The women's soccer program at Rocky Mountain College hasn't always been a force to be reckoned with.
Ten years ago, when the Battlin' Bears began play, Rocky went through some definite growing pains.
There was the 0-15 opening season, the 29 losses during the first two campaigns and just three victories.
Rocky's roster for its inaugural season consisted of only 12 players and four of them were also members of the ski team. There were no subs, one set of uniforms and no practice gear.
The Battlin' Bears also played their home games on Montana State Billings' field and practiced in the baseball outfield at Urbaska Field, where they were told to stay off the infield dirt.
Since then, the support the Battlin' Bears have received on campus and in the community has been impressive. So has the progress they've made in becoming a very competitive team.
This fall, Rocky is enjoying the school's winningest soccer season. Coach Richard Duffy's Battlin' Bears are 12-3 and riding a six-game winning streak heading into next weekend's NAIA Unaffiliated Group Tournament in Helena.
Rocky will open play against Utah's Westminster College (7-10-1) next Friday at the four-team tournament, which will be held at Carroll College's Nelson Stadium. Up for grabs at the two-day event will be a berth into the national playoffs, which would be a first for the Battlin' Bears.
The single-elimination tourney will also include Carroll (11-5) and University of Great Falls (3-11-1). Carroll and Rocky split their two meetings this season and the Saints earned home-field advantage based on national rating points.
But Duffy still likes his team's chances to move on.
"I think player-for-player we're the best team in the tournament," said the 32-year-old coach. "If you look at Carroll and Westminster, they're very similar to the way we were last year. They're starting seven or eight freshmen.
"I think we're experienced, we're athletic and, obviously, have the best record in the conference. I think it's our tournament to win."
Bold statement, for sure, but that just reflects how far the Battlin' Bears have come, even from last fall.
Rocky, showcasing a young team a year ago, compiled a 5-10 mark, but ended the season on a three-game winning streak and have carried that positive momentum into this fall.
"I remember last year people were asking 'are you going to just go out and recruit a whole new team after the 5-10 season,' " Duffy said. "But I had full confidence in the ability of the players that I had and that's shown through this year."
Rocky, which won 11 games in 2006, now plays and practices on Wendy's Field, a lush, spacious facility dedicated in September 2000 and located right on campus. Uniforms and practice gear also are no longer an issue.
The Battlin' Bears are being led offensively this season by midfielder Abby Jenkins and forwards Anna Clark and Allie Beckers, who have combined for 27 goals and 17 assists in mounting an explosive attack.
When it comes to defense, goalkeeper Vanessa Peters has helped Rocky post eight shutouts. Center-backs Katrina Gounas and Jackie Nelson and outside-back Missy Peters have also turned in some exceptional play on defense.
"The biggest thing for me is not just the winning record, it's the quality of the soccer that we're playing," Duffy said.
Duffy is in his seventh season as head coach at Rocky after spending one year as an assistant. He has compiled a 58-46-6 record at the school, but is also firmly entrenched in the local Magic City Soccer Club through coaching, clinics and camps.
Several of Duffy's stars over the years have been international players, who have played on their respective national teams. That includes senior Clark, who is from Sweden and is the program's all-time points leader and goal scorer.
But Beckers, a sophomore, was a local standout at Billings Central. She also played for Duffy in Magic City soccer as a youngster.
In recruiting players both near and far, Duffy said he tells his athletes they're coming to Rocky for academics and soccer "in that order."
"I think Rocky does a great job of providing a quality academic background for these players coming in," he said. "I think that's the main reason why they do decide to stay here. It's a great place to be."
Duffy's roster has grown from 18 players last year to 26 this fall. He said that added depth is a direct result of Rocky altering its scholarship system over the past year in allowing the stacking of athletic and academic scholarships up to a certain dollar amount.
"That has enabled me to bring in players that have increased the quality of our bench," he said. "Which, in turn, makes our practices more competitive and everyone is fighting to get playing time on the field. That's made a big difference."
So has a change in philosophy.
In the past, Duffy and his Battlin' Bears usually set five or six team goals for the season, including beating rivals Carroll and MSUB.
"The only team goal we threw out there this year was just to win," Duffy said. "Win games, win games in practice, win everything that you do."
That's a pretty good way to celebrate a 10th anniversary.
Contact Bill Bighaus at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1394