“At first I was unsure about Saginaw Valley,” women’s soccer star Ashley Henderson says. “But when I came to campus and met the coaching staff, I knew this was the perfect fit. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Henderson can be characterized as hard working, determined and a stellar soccer player. She was able to produce a career like none other during her time at Saginaw Valley, and she will go down as one of the best to put on a Cardinal uniform.
In her final year on the pitch for the Cardinals, Henderson led the team in goals, points and shots – just like every other season of her collegiate career. Her effort this season brought the Cardinals back to a winning record, going 10-7-1.
“(Henderson) has been an integral part of this team, ever since her freshman year,” head women’s soccer coach Michael O’Neill says. “She’s been able to score goals and gives our team a competitive attitude. She’s been a great role model for younger players to look up to. (Henderson) has meant the world to our program in that stand point.”
Henderson often refrains from claiming her own success, crediting her team, coaches, and especially her family as the ones who should receive the acclimation.
“My mother has always been my biggest influence in everything I do,” Henderson says. “Growing up, she battled against cancer and won. She’s been my number one supporter through everything – sports, school and life. Watching her fight and overcome cancer taught me that with your hard work and perseverance, nothing can ever truly beat you.”
Henderson is at the top, or close to it, several times in the program record books. She ranks second all-time in points with 89, first in goals, first in game-winning goals and first in every shot record SVSU has to offer. She also has been honored as Second Team All-GLIAC three years in a row, missing only her freshman season.
“I am humbled and blessed to be able to be the inspiration for these girls,” Henderson says. “I want my records to be broken. I want to have my experience in my career to leave a legacy of success. I want the girls behind me to win games, score goals and win championships. It’s an SVSU women’s soccer standard.”
Henderson will graduate in May with a degree in health science and a minor in communications. She plans to further her education and receive a Master’s degree, but she doesn’t disregard the option of coaching, or even playing semi-professionally.
Both TJ Stephens and Matt Wilson began their careers at Oakland University, but they took different paths to get to SVSU. After his redshirt freshman season in 2011 at Oakland, Stephens began to look for other options to continue his soccer career. He spent the 2012 campaign at Rochester College, before coming to play for Cale Wasserman at SVSU.
“Transferring here was the best decision of my life,” Stephens says. “I love it here. It’s my second home, and I love everybody on the team. I love the coaching staff. From (Wasserman) to (current head soccer coach Andy Wagstaff), it’s been a great experience, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
For Wilson, his route to SVSU came through Wagstaff. Wagstaff was an assistant at Oakland before taking the head coaching position at SVSU prior to the 2015 season, and when he headed to University Center, Wilson followed.
“I came to Oakland pretty much because of (Wagstaff),” Wilson says. “We were very close at Oakland, and then once he got the job at Saginaw Valley, I was really interested and ended up following him here.”
In his sophomore season for the Cardinals, Wilson was tied for third on the team in goals and led the team in assists before splashing on to the scene this season with 41 points, best in the GLIAC, and 15 goals, good enough for second most in the GLIAC. These numbers led to him earning First-Team All-GLIAC and First-Team All-Midwest Region. He registered a point in all but five of the Cardinals, 21 matches this season, including multiple three-point performances and a five-point performance against Lake Erie on Oct. 21.
“We knew what (Wilson) had in him,” Wagstaff says. “I’ve known him for a lot of years and knew how good he was in the youth levels. Once he settled in and started to buy into himself, he was a different player altogether. He came off the bench for us early in the year, and that lit a bit of a fire under him and it made him want to prove a point, and he did.”
Wilson, a soft-spoken individual who is thought very highly of by his teammates, said even he was a bit surprised by his success this season.
“Last year was a pretty average year for me, and I was just expecting to do pretty much the same, but everything really went my way this year and it turned out to be a really good season,” he says.
With the bar set so high, Wagstaff expects Wilson to put even more work into the offseason to prepare to again be one of the GLIAC’s top players next year.
“His ability one-on-one is excellent,” Wagstaff said. “It’s his ability to find room and get a shot off on target. He has an abundance of talent, and I think if he realizes just how much talent he has and if he continues to build on his work rate that he put in this year and take that up even a notch or two, I think he can become a player that is a potential All-American.”
For Stephens, his senior campaign was focused on winning a championship, something he had not done during his time at SVSU. The Cardinals were national runners up the year prior to Stephen’s arrival, but a GLIAC title slipped from SVSU’s grasp each of his first two seasons in a Cardinal uniform. After recording his best season yet, Stephens and the Cardinals successfully earned the title Stephens and the program had been longing for, as they were 2016 GLIAC regular season champions.
“Being a senior and knowing that he hadn’t won a championship yet was big for him,” Wagstaff says. “He had a bit more desire and focus this year on the field. What led to his success was simplicity, composure and consistency. He never had a bad performance; it was steadily solid every single game.”
After spending his junior season playing midfield, Stephens moved to the backline for his senior year. He had played the position before and picked it back up as though he had never left. Stephens was not only effective in his new role, he was the best in the conference at it, being named GLIAC Defensive Player of the Year, along with being named First-Team All-Midwest Region.
“I was expecting to play holding-mid coming into the season,” Stephens says. “Coach told me to start training in the back line over the summer, so I started training with Detroit City FC in the backline, and that actually worked out really well.”
As a holding-mid, Stephens was used to staying in front of the back line, helping play balls forward and setting up the rest of the team. At his new position, center-back, he was responsible for marking the other team’s top player, making sure the back line is organized, and defending the Cardinal net.
“I was so attacking-minded at holding-mid, and at center-back, it was a lot more thinking and brain power,” Stephens says. “It was a big change, and it was all paid off at the end of the year with the championship and the awards.”
Wagstaff also pointed to Stephen’s leadership on the field, something that will certainly be missed next season.
“He led by example,” Wagstaff said. “He led by his consistency and focus and success on the field. He’s friends with everyone on the field, and that’s really what his leadership is based on. He made a huge impact in that regard.”
“These three student athletes represent the values, ethics and character of what being a true SVSU Cardinal is all about,” Wagstaff said. “They each have a unique trait of being able to succeed individually, but yet are always committed to the collective goals of the team first. Ultimately, they all strive for excellence both on and off the field.”