Florida State soccer: How Brian Pensky helped lead Seminoles to ACC regular season championship

Ehsan Kassim
Tallahassee Democrat

Even the players on the Florida State women's soccer team are a little shocked.

Coming off a 2021 National Championship the Seminoles saw some major changes, beginning with sudden resignation of Mark Krikorian.

Yet, led by first-year coach Brian Pensky the No. 5 Seminoles (12-2-2) earned a share of the ACC regular season title.

They earned the second seed in the NCAA Tournament and are scheduled to play No. 4 Notre Dame (14-2-2), the three seed in the ACC Tournament semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C.

"I think when you lose a staff like Mark Krikorian and the players we lost, "I think it's hard not to have some down back in mind that will we be as good?," FSU senior Jenna Nighswonger said. 

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"When we started preseason, I thought to myself, like, 'Oh, we're actually pretty good.' Like I think we'll actually do really well. The additions we had from the freshmen and bringing on (Onyi "Joe" Echegini), those were huge.

"I'm really proud of this team and the challenges that we face and come across on the good side. So yeah, Yes, the team has surprised me, but obviously in a good way."

Krikorian announced his resignation in March and a month later Pensky was hired as the new coach.

The former Tennessee coach was tasked with a tough task right away, with more than a dozen Seminole players entering the transfer portal with the uncertainty.

Pensky did well to get most of the players back, including Nighswonger, seventh-year senior Clara Robbins, Beata Olsson, Lauren Flynn, Heather Payne and LeiLanni Nesbeth.

"I'm really grateful to this coaching staff, for them taking on such a challenge and willing to take us on so late and really help us all, and me in particular, in this in my last season," Robbins said.

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'It's the player's team'

Pensky met with his team right away, especially with the team leaders. The first night he met with the team, he was peppered with questions, especially from 2021 leading-scorer Beata Olsson.

"A lot of my questions were about how he was as a coach and how he would use our qualities to the best of his knowledge," Olsson told the Democrat in September. 

"So it was a mix between like football and how he is as a person, and I tend to ask a lot of questions. But I think it helped that I've been through it once and I've asked those questions before to another coach."

Pensky answered all the questions Olsson had that night, as well as the other players' concerns who decided to return.

He wanted to emphasize one message to his team early on and still does now.

"When I met them, I told them very clearly this is your team," Pensky said. "This is your program, it's not mine, and still remains that's the case. It's a little bit more mine now, six months later, but it's really still theirs. And they've done a great job of continuing to own it. And continuing to win games at a high level and be great leaders."

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Implementing changes

While Krikorian is a legend, Pensky is an accomplished coach as well. being named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2021, leading to a 20-3-0 record, and the NCAA Round of 16.

So how did Pensky take over a team coming off a championship, while walking the tight-rope of keeping FSU traditions, while also adding his own ideas to the program?

"We said we're not going to change things just to change things," Pensky said. "That's a muscle flexing action just to (make) changes for change. That's just silly. That's childish.

"So if we think things need to be tweaked, we have to tell them what, they need to be tweaked and we need to be prepared to answer their questions as to why we're changing."

Pensky said he did not plan on changing small things, including how FSU handled senior night.

He said he did not even know how the ceremonies played out, leading up to senior night.

"Yeah, I think Brian has been incredible and superseded whatever I thought the coach was going to be taking over this season," Nighswonger said. "Of course, when we didn't know who the coach was, we're all really nervous. But we always joke, 'how lucky we are to have Brian and how amazing a coach has been.' 

"For him to come in and not try to take over and force us to change our ways, but to let us coach him while he's also coaching us, I think, has been really incredible and such a different approach than what most coaches take.

"Since day one, he's been really open to us. And I think that what he's done this season has just been incredible. Florida State is so lucky to have him as a coach now."

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Adjustment period

Even if Pensky did not force changes on his players, there was still an adjustment period for the Seminoles early on.

FSU opened its season with two ties in its first three matches. Starting the season 1-0-2, the Seminoles had just four goals in their first three matches.

On Sept. 4, FSU beat in-state rival Florida 5-0, as the team started to find its footing under the new coach.

"I think he's done a great job, making sure that we're still hungry and making sure that we still have the same goals in mind," Robbins said. "He's been able to implement some new things in the program that I think have helped us and they're going to continue to help us. I just like his approach to each game, it's like a nice change.

"I think he's done a good job of motivating us this season."

The key for the team to turn things around and keep the program afloat? Trust.

"I think it's huge," Nighswonger said. "A lot of times when teams get new coaches, there's a bit of trust, and trust is earned. So I think for him to come in and just be the way he was and how great of a personality he has it was really easy to trust him from the beginning. I think that his trust has just grown and grown this season, and we've never had a reason not to trust him."

Questions: Florida State's Beata Olsson decided to return after peppering Brian Pensky with questions


What: ACC Tournament semifinals

Who: No. 5 FSU (12-2-2, 6-1 ACC) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (14-2-2)

When/where: Thursday, 8 p.m.; Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C.

TV: ACC Network

Reach Ehsan Kassim at ekassim@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Ehsan_Kassim. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).

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