Seeing double

by Alex Linden, sports information director

In its less than 20 years of existence at Nebraska Wesleyan, the women’s soccer team has established itself as one of the top small college programs in the Midwest. The Prairie Wolves are a consistent force in the GPAC, capturing seven conference championships and setting a record by winning 26 straight home matches from 2003-2007.

The 2010 squad has continued that winning tradition, earning 10 shutouts and outscoring opponents 33 to 11 over a 9-6-2 season.

In addition to all the victories and championships, NWU soccer bears another unusual distinction. Since the first team roster in 1993, five different sets of twins have played on the NWU women’s soccer team.

Nebraska Wesleyan’s roster featured two sets of twins in 2010: defenders Aleisha and Melanie Menning from Hastings, Neb., and midfielders Michelle and Sheila Mullen from Omaha, Neb.

NWU’s head soccer coach Mike Lynch said having the twins on the team “is fantastic because Aleisha and Melanie Menning and Michelle and Sheila Mullen are not only quality players, but first-class individuals.” The Menning sisters are both four-year starters who have played every game as key members of the NWU defense. Both sisters were CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District selections in 2009 and 2010.

A forward may believe she's beaten Menning on an angle to the ball only to have Menning reappear on her other side.

Putting twins on the pitch might have strategic value in a style of defense where players swarm and work to appear “everywhere at once.” A forward may believe she’s beaten Menning on an angle to the ball only to have Menning reappear on her other side. That déjà vu in the form of tenacious twin defenders can frustrate a hounded forward and push her shots wide in close matches.

That advantage could very well have failed to materialize for the Prairie Wolves. “We were set to go to separate schools up until the middle of our senior year in high school,” said Aleisha Menning, who scored her first goal of her career this season. “We are very competitive with each other, so having Melanie as a teammate has really pushed me to get better.”

The Mennings enjoyed successful years off the pitch as well. Both sisters were accepted to medical school.

The Mullen sisters took a different path to NWU soccer. Last year, the Mullens were All-Conference performers at Dana College. When the school closed this summer, they looked for a new home and saw Nebraska Wesleyan as the best fit to finish their career.

“The thing I enjoy most about playing with (Michelle) is that we always have somebody to go out and practice with,” Sheila Mullen said. “It is also nice to play alongside somebody who is like your best friend, and I’ve gotten to play next to her ever since I was little.”

While opponents struggle to stop NWU’s twins on the field, Lynch has an equally tough time telling the sisters apart. When he arrived on campus in 2009, he used a cheat sheet on the Menning twins, describing the differences in their hairstyles. “Right in the middle of making a coaching point I would have to make my ‘hair observation identification,’ then address them by name,” Lynch remembered. “Then the first time I met Michelle and Sheila Mullen, I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”

Now he sometimes catches himself not just calling a player by her sister’s name, but confusing Mullens for Mennings or vice versa. “The team gets a chuckle out of that,” Lynch said.

For the most part, the confusion rolls off the twins’ backs. Aleisha Menning appreciates that her teammates can tell them apart, but grumbles whenever a confused referee penalizes her for her sister’s foul.

Although having twins on the roster doesn’t guarantee success, having four players with identical winning mindsets has certainly helped the Prairie Wolves.

Now, whenever Lynch meets an excellent soccer prospect on the recruiting trail, he’s tempted to ask her, “You don’t have a twin sister, do you?”