Erin Hench wanted to play soccer for the Messiah College Falcons ever since she went to a soccer camp hosted at the school when she was in sixth grade. It also didn't hurt that both of Hench's parents and her high school soccer coach graduated from Messiah.
"I have wanted to go since the camp in sixth grade, but my reasons changed over the years. It was originally because of the camp and because my parents went there, but it eventually became because of my Christian faith and the fact that I wanted to go to a school that recognized that," Hench explained.
Hench was familiar with the style of play and way of doing things at Messiah from Carlisle coach Greg Clippinger, who, last season, eclipsed 200 career victories at the helm of the Thundering Herd.
"Coach (Clippinger) was a Messiah grad so he knew how Messiah worked and he always wanted one of his players to go there. He kind of tried to incorporate what he could from Messiah into a secular public school," Hench said.
Four years ago, Falcon senior and Carlisle High alumnus Hench's dream (and, perhaps Clippinger's too) came true when she enrolled at Messiah and became a member of head coach Scott Frey's traditionally-dominant squad. And now, after having led her team to Commonwealth Conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths in each of her four seasons, Hench and her Messiah teammates will face the Elms College Blazers of the New England Collegiate Conference today in Grantham in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, with an eye toward a trip to San Antonio, Texas for the Division III women's soccer Final Four - familiar environs for Messiah.
The Falcons have won two of the last three national championships. The program's only blunder in that span? A 2-1 defeat in last year's championship game against Hardin-Simmons University.
Those familiar with Carlisle soccer remember that Hench enjoyed a record-breaking career at Carlisle High School, culminating in her earning recognition as The Sentinel's Player of the Year in 2007.
Since enrolling at Messiah, Hench has continued to experience individual success, with four First Team All-Commonwealth Conference selections and recognition as the 2009 Commonwealth Player of the Year. This season, Hench finished first in Commonwealth Conference play in assists and third in points.
It is, however, the above-detailed team accomplishments of which Hench is most proud. Indeed, those familiar with Messiah College athletics know that the school has enjoyed virtually-unprecedented success over the past several years in all sports. This fall season, in fact, has yielded four first-place conference finishes, including the women's soccer team, the men's soccer team, the volleyball squad and and the field hockey team. Both soccer teams, in fact, sport undefeated records and surge into postseason play ranked No. 1 nationally at the Division III level. And these results barely scratch the surface in describing Messiah's athletic accomplishments.
The key to Messiah's athletic success?
"First, on top of everything, it's just that we have a bigger purpose in mind. Overall we try and play because God gave us the ability to play and, in turn, we're giving that back to him," Hench explained.
"Also, the coaches are phenomenal and understand that it's not about us - it's about God and us playing for him," she added.
As Hench and her Falcon teammates look forward to embarking on a run through the NCAA Tournament, there will be no change in team strategy.
"The philosophy that coach Frey tells us is that it doesn't matter who we're playing. We always play our best and our standard is ourselves," Hench said. "It's not about the other team, it's about us performing our best."
Hench has enjoyed a special relationship with Frey due to yet another family connection with Messiah.
"He has been great. He actually roomed with my dad in college so we've been family friends for a while and, just having a coach that cares about each girl off the field is something you don't necessarily see everywhere else," Hench said. "He encourages us to come to his office and talk to him about life in general and always checks to see how we are doing as people."
Hench and her teammates look to avenge last year's title game loss and hoist yet another championship trophy - one that will fit in nicely at Messiah.