App State soccer’s “Mountaineer mentality” attracts international players

Freshman midfielder Lela Stark from Guelph, Ontario, Canada, makes a run toward Radford’s goal.

Taylor Ward

Freshman midfielder Lela Stark from Guelph, Ontario, Canada, makes a run toward Radford’s goal.

Sarah Kruger, Reporter

App State soccer has seen an increase in international players in its squad since 2021, the result of a unique team mentality and opportunity for players.

The Mountaineers acquired two international players before the start of the 2022 season — freshmen midfielders Felicia Erkenfeldt from Rydebäck, Sweden, and Lela Stark from Ontario, Canada. In a Sept. 12 interview, both discussed what attracted them to the university.

“I think it was the coach here at App State soccer. I just felt like she had good goals and she just felt like a good coach,” Erkenfeldt said. “It felt like an environment that I could develop as a soccer player.” 

Erkenfeldt said head coach Aimee Haywood’s high expectations for the team, as well as the winning habits Haywood stresses on and off the field, are what drew her to the High Country. Erkenfeldt also cited Haywood’s commitment to helping players develop individually as well as a team as an attractive feature of the program. 

These sentiments are reflected in Haywood’s own description of her coaching style and team mentality. 

“I think a big piece of it for me is person-first. I want to get to know them as human beings … So, the more I know them, the better I can coach them,” Haywood said. 

Haywood elaborated on her philosophy, expanding her views of the technical aspects of the game. 

“I’m really big on playing to win,” Haywood said. “We want to play aggressively, we want to play in the other teams half of the field. We want to create as many scoring opportunities as possible and so we’re working on building that.”

While Haywood believes in the importance of playing aggressive soccer that emphasizes the counter attack, it is clear that in addition to that, the team culture she constructs is player-centered. This culture of player-centered diversity of experience, exemplified in international players, is used as the foundation upon which the “winning habits” of the team are built. 

It is the combination of tactical understanding, commitment to the game and the “human-first” mentality embodied in Haywood’s coaching that helps create this unique culture present at App State soccer. Both Erkenfeldt and Stark said this “Mountaineer mentality” was an attractive motivator for choosing to play for the Black and Gold.  

Stark, while also taken with Haywood’s coaching, said the “feel of the team” as well as her ability to become a “difference maker” in the program were attractive features in her decision to join the Mountaineers. 

“It’s a program that had a culture that seemed like there was more than soccer, too,” Stark said. “It felt like my teammates weren’t just my teammates, they were, like, my family as well and same with the coaching staff.”

The familial nature of the team and staff that Stark discussed is reflected in the way that Haywood motivates her team. Haywood said that “love” is the best motivator for her players. 

Assistant coach Keane Hamilton gives tips to first year midfielder Lela Stark after the first half ends. Stark, who is from Guelph, Ontario, Canada, had two shots against Coastal Carolina, Sept. 22. The Mountaineers went on to win 2-1 over the Chanticleers. (Alec Stacey)

“I think that if you love what you are doing and you love who you are doing it with and you love the process of it, I think that is the only type of motivation that lasts,” Haywood said.

This love-as-motivation Haywood discusses was reflected in both Erkenfeldt and Stark’s comments about the role soccer plays in their future. 

“I don’t think I could see myself living a life without soccer,” Erkenfeldt said. “It is just a big part of my life and I love to play soccer.”

Stark continued this sentiment, centralizing love as a strong internal motivator for continued play at the highest level. 

“When I’m young I want to focus on something I love to do. That’s soccer.” Stark said 

This aligning of the values and motivations of the program and players explains the appeal of playing soccer in the High Country for both players. 

Erkenfeldt and Stark desire to play at the highest level in the future and the present, with Stark hoping to one day play for Team Canada. 

“I want to keep playing at a high level for as long as I can,” Erkenfeldt said. 

 They both said that in order for them to continue playing at this high level, the next step was to pursue soccer at a university level. 

“I just wanted to keep playing soccer and study at the same time, which is hard to do in Sweden because there is not really a university with a club,” Erkenfeldt said. 

Stark, in her desire to play for Team Canada also looked to university soccer as a stepping stone to play at a higher level. 

“Coming to App and playing soccer in university was a great pathway, especially in America because the U.S. has a good NWSL, they have a women’s soccer team and WPSL for the summer teams,” Stark said. “They just have way more opportunities than in Canada.”

 Stark also has a desire to have an impact on the program. 

“This was going to be me coming into a program that hasn’t had its takeoff yet and to make a difference and to be a difference maker in the program,” Stark said. 

In a team as young as this Black and Gold side, there is a lot of opportunity for newer players to assert themselves in creating a distinct “App State” style of play. This is something both Erkenfeldt and Stark expressed a desire in doing — another motivator to join App State soccer. 

Haywood, Stark and Erkenfeldt all separately spoke about how important it was for them to not only grow from adversity, but to have an understanding about the need for the opportunity to have that growth. 

Erkenfeldt and Stark also discussed the larger university and Boone community as a vital aspect in their decision to join App State soccer. 

“I just fell in love with the people here. They are so kind in Boone and the scenery is insane. It’s a little bit like my hometown in the fact that in the fall it goes like these beautiful reds and oranges and yellows,” Stark said. “Basically what made me choose App State was the feeling. It feels like my hometown and it has such a family culture to the university.” 

Boone and the Appalachian community acts as a microcosm of what both players said attracted them to play in the United States in the first place — an opportunity to operate at the highest level academically, athletically and socially. 

“Female soccer players want the whole experience. They want the academic experience, they want the lifestyle experience, they want the athletic experience, but it’s gotta be all of the above, it can’t just be one of the three,” Haywood said. 

What also drew both players to App State soccer was the uniqueness of the program in terms of reach and resources. 

“We have a sports psychologist, which many sports teams don’t have. We have access to Dr. Cooper and all these enhancing techniques for getting better sleep, eating better, fueling yourself right, recovery, the ice baths and the recovery booths,” Stark said.

These unique resources and the reach of the team not only strengthen the players individually and collectively, they also function to draw players into the program. 

Haywood also discussed improvements being made to the soccer facilities, describing the complex as, “one of the best facilities in the Sun Belt” within the next couple of years. This serves to increase the attractiveness and competitiveness of App State soccer on an international scale.