Senior Rachel Breidigan raises the bar for athletic and academic excellence

During the last four years of Eastern Mennonite University women’s soccer, the team’s 10 seniors “reawakened an old tradition of academic excellence,” said Coach Ted Erickson. Front row, from left: Hannah Walker, Sara Shenk Morena, Mikaela Zook. Back row: Amanda Williams, Sierra Martin, Rachel Sturm, Bailey McInnis, Marcy Smucker, Rachel Breidigan. Not pictured: Mary Deskins. (Photo by Scott Eyre)

HARRISONBURG – Senior Rachel Breidigan, nursing major from Douglassville, has contributed in building a stong women’s soccer program with a legacy of academic excellence.

On the field, Eastern Mennonite University’s women’s soccer team sits tied for seventh in the ODAC standings and will enter the postseason tournament seeded eighth. In the classroom, they stand above 3.0 a their collective grade point average.

For each of the past four years, the team has earned the National Soccer Coaches Association of Americaas Team Academic Award, a recognition not received in the previous 10 years.That honor is in large part thanks to the team’s 10 seniors. Coach Ted Erickson describes them as “extremely strong” in the classroom.

Manage to arrange a time to sit down and talk with those seniors, and you’ll note their excitement at their rigorous coursework at EMU. You also canat miss their deep appreciation for EMU – and their team.

Take Sierra Martin, Marcy Smucker and Rachel Sturm, for three.

Three reflect: “Excel with it”

After graduating with a nursing degree and psychology minor, Sturm hopes to pursue a doctorate in nursing and work in labor and delivery. She remembers her first experience in that field, the moment the baby was born. “I was holding the woman’s leg and everyone started crying. I started crying. It was just a new experience of God.”

Martin, a biology major in the pre-professional health services program focusing on physical therapy – with minors in psychology and neuroscience – also has her sights on a doctorate, in neurological physical therapy working with Parkinson’s patients and victims of strokes and traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.

Smucker is a biochemistry major in the pre-professional health program with a pre-med focus, and neuroscience and Spanish minors.

“I’m not exactly sure what I’ll specialize in,” she said. “I just kind of go with it, figure it out when I get there. A lot of different things excite me.”

They’ve always known that the academic side of his team’s college life was the priority for Erickson, Sturm said.

“Ted has definitely been supportive,” she said. “You’re a student first, before you’re an athlete. Schoolwork is first, before soccer” – even if it meant occasionally missing practice to study.

Older players shared their textbooks with first-years, and there was “an atmosphere on the team where if you needed help with your studies, you can get that,” Smucker said.

That culture taught its own lessons, too, Sturm said – to be supportive of teammates and to learn from mistakes.

“I’ve realized that the soccer roles that I’ve been in will help me in nursing,” she said. “Like Ted says, when it’s time to be the star, or step into place, or show up on the field, that’s your time to take that experience and excel with it.”

Pathways to EMU

Even though the rest of her Central Pennsylvania family went to EMU’s midwestern sister Goshen College, Smucker “wasn’t sure I could go somewhere that’s flat,” she said; she loves having the option of trail running in the mountains during the off season. But there were other reasons, too, that she chose EMU.

“I enjoy EMU’s very worldly citizen drive for its students,” she said. “I’m trying to soak up all that knowledge.”

Martin grew up in Colorado. Like Smucker, she didn’t want to go somewhere flat, but chose EMU because “in two words: I’m Mennonite,” she said. “And I wanted to play soccer, which I wouldn’t have been able to do at a bigger school.”

Sturm, also a pole vaulter on the track and field team, is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Before coming to EMU she didn’t know how much she, too, loves the mountains – or what a Mennonite was.

“When I got the free application, I was like, ‘Why not? It’s free,'” she said. “So I just did it – and I got accepted. When I came to visit – I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll just come visit’ – I actually fell in love with the campus. My mom and I weren’t expecting that, because I was already almost committed to a different college, to play soccer there.”

What really clinched the deal for Sturm was that the soccer coach – then Sue Kolb – and the track coach stayed in touch with her. “I really liked the personal relationship they had, and the personal relationship here – and the culture here, and the cultural diversity,” she said.

The unexpected change of plans ended up “changing my whole path of life,” she said.

Devotions and connections

Among teammates is a strong sense of connection, the three seniors said. Case in point: Before home games, team members take turns providing a devotional, with no coaches present.

“It’s a good time to bond and get ready and come together,” Sturm said, “and to be there for each other.”

That environment has been growing since the start of their college soccer careers. Preseason practices provided a social home base from the first day of their first semester.

“Preseason in general is something that I’ll look back on with a combination of love and hate,” Martin said. “It’s the mutual suffering that helps bond you.”

(“Marcy and I didn’t even think we were going to like each other, when we first met,” Martin added. Smucker’s response? “We’re roommates now” – “and have been for three years,” finished Martin.)

“We’ve become family,” said Sturm. “We have a good communication base as a team.”

They notice how much they have changed – and how much the team experience affects members.

Smucker said that she didn’t talk much as a freshman, and now counts among her “fondest memories” seeing “the same thing that happened to me happen to other people, except in their own, very special ways. It’s really fun to see them finally come out of their shells and start to get comfortable with the team.”

As team relationships developed over the last four years, the team grew to more than 30 players this year, which Martin counts as a success in itself.

“Even though we won’t be here to reap the benefits of that growth later on, it’s exciting to know that we were instrumental in making that happen,” she said.


With the season about to wrap up, the time has come for nostalgia.

“The emotional space that I have for soccer hasn’t changed. I still love it and enjoy it as much as I did,” said Sierra Martin. “But the mental space that I have for it has been forced to decrease and be reallocated to other things that have moved into that space.”

It was a sentiment mirrored by Smucker and Sturm. Since childhood, soccer has been a big part of their lives.

“We have a lot of memories growing up with that, attached to family and everything,” Smucker said. “It’s a big deal whenever parents come to games. Definitely going to miss that. But it’s also going to be time. I’m ready.”

Sturm said that while she’s put herself wholeheartedly into her sports, she is “realizing that the ‘best you can be’ can be in multiple, different paths.”

During their time at EMU, these three and their seven fellow seniors have carried influence on the team, said Erickson. Though the team may be losing its ten seniors this year, their legacy will stick around.

Since their first year, he said, when they entered a program that had only seven returning players, they have “pushed through high times and low times. They reawakened an old tradition of academic excellence.”

“This group has a special place in my heart,” he added. “They are the reason this program has grown to its current level. Each of these young women will be able to leave knowing that they have left this program in a better place than what they walked into, and we will be able to see their success continue onto their next playing field, their professions and future families.”

A leader among faith-based, liberal arts universities since 1917, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) emphasizes peacebuilding, sustainability, service to others, and social justice to students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. On the main campus in Harrisonburg, VA; at the Lancaster, PA campus; and online, EMU educates undergraduate, graduate, professional and seminary students to serve and lead in a global context. The EMU experience challenges students to pursue their life calling through scholarly inquiry, artistic creation, guided practice, and life-changing cross-cultural encounter.

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