Owls soar on the field under Lydia Vandenbergh

Tom Flynn
Special To The Black Mountain News

Through four games this fall, the Warren Wilson Owls women’s soccer team had a 3-1 mark, putting them on pace to post their best record in more than a decade. They’re led by head coach Lydia Vandenbergh, now in her fourth year at the helm of the Owls.

Vandenbergh was an assistant to former Owls head coach Stacey Enos beginning in 2012, and took over the program in 2015. Enos now leads the semi-professional Asheville City women’s soccer team that began play this year.

Warren Wilson's Camille Ference (left) and Jocelyn Hartung celebrate during a recent win for the Owls.

Warren Wilson recently introduced its North Carolina Free Tuition Plan, whereby any student who is eligible for federal and/or state need-based aid can attend Warren Wilson tuition-free. The program has been a boon to the school’s enrollment with 302 new students added this fall, the largest in the school’s history. Of incoming freshmen, 104 are from North Carolina.

“It’s been a really big recruiting tool for me to pull in some great local North Carolina talent,” said Vandenbergh. “I think the recruiting class that we brought in this year is fantastic. They’ve already made a huge impact. We’re really excited about the potential of this group.”

The bumper crop of freshmen includes Chloe Riess from nearby Brevard, the same home town as the head coach. Vandenbergh occasionally returns to coach practices at Brevard High School, as a way to give back to her town and school. She met Riess when the latter was a high school freshman.

“I met her back then, and stayed in touch and followed her career,” said Vandenbergh. “I thought early on she was a great fit for Warren Wilson. It turns out she felt the same way and she’s off to a great start.”

Riess has provided a much-needed offensive spark to a team that’s typically solid defensively, but can struggle to score.

“Without having the ability to put the ball in the back of the net you can only go so far," Vandenbergh said. "So we really focused on finding people who can score and she’s already done that."

The quality of college soccer in the Southeast is high across all spans of competition. “I think the Southeast for women’s soccer, especially at the DIII level, is really strong. We play a lot of NCAA DIII and NAIA schools,” said Vandenbergh.

The Owls compete in Division II of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) based out of Norfolk, Virginia. At the DII level, athletic scholarships are typically not awarded.

The Owls' Allyson Nestler battles for a loose ball in an 8-2 Owls' victory on Sept. 1.

“We always rank among the toughest schedules in terms of the other schools that we play,” Vandenbergh said. “With travel and our location, we’re always playing really tough, good teams. So we have that again this year and we’re off to a really good start.”

The head coach would know about strong competition. She attended Clemson from 2002-2005 and participated in the NCAA tournament in each of her four seasons.

In three of those years the team finished in the top-25. Vandenbergh closed out her career having started 60 consecutive matches for the Tigers.

She’s played professionally in the US, as well as overseas in Denmark, Australia, and Brazil, competing in pro leagues with such well-known US soccer stars as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo.

This summer she was part of a an Asheville City team that went 8-1-1 in its first year in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL). She’s also a part owner of the squad that regularly turned out large, vocal crowds at Asheville’s Memorial Stadium.

She sees the experience on high-level teams assisting the Owls and students who are balancing athletics, work, and academic demands.

“I think sports at Warren Wilson help bring out some of that character and develop some of those traits that we really value in our society and need more of,” Vandenbergh said. “I think Warren Wilson has always been about grit. We’ve not always had the best team on paper, but we always compete and fight, and tackle hard and really care about one another.”

The head coach hopes to combine her knowledge of high-performing teams with some of the innate abilities honed at Warren Wilson.

“With very good team that win championships, when you ask them, the first thing that they say is ‘we have great team chemistry,’” she said. “Between the grit and the team chemistry, that’s what we want to be known for.”

Vandenbergh lives in Swannanoa with her husband Joshua Jackson, who works for the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association (AYBSA).

The Owls play their home games on campus and the field is accessible via Chapel Drive off of Warren Wilson Road in Swannanoa.

Their next home game is their homecoming against Hiwassee College at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6.