In the first seven matches of the college soccer season, Tess Brenneman played every single minute for the Montana Grizzlies. To be exact, the senior center back played 651 minutes, about 11 hours broken into 90-minute matches with a few overages added in extra periods.
That’s over 100 minutes more than the next closest player, but, probably not surprising to Flathead fans back home in Kalispell, Brenneman has carried out the grueling task with typical modesty.
“It helps that the position I play is less demanding than some other positions,” she says. “I definitely try to make sure I’m prepared every season by staying in shape.”
In her fifth and final season at UM, the Kalispell native has become a poster child for hard work and leadership on and off the soccer pitch. The former star sprinter and all-state basketball player at Flathead High School is now a standout in Missoula for the talented Grizzlies. Montana, playing on the road against nonconference foes such as Purdue, Wyoming and Washington State in recent weeks, is 4-3-1 overall so far this season and ranked 10th in the Pacific Region behind Oregon, Arizona State and other Pacific 12 elites.
While the offense has struggled at times to find production, the defense has shined, allowing only six goals in eight games. A large reason for the defense’s stingy reputation falls on Brenneman.
“She’s one of our main team leaders,” Montana head coach Mark Plakorus said. “When she first came here, we used her as an outside back. She’s grown into a center back, and that comes with a lot more responsibility, because you basically control the back line. She sets the tone for our team defensively. How she plays and the direction she gives is critical to our team. It’s a big role for her, because she has to be on every day.”
In the spring of her senior year at Flathead in 2012, Brenneman was one of the top high school athletes in Montana, a three-sport standout who could choose between soccer, basketball or track at the collegiate level. Her all-around abilities were undeniable — three-time Class AA all-state soccer and all-state basketball, and state champion long jumper who competed in five individual events at the state track meet (the 100, 200 and 400 meters, the 300-meter hurdles and long jump).
Brenneman chose the University of Montana to play soccer and arrived with her strong reputation and abilities in tow. Yet suddenly she was among Division I athletes in a whole new realm of competition.
“There was a confidence barrier that I had to work through the first couple years,” she said. “Playing at that higher level, that took a little bit of time for me to get used to and get comfortable with.”
Brenneman redshirted as a freshman, which also presented challenges.
“It was hard not to be in the competition — I love playing,” she said. “It definitely took some getting used to being in that spot. It humbled me a little bit. I didn’t quite know how to act at first.”
Instead of being intimidated or discouraged, Brenneman went to work. She practiced and trained voraciously, year-round, even when she was back home in Kalispell during summer. She would often return to her former home track at Legends Stadium to run sprints and do other workouts.
“I try to work as hard as I can so I can be as fit as I can,” she said.
Hard work paid off.
In 2013, as a redshirt freshman, she played in all 19 matches, starting 15 times and averaging more than 64 minutes per match at outside back. As a member of the defensive unit, she helped the team post six shutouts. At season’s end, she was voted the team’s Citius, Altius, Fortius award winner, which recognizes the player who put in the most work, an honor another Kalispell great and Montana soccer standout, Maddey Frey, won at UM in her tenure.
As a sophomore and junior, Brenneman further flourished, starting every match in each season and earning all-Big Sky Conference honors and academic all-conference honors. Last year she logged more than 2,000 minutes, an average of more than 93 per match. She only sat out 12 minutes the entire season.
“The first thing a leader needs is to have the respect of her teammates, and Tess earned that respect from her teammates right away because of how hard she worked,” Plakorus said.
“What stands out the most is she’s such a good person. Everything you would want out of a young lady on your team, in terms of how they carry themselves and who they are, that’s what Tess is. She’s reliable and accountable. She’s hard-working and competitive. She’s honest and trustworthy. She’s smart and open to coaching. She has the respect of her teammates because of those things.”
Now a senior, Brenneman is double-majoring in exercise science and psychology. She’s not sure what she will do after graduating in spring, but right now her focus is attached to the present moment. She is excited to make the most of her final season and enjoy every minute. Judging by the stats, she’s definitely accomplishing that goal.
“It’s awesome to be able to help my teammates out, to know they look up to me in a way that I can hold them accountable and help them out and just be that example to them,” she said. “I like to be able to set an example that hard work pays off, and to try to imprint a standard that leaves something for this team.”
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