SE: Smith Brings Experience, Perspective to K-State Soccer

In some ways, Jessica Smith is in familiar territory. In others, not so much.  

Smith, a Wichita native, coached or played in the Big 12 for more than 10 years, but she did both with the University of Kansas, an established program that started in 1995. 

Now, she’s an assistant coach for the K-State women’s soccer team, in its first year of existence. This means Smith, who holds a United States Soccer Federation National “B” License, not only traded in her blue and red for purple and white, but she has taken on a completely different type of challenge as well. 

The chance to build a program from scratch, she said, was too special to pass up. Smith, whose 16 career goals at KU rank eighth in school history, described why she joined K-State and what the journey has been like so far in an interview with K-State Sports Extra during the Wildcats’ media day. 

SE: As a former Jayhawk, are you getting used to the color purple? 

JS: (laughs) I am. I love purple. It was a pretty quick, easy transition for me. I’m a Kansas kid, born and raised in Wichita. It’s pretty familiar territory for me to come over to K-State.

SE: What attracted you to joining a brand new program? 

JS: It’s just an incredible opportunity to be part of developing a Power 5 women’s soccer program. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to do it in my home state, and to work for Coach (Mike) Dibbini. I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. 

SE: How would you describe your experience with the program so far? 

JS: It’s been fantastic. I think our coaching staff gets along really well and we’re all on the same page with the mission of how we’re going to build this program. It’s a grind, day in and day out. I think it takes a unique set of people to take on this challenge, and Coach Dibbini is leading us through that right now. We’ve got a great group of girls, but we put a lot of work in every day. It’s going to be a process for us, so a lot of patience and dedication will be required just to try to recruit really hard, create great training sessions and think every day, “How can we get better?”

SE: What have you enjoyed about being at K-State so far? 

JS: The atmosphere has been fantastic. I got to go on a lot of Catbacker events, and I’ve just been very warmly welcomed after we get the elephant out of the room that I’m a Jayhawk. K-State is definitely a family atmosphere. It’s not just a motto, people live that every day, so I’ve been very welcomed here and I feel a part of this family. I’m really fortunate to be here.

SE: From a coaching standpoint, what is your specialty and what will you bring to this program?  

JS: I work with the attacking players when we’re on the field. I think I’m very good at developing players, so taking the fundamentals and making it functional for players on the field, no matter what position they play. Some of the intangibles, I think I bring to the game. I have an ability to make connections with the players. Coaching is all about creating connections and building trust, and I think that’s one of my strengths. I think the girls look at my experience as a player as well. I’ve been in their shoes at the school down the road, so I’ve been in a lot of their struggles. I think that it helps them to feel more comfortable and they know that they can relate to me. 

SE: From your Big 12 success, which included playing on a Big 12 Championship team in 2004 and coaching two NCAA Tournament teams, what is the biggest thing you want to get across to your players? 

JS: I was very fortunate as a player to be a part of a Big 12 Championship team and make it to the Sweet 16, so I’ve had a taste of that success. For me, what I try to bring every day is helping the girls understand the level that we have to compete at and the expectations. Right now for us, it’s creating that standard of play and being consistent every day to train and meet those expectations, and when it’s not good enough, we have to get them to raise that level. I think they look to me because they know I’ve been there, I know the Big 12 very well and I know the standard of our training and how it should be. 

SE: As an assistant coach, what is the biggest challenge you face with a first-year program? 

JS: With so many freshmen (22), you not only have to help them transition on the soccer field, but they’re transitioning in life as well. So there’s a lot of life skills, time management and things like that that we have to deal with that some people don’t realize are a part of our job as coaches. We’re a part of their experience here. From a soccer standpoint, the speed of play and the physicality of the college game is a lot different than what they expect and what they’ve been through before, and we train very hard every day. The expectations are totally different. Some kids transition very quickly and some take a little bit of time. Some may take their whole fall season of their freshman year — everyone does it differently — but you just have to support each of them through their journey and hopefully everyone’s working toward the same mission. 

SE: You Tweeted out before fall practices started that, with a handful of players sharing the same first name on a team where everyone is new to each other and the coaches, confusion occurred. Do you have the names figured out now?      

JS: (laughs) I absolutely have all of our names down. It was pretty intimidating the first day of summer training when I had all of the girls come out and it was a little bit embarrassing that I had to ask them their names because, as a coach, the one thing you have to know on the field is you have to know your players’ names. It took me a couple of days, but we’ve got them down. Now the challenge is creating connections — meaningful connections — with each of our players because we do have a big squad and it’s really important to create those connections still. 

SE: What are you looking forward to the most in this inaugural season? 

JS: I’m just looking forward to seeing the progress, honestly. We have high expectations, but we’re also very realistic. I love being the underdog, and I think in most matches that we go into we’re going to be the underdog. I have a lot of confidence in our players, in what we’re doing every day in the training environment, so I’m really excited to see how far we’ve come after our last game in October.