By Calvin Sports Information Director Jeff Febus
The legendary Knight still has plenty of zip.
More than 20 years after beginning an All-American collegiate soccer career at Calvin College, Tara (Dyk) Wegner is continuing to blaze her own trail on the GRFC Women's Soccer Team.
The Grand Haven native is doing so as a full-time squad member, frequently receiving starting nods as a left back on a GRFC team that is off to a 5-1-1 start in its inaugural season.
AGE JUST A NUMBER
The fact that she is doing so at the age of 40, eight years removed from her last stint with an organized professional league makes her play even more remarkable.
"I'm 40 years old. So what. Big deal," laughed Wegner recently. "I'm not scared to go for it. I've been blessed with the ability to still play and I'm doing everything I can to make the most of this opportunity."
Wegner serves as an assistant women's soccer coach at Calvin College and she credits the current crop of Knights for pushing her forward to try out for GRFC, eight years after having last played as a defender for the West Michigan Firewomen of the former USL W- League.
"I originally had no intention of playing again but the Calvin players caught wind that there was a (GRFC) tryout shortly after Christmas and they were persistent that I should try out," said Wegner. "I originally said 'no' but I prayed about it and came to the realization that I needed to represent the things I had been preaching to our own players. I had to show them that you have to put yourself into uncomfortable circumstances and attack an opportunity."
Wegner admittedly went into the tryout without any expectations other than to give everything she had. The following afternoon, head coach Lewis Robinson called and offered her a spot on the team.
"We selected her for the team because she killed it in tryouts," said Robinson. "She doesn't give the ball away and just plays very smart as you would imagine from a coach and someone who has the amount of experience she has. She definitely earned her way on and showed that we had to take her from a playing standpoint."
With a new opportunity at hand, Wegner was ready to jump on board.
"After Lewis offered me a spot on the team, I thought about it and I realized I wanted to be a part of the team for many different reasons," she said. "I wanted to learn from other players, from Coach Lewis and to be a part of the growth of soccer in West Michigan."
MULTISPORT COLLEGIATE CAREER
Wegner is no stranger in serving as a catalyst for the game of soccer. After a highly decorated soccer career at Muskegon Western Michigan Christian High School, she chose to attend Calvin College. During her four years at Calvin, she helped the Calvin women's soccer program produce a combined won-loss record of 67-12-3. During the four-year run the Knights captured the program's first three conference titles and its first two trips to the NCAA III Tournament. As a freshman in 1995, she helped lead the Knights to a 17-0-1 record.
With blazing speed and a clinical ability to place a heavy shot on frame, Wegner scored 110 goals along with 43 assists and 263 points. She is the Calvin career record holder in goals and points and holds the Calvin single-season record for goals (35) and points (80). As a junior and senior, she was named a Division III All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
Cara (Jansen) Syers was a four-year teammate with Wegner during that run and remembers her play well. "I was always happy she was my teammate, not my opponent," said Syers. "As the (defensive) sweeper on the opposite end of the field from Tara, I would often clear a ball over our opponents, down to the flags, knowing that in a foot race, Tara could outrun almost every defender. She of course also had the ball handling skills to go along with her speed."
Along the way, Wegner found time to be a four-year member of the Calvin women's basketball program, helping the Knights reach the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA III Tournament as a senior in 1999. As a sophomore in the spring of 1997, she also took the leap in becoming a three-sport athlete, joining the Calvin women's track and field as a 100 meter sprinter.
With just two months of training on the track under her belt, she placed second in the 100 meter dash at the MIAA Championships with a time of 12.81, missing a league title by just six-hundreths of a second.
"I had never worn track spikes, I didn't know how to use a starting block and I had never been on a track before," she remembers. "But our track coaches were supportive and told me to just go for it and I did. It's amazing how technique as a sprinter affects your time. That one year that I ran track helped me learn how to focus on my running form and that has helped my speed and my quickness as a soccer player."
Calvin head women's soccer coach Mark Recker has witnessed her speed for several years both in training sessions and watching her play in games. "Tara still has incredible pace and it can be deceptive at times how fast she is moving," he said. "She knows how to read angles well and get to the ball before an attacking player does."
Robinson also marvels at the way Wegner continues to move on the pitch. "It's incredible to see her keeping up with the 19 and 20-year old college kids," said Robinson. "She still has the legs for it and the engine still goes. I know she still enjoys it so we are very happy to have her."
Wegner admits that staying in strong form takes considerably more work than it did when she was younger. "When I made the commitment to being a part of this team I started working with local trainer Daimond Dixon," she said. "I do a lot more stretching, rolling, refueling and walking. It takes longer to recover so I have to be aware of that and be more intentional to allow myself to heal after competition."
Another adjustment she has made over the years has been the move from striker to a spot in the defensive back line. "When I was playing with the Firewomen, we had so many offensive players to choose from that I was willing to learn how to play defense," said Wegner. "I know what the mindset of the position (striker) that I am marking and that helps me. It's been a smooth transition and it has given me a whole new perspective of the game as a player and as a coach."
A biology major at Calvin, Wegner juggles her soccer duties with her full-time job as a veterinary technician. She and her husband Cliff reside in the West Michigan area. The couple have both served as coaches with the West Michigan Fire club soccer program. Wegner is quick to assert that her husband is her biggest supporter. "I could not be doing what I am today without his support," she noted. "He's allowed me to juggle two of the things I love the most, animals and soccer and constantly encouraged me along the way."
She is also appreciative of her time as a Calvin College student-athlete. "I'm the only player on our (GRFC) team from a Division III school but I would not trade the opportunities I received at Calvin for anything," she said. "Calvin gave me the ability to play multiple sports at a high level while also balancing my academics. Calvin is a challenging and strong academic institution which provided me with a great education. I always felt that my athletic pursuits helped me focus in the classroom. I look back on my time at Calvin as a wonderful time in my life."
STRONG SEASON START
Moving to the present, Wegner has started in six of GRFC's seven games this season, accumulating 45 minutes or more of playing time in all six of her appearances. In the one game that she did not suit up for, a May 27 match in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she still made her presence felt.
"Tara has the most positive attitude of anyone on the field," said GRFC midfielder Annie Steinlage who like Wegner, hails from Grand Haven. "Even though she was not on the team sheet for the game at Fort Wayne, she drove down herself, sat on the bench with the team and high-fived everyone going on or off the field. That's just who she is as a person. Her encouragement comes from a very genuine spot and I think that allows people to receive it in a big way."
Serving as a team leader is a role Wegner quickly accepts. "The younger players come and ask for advice," said Wegner. "They see I'm still out here playing and I put my heart into it. They consider me a 'mom' of the group and I have no problem with that. I try to do my best to make this a family and make everyone feel a part of the group."
Steinlage also asserts that Wegner's spot on the field is no novelty act but is instead a genuine reflection of her physical quality on the pitch. "Whenever I've played with older veteran players in the past, I've always observed that it was their smart decision making that allowed them to still be on the field competing," said Steinlage. "With Tara, I notice both experienced, smart decision making and physical ability. She plays like she is not a day over 30."
Syers who now resides near Denver, Colorado, is not surprised that Wegner is still playing at a high level. "I think it's awesome that Tara's soccer career has continued into her 40's," said Syers. "I'm not surprised that she is starting and competing against younger Division I players. She always had that killer mentality, so I knew that if she decided that making this team was her goal, she would put in the work and time to achieve it."
POSITIONING FOR THE POSTSEASON
With a 6-1-1 record, the GRFC women's team currently sits atop the United Women's Soccer Midwest Division table, one point clear of the second place Detroit Sun with GRFC having a game in hand. With three regular fixtures left, GRFC is in strong position to grab one of the four playoff positions for the Midwest Conference Tournament in July. If GRFC can win the Midwest Division it will host the upcoming Midwest Conference Tournament.
The Midwest Division is currently one of three divisions in the United Women's Soccer League along with the East and West Division. The three conference tournament champions along with one wild card team will play in a four-team national tournament later this summer.
"We are pushing to make our conference tournament but it's a 'one game at a time' mentality," said Wegner. "We love playing at our home field (Grandville High School). It's a great venue and the crowd support has been incredible."
In reflecting on her journey this season, Wegner smiles and shakes her head. "This (GRFC) is a huge bonus in my life. I am so blessed. To learn and network with people while being around the sport that I love at such a high level is amazing and I am so grateful for it."