When Players Coach
The NWU men’s soccer team is winning on and off the field as the players work to foster a culture of serving the Lincoln community. Twelve current NWU soccer players, almost 50% of the team, are working or volunteering as high school soccer coaches, referees and facilitators of after-school programs.
“This is the place that prepares you to go out into the real world. It’s not a chore to give back, and you can give back on so many levels. These experiences are preparing them to learn in different ways and to enjoy giving back.”
The players prioritize giving back to Lincoln youth soccer, even if they’re not originally from Lincoln, says head coach Brandon Bonilla, “These kids love the game, and they want to help other kids love the game as well.” At a recent Lincoln High versus Pius X match, 5 NWU players were on the sidelines and 6 more were in the stands.
Two NWU players on the Pius X side of the field were rising sophomores Caleb Vos and Zach Weis. Caleb and Zach’s roles as coaches for the Pius X JV team included creating a practice plan, facilitating practices every night and traveling to or hosting games one to three times a week. As a Skutt Catholic alum, Caleb was drawn to Pius’s program. After meeting with the head coaches, Caleb and Zach decided that Pius would be a great program to bring in their young soccer experience.
Caleb and Zach led the Pius men’s JV soccer team to an 8-3 winning season after finishing 3-10 the year before. Caleb attributes the team’s success to the youthful experience that he and Zach brought to the program, “the fact that Zach and I are so young makes us a great asset to the Pius X soccer program. The head coaches of the varsity team knew that we were young and that we had been successful through the high school soccer scene in Nebraska, and they wanted us to bring in new ideas to the program. It is so easy to relate to the players since some of them are barely even 2 years younger than us.”
Like Caleb and Zach, all but one of the NWU players are coaching below the varsity level, which gives them the opportunity to shape younger players and offer support they may not otherwise have. It also gives the younger players the opportunity to interact with a high-level player. As Coach Bonilla says, “They’re role models. It’s easy to celebrate the winners, but it’s special to help a kid who may not get that attention. They now have someone who cares about them regardless of whether they meet their goal.”
As NWU players build relationships with the players they coach, they are also strengthening the relationship with their own head coach and each other. Coach Bonilla often attends the high school matches that his players are coaching and loves seeing his players from a different perspective. “To be able to spend time with some of the guys in a different way has been fantastic. This is someone who’s interested in being a coach. How can I best equip them off the field?” It’s not uncommon to see NWU soccer players in attendance at these high school matches, showing support for their teammates and providing extra encouragement for the young players.
The NWU players’ time as coaches will prepare them for success as collegiate athletes and as individuals. Coaching gives the players the opportunity to see the game from multiple angles, which helps them develop skills that will transfer to their playing time on the field. With so many members of the NWU team participating in coaching, the team’s overall game is elevated. Caleb credits his coaching with strengthening his leadership skills, “The improvement that I saw from each player this season showed their desire to reach their full potential. I think that this experience will teach me how to grow after facing adversity and how to be a true leader.”
Coach Bonilla hopes his players’ coaching experiences shift their focus from wins and losses to a mentality of growth on and off the field. According to Coach Bonilla, their real success will be the lifelong personal development the team will gain from serving the community, “This is the place that prepares you to go out into the real world. It’s not a chore to give back, and you can give back on so many levels. These experiences are preparing them to learn in different ways and to enjoy giving back.”
Some of NWU Men’s Soccer players serving youth soccer in Lincoln: Thomas DiStefano (‘23) serves on the coaching staff at Lincoln High, Caleb Voss (‘24) and Zach Weiss (‘24) are at Pius X, Ryan Rediger (‘24) coaches at Lincoln Southeast, Adam Fencl (‘23) is the manager at Lincoln East, Logan Clark (‘24) referees games, and Jakob Holquest (‘23) and Jed Merriman (‘23) contribute to CLC after school programs for elementary and middle schoolers.
Story by Quynn Kennedy (’23)