbert, the women’s soccer program returns to Conlon’s experienced guidance for the upcoming season. While many of the top goal scorers from the 2022 team have graduated, including top scorer Erin Flynn, Conlon has the experience to aim this team at another deep championship run. 

Conlon cited personal reasons for the transition back to St. Louis in a tweet. “The relocation impacted our family greatly,” he wrote. “The mental and emotional health of my family needs to be the priority. Therefore, it is with great emotion that I have decided not to return for a second year at Grand Valley.” 

And for the WashU team, many of whom were recruited by Conlon, his return is comforting. He’s a coach who knows the ins and outs of the program and the athletic department. He is well-known around campus; walking around, he’s greeted by name. Plus, he’s seen many of the athletes as high-schoolers, so he’s seen them in multiple phases of their careers. 

“Speaking both for myself and for my entire class, I think we’re excited to have somebody who always has our backs, both on and off the field,” junior Tyler Wilson said. “He has seen us since we’ve been in high school and he knows how we play…. Just looking at the success he’s had, it’s super comforting to know that he’s taken this team to great places before.”

Key Returners

This team has considerable defensive experience, returning four out of five of its players on the back line. They’re anchored by junior goalie Sidney Conner, who played seventeen games last season in her first season of collegiate play. She was named UAA Sophomore Rookie of the Year and saved 82.1% of shots on goal.

“The goalie commands the field, both vocally and technically,” said Wilson. “It’s huge to have Sid starting back there again, just because we all have so much confidence in her. She did an amazing job last year.”

The team is center back heavy, and with four center-mids, Conlon will likely try to capitalize on the strength of the defense with the depth that they have in that area of the field. Junior Kate Flynn, sophomore Gaelen Clayton, sophomore Olivia Foster, Junior Sarah Neltner, and senior Ellie Brauner will likely play major minutes to anchor the defense. 

“That defensive core is going to be a mainstay especially early in the season while we’re still working out all of our tactics offensively to put us in positions of success,” Conlon said.

Key Departures 

The offense lost some main scorers, including Erin Flynn, Jess Shapiro, and Ariana Miles. The senior class scored twenty of the team’s forty goals last season. In addition, All-American Gabbie Cesarone also graduated and is now using her extra year of eligibility at the University of Minnesota. 

But Conlon’s been in similar situations before, and he’s not worried. 

“This is where I have the advantage of using my prior knowledge and knowledge of Washington University,” he said. “We’ve had other great goalscorers graduate, and a new woman has stepped up. So this isn’t a new position for me to be in — to try and figure out who’s going to take over that role [as goalscorer]… That person’s going to show up and we’re going to score goals.” 

That’s also created room for opportunity. The team currently has seven freshmen on its roster — they started with seventeen, but narrowed the group over the preseason. Gabbert heavily recruited in her time at WashU, but ultimately Conlon was forced to cut down the roster to its current size of 28 women. The new freshmen class brings a wide range of skills, and Conlon said that he’ll likely be testing a range of combinations early on in the season on the field.

“I think our fans should expect to see a lot of different looks as we look at combinations throughout the early part of the season to really solidify what our best group is,” he said. 

Key Matchups 

Conlon’s schedule philosophy is always to prepare his team to play the best in the country. This year’s schedule doesn’t disappoint, playing local competitors like Fontbonne as well as a trip out to California to compete against brand-new opponents.

But Conlon thinks that there are high-stakes matchups throughout, with the team playing a regionally or nationally ranked opponent every single weekend. “I think we are in a unique situation, where we’re gonna see marquee matchups all season long,” he said.

Last year, the team posted a 15-1-3 record, losing only one game to Case Western. They haven’t had a losing record since 1994, and this group of players is hungry to continue the team’s legacy of success.

 In the preseason, the seniors gave a presentation that set the values that they wanted to continue on the team. They emphasized RIC: respect, integrity, and class. They’re generic terms, but for women’s soccer, they emphasize core values, things that this group tries to exemplify on and off the field. 

And Conlon, who returns to the team with a new perspective after his year at GVSU, is embracing the opportunity in front of him. 

“I’m excited about this group’s heart,” he said. “Looking at things that we can’t control — like a global pandemic for many parts of their career — they have been able to grow together. I’m excited to see [the team’s] heart, and it’ll lead them to success.”

Read former editor Dorian DeBose’s article about Conlon:  

Jim Conlon still exceeding lofty expectations, 200 wins later

Plus catch up from the conclusion of last season under interim coach Gabbert:

Women’s soccer’s season ends in heartbreak Sweet 16 loss

 

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