College women's soccer: Seniors Fleissner, Finley return to key Bulldogs’ 4-0 start
The Minnesota Duluth women’s soccer team is 4-0 on the season after opening NSIC play with a grinding 1-0 victory over St. Cloud State on Tuesday at Malosky Stadium.
And a pair of seniors who could have graduated last spring are a big reason for the fast start.
Skye Finley and Emily Fleissner didn’t have to return to the classroom or pitch this fall. They could have graduated and moved on with their lives, but instead both elected to return to the Bulldogs for a fourth and final season.
It’s a good thing for UMD that they did as both are at the forefront of what’s been an offensive explosion for the Bulldogs. A year after barely averaging a goal per game (1.05) and getting shut out six times, UMD is scoring 2.25 goals per outing heading into a key showdown with preseason NSIC-favorite Minnesota State-Mankato at 1 p.m. Saturday at Malosky.
“I don’t think there was a question about them coming back,” Bulldogs coach Greg Cane said of Fleissner and Finley. “They’re mature, they’re older in the way they approach their lifestyle. That brings some discipline. They’re focused and that makes a big impact on the team.”
Finley has three goals and an assist, all of which came during the three nonconference games to start the year. Two of those three goals have come off corner kicks — the Bulldogs’ specialty early on.
Fleissner has two goals, both off corners. Her second tally of the season was the lone score Tuesday night. The former Duluth Denfeld standout finished a corner kick from senior defenseman Anna Morrison in the game’s 73rd minute.
The Bulldogs have scored five of their nine goals this season off corner kicks. They had 10 corner attempts Tuesday — Fleissner scored on the ninth attempt — and have 29 total this fall.
“Both of them are really aggressive in the air,” said UMD senior Hailey Hoff of Hermantown. “They are going to win the ball. They are going to try and be the first one on and that’s huge because that’s how we’ve been able to score a lot of goals, off corners.”
Fleissner is an environmental science major who strategically decided to drop a class last spring midway through the semester in order to return to UMD in the fall. She wasn’t struggling with the class, but she was struggling with where she wanted to go to graduate school.
So she decided to buy herself more time, and another year of competitive soccer with her friends and family from her hometown there to support her.
“You build up to your senior year,” Fleissner said. “It’s the most exciting because I feel like it’s the year you wait for. You wait to be a senior. It still doesn’t even feel real to me. I feel like a freshman all the time.”
Finley’s future was much clearer than her teammate’s. The graphic design and marketing major already has a job lined up at the conclusion of this semester with 3M. She took part in an internship over the summer, which ended with a job offer.
She said 3M was fine with her playing another season at UMD, and happy to wait a few extra months for her services.
“I love soccer; I never want to give it up,” Finley said. “I just couldn’t let go and knew we had a great team coming around the corner and I wanted to be a part of it.”
It’s no coincidence that both Finley and Fleissner decided to play a final season together as both rely on one another for support on the field and off.
Fleissner’s father, Kelly, is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The former Minnesota Duluth football player was diagnosed last September. Finley’s father, Kevin, has brain cancer and has had it since his daughter was 13 years old.
Having dealt with her father’s illness longer, Finley said she’s happy to be someone her teammate can confide in, and Fleissner said she’s happy to have someone like Finley who understands what she is going through.
“For both of us, they are different situations, but they’re also similar in a lot of ways,” Finley said. “It’s hard for people to understand and I can’t expect people to understand. To have someone else kind of aware of the situation and be aware of the challenges and go through the same challenges ... it’s sad for me to see from her aspect, but it is helping that I’m not alone.”
Both Finley and Fleissner cited their fathers — who were both at Malosky on Tuesday to cheer on their daughters — as driving forces for them in the classroom and especially on the field. They said their fathers inspired them both to come back to UMD for their senior seasons and to take part in a season that is not a surprise to either Bulldog, even after 2016’s disappointing 8-6-5 finish.
“We only lost four seniors, so I just knew we had the strength and the core left to continue on,” Finley said. “I want to be No. 1.”