Head Coach John Hedlund, Mean Green Soccer On Brink Of 300 Wins

Aug. 19, 2016

North Texas vs. Incarnate Word
7 p.m. l  Denton, TX  l  Mean Green Soccer Stadium
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DENTON — On September 7, 1997, just two years and change into the existence of the North Texas’ women’s soccer program, the Mean Green defeated defending SEC West champions Arkansas 5-1 at home.

As head coach John Hedlund walked off his program’s humble intramural field next to the Beer Barn, he had 25-career coaching wins to his name.

Nineteen years later, on the eve of the start of the 2016 season, Hedlund walked into his 1,000-seat Mean Green Soccer Stadium with 299 wins to his name.

“I came from a program that chartered three planes to games,” said women’s assistant coach and former player Fleur Benatar, who transferred from Arkansas before the 1997 season. “Here, we barely had 10 balls. We’ve just never needed much to win.”

When Hedlund — the university’s all-time winningest coach — captures that next win, he’ll become the 20th NCAA division I women’s soccer coach to reach the 300 victory benchmark. As the Mean Green’s only women’s soccer coach, Hedlund boasts a .709 winning percentage, the 16th highest winning percentage in NCAA division I history, and his team has never had a losing season.

But all those accolades never crossed Hedlund’s mind as he walked off his recreational field in 1997.

“In the early years I just wanted to build something the university would be proud of,” Hedlund said. “I wasn’t thinking 300 wins at all. I didn’t even know I was one away from 300 until after we lost our NCAA playoff game last year and someone told me.”

“Back when we first started, I knew all the pieces weren’t going to be there, but it was really just about bringing in talented players who wanted to win and could build a stepping-stone,” Hedlund added.

Building a stepping-stone is difficult to do when you’re starting from nothing.

In 1994, then North Texas assistant men’s soccer coach Hedlund was given the task of going to the locker room and informing his players that the program had been cut.

“Still one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Hedlund said.

However, while one program was being shut down another was about to begin.

With legendary men’s soccer coach Richard Lowe already planning on retiring, Hedlund had been expecting to take over the men’s team. But with that now out of the question, then North Texas athletic director Craig Helwig turned to Hedlund to start the women’s program.

“John was a great player and understood the game well,” Lowe said. “But more importantly even when he was just starting off coaching I remember how good he was with the players and how much they respected him.”

During his two years as an assistant under Lowe, Hedlund was in charge of recruiting, practices, conditioning and the program’s budget. When he was told he’d have the opportunity to coach the new women’s program there wasn’t much of a second thought. Hedlund believed he had the experience as both a coach and a player to start the program.

“I really learned how to run a program under Lowe,” Hedlund said. “But I’d never coached women before so there was a little uncertainty.”

With nothing but a pitch of grass next to a red barn, the then 33-year-old first year head coach set out looking for players.

What Hedlund assembled was an 11-6 Mean Green team that beat the SEC’s LSU and Mississippi State. Their victory over LSU on Sept. 3 was the program’s first ever.

Why players like Benatar chose to transfer to North Texas mostly centered on being closer to home. Benatar claimed to know nothing about Hedlund when she made the move. But Benatar said all the transfers shared devotion, even though the program lacked a name brand at the time.

“John is a brilliant soccer mind,” Benatar said. “And I think he learned pretty quickly how to foster a group of girls’ desire and turn it into effort and a mental edge despite not having all the bells and whistles at first.”

Back at his modern college soccer stadium, Hedlund led a drill. As he looked around at his team what he saw were 10 new unfamiliar faces, many of who are expected to play significant roles this season.

“Last year we had seven outstanding seniors who started,” Hedlund said. “Seeing them grow over four years and become great players and win games and help this program reach a new level is why I think any one would do this.”

By the end of the 2000 season, Hedlund had racked up 77 total wins. With 24 victories in six years over Texas schools, including No. 9 SMU in 2000, the Mean Green had become a force in the state.

Behind the foot of star Marilyn Marin, the program took another big step in 2001 when they claimed the Sun Belt Conference regular season title, its first conference title.

“As the years went on I started to think ‘why leave?’ “, Hedlund said. “We’re in a talent rich area. We’re a division I school. We can create something special here.”

The next step came in 2004 when they won they won a then program-best 16 games, captured the Sun Belt regular season and tournament titles and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

In 2013, North Texas made the move to Conference USA. They immediately had success, winning the regular season title, which they’d repeat in 2014. But in 2015, led by the seven seniors, the Mean Green won a program-best 19 games and the conference tournament.

“It kind of felt like a breakthrough for us,” said senior forward Anna Flobeck. “We’d come so close every year. So to finally win it was almost like weight off our back, because we knew we were taking a step forward. And when I leave I want to keep that standard of progression.”

When Hedlund joins the 300 win club he’ll be just one of nine coaches in the group to have been at one school. However, he’ll also be one of 10 300-win coaches without a national championship.

“That’s the next step,” Benatar said. “We want more.”

Now in his office at the Mean Green Village, Hedlund leaned back in his chair reflecting on the past 21 years. Behind him in a sack were roughly 10 soccer balls leaning up against a shelf. On the shelf were 12 conference trophies and six coach of the year trophies. Placed on his desk were championship rings.

“It didn’t matter if we didn’t have a locker room or a fancy stadium,” Benatar said. “John and the players he’s brought to North Texas have all been in it for the same reason. Winning.”

 

 

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