A season of highs and lows: women’s soccer’s growth in 2023

The FIU women’s soccer team Panthers lined up against the Miami Hurricanes. Photo courtesy of Carla Mendez | PantherNOW.

Carla Mendez | Assistant Sports Director

The 2023 FIU women’s soccer campaign proved to be one of the most successful in the history of the program. For the first time since 2012, they qualified for a conference tournament and bolstered their highest winning percentage since then.

Under the leadership of head coach Jonathan Garbar, the Panthers have flourished both on the field and in the classroom. Last season, multiple players earned both academic and athletic honors, demonstrating their focus as a team.

On the field, he led the team to their highest number of wins in over a decade and pushed them to finish with an 8-6-4 record. This included a 3-2-2 record against Conference USA opponents.

Coach Garbar giving a pre-game talk to the team. Photo courtesy of Carla Mendez | PantherNOW.

Reaching the end of his most successful season, Garbar has been at the helm of the program since January of 2021. On Dec. 7, 2023, he received a contract extension to keep him as head coach through 2027. 

When he was asked about his feelings on their most recent season, he said: “We had a very clear picture of where we wanted to take our program. We knew that this was the year it would be easier for everyone to see the progress that we had already been seeing on our own more behind the scenes.” 

The 2022 season built upon growth from their 2021 season, but the team still fell short at a regional competitive level. 

However, while the 2023 season didn’t end with a championship, the team began to see the fruits of their labor.

Citing statistics that indicated improvement, Garbar pointed out: “the five years prior to last year- if you look at the games they won, drawn, or lost by only competitive matches- they were at 28%, easily one of the worst of the nation. Last year, we were at 78%. That’s a massive improvement.”

Factors of A Successful Season 

The continuous growth of the program has come to no surprise for those intimately invested in its development such as the players and coaches. 

Reflecting on their growth, Garbar said, “the vision was always clear and how we wanted to get to where we’re going was always clear. I think this was the year where it became easier to be able to experience that [the team’s growth] because very simply, there’s just more wins.” 

A program’s success stems from a culmination of various factors such as the development of the players, the roundness of the roster, and relationships cultivated within the program. 

While Garbar said that the outcome of their most recent season was expected, he understood that certain things take time to develop.

“This was the first season where our roster was its most complete- these were a full roster of players that we recruited, players that we’ve had most of them since their freshman year,” said Garbar.

Their growth was rewarded at the end of the year, as FIU obtained a program record of seven All-Conference USA selections.

Junior forward Noemi Paquin received first-team honors after scoring 10 goals, the most for the team in over a decade. 

She became the first player since defender/midfielder Marie Egan in 2015 to be selected to the first-team All-CUSA. Starting in 15 games, Paquin logged five goals, four assists and 14 points, garnering multiple career highs. 

Beyond her contribution, junior defender Reagan Bridges, graduate student forward Camillie Sahirul, sophomore forward Kim Schneider, and Solis took home second-team honors.

Rounding out the team accolades, junior defender Delinda Sehlin and senior goalkeeper Ithaisa Vinoly received third-team honors. 

Paquin became the first player since defender/midfielder Marie Egan in 2015 to be selected to the first-team All-CUSA. Starting in 15 games, Paquim logged five goals, four assists and 14 points, garnering multiple career highs. 

However, towards the last two weeks of the season, there was a clear dip in the Panthers performance. 

The Struggle to Maintain Wins 

After claiming a 3-2 win against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks on Oct. 15, the Panthers dropped the ball with a 2-1 loss in home finale against the LA Tech Bulldogs on Oct. 22.

In that match, junior forward Nikole Solis tallied her ninth goal of the season, which was the highest tally by a Panther in a single season since 2012. Surpassing her own achievement, she later scored her tenth goal in Conference USA Quarterfinal.

Despite individual achievements, the coaching staff wanted it to reflect in the win column. 

“Frankly, I think the biggest challenge we faced was- this is part of our process is- we’ve learned how to win games, how to close games but we have not yet learned how to take games,” said Garbar.

Unable to find their footing before the end of the season, they took their second loss in a row to Middle Tennessee before reaching the postseason.

Due to their play in the early portion of the season, FIU secured a spot in the CUSA Championship Quarterfinals where they took on the Sam Houston Bearkats.

Against the Bearkats, they were unable to overcome an early three goal barrage in the opening 12:26 of the match. Despite responding with two goals in the first half their efforts weren’t enough to overcome the deficit.

Taking a 3-2 loss after a scoreless second half, the Panthers were eliminated from the CUSA Championship tournament.. 

Looking at the result of their season with a glass-half-full approach, Garbar said: “with two weeks left in the season we clinched the conference tournament for the first time in ten years. We were just a few points away from being first place in the entire league, from the moment on we began to dip.

“I think the reality is that we simply weren’t prepared yet mentally, psychologically, emotionally to sustain winning and keep it more ruthless,” he concluded.

Looking towards the future:

In a border context, coach Garbar articulated his appreciation for the program’s growth and the interplay between relationships and on-field performance.

“I like to sit back and watch how far the program has come in terms of the development of the relationships and how they do in turn influence the development of our play. I firmly believe if our relationships don’t succeed, our football won’t succeed,” he said.

As the FIU women’s soccer team begin training for their new season in the Spring, the primary focus will be on ensuring the team is well-prepared to sustain a winning competitive edge at the championship level. 

Follow Carla Mendez on X: @carladfmendez

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