LAFAYETTE -- When told of the unfavorable odds facing his new club immediately out of the gate, Bill Hempen could only shake his head and chuckle.
"We'll be ready," was all Hempen could say.
And with those few words and a relaxed-yet-focused demeanor, the former University of Colorado women's soccer coach clearly displayed just how eager he is to take on this new challenge.
It is a time of transition not only for Hempen, but for the entire Alexander Dawson soccer program, as the decorated former leader of the CU Buffs takes over a perennial Class 3A playoff contender at the small private school off of Highway 287.
Hempen will have little time to get his new charges up to speed. He will make his Alexander Dawson debut on April 4 against Heritage Christian, and then two of the Mustangs' next three games will be against two of the best that Class 3A has to offer -- defending state champion The Classical Academy and perennial contender Kent Denver.
"It's a completely different level," said Hempen, who is overseeing Alexander Dawson's entire soccer program for boys and girls. "High school soccer is great because you are playing for your school, and it's not club. But you also get different commitment levels. I'm still struggling with that. But for the most part, there are a core group of girls here that are trying the best that they can.
"It's about making them understand there is more to the game than kicking it and chasing it. That's what I'm trying to get across. The part that's not different is that each kid needs a different direction, whether it's in a group setting or an individual setting. That part of it is the same."
After compiling a record of 114-88-22 in 11 seasons at CU -- an impressive stint that included six NCAA tournament appearances -- Hempen left the program in November and landed at Alexander Dawson last month. The move was made in part due to the influence of Dawson athletic director David Hansburg, formerly the director of football operations at CU, but also because Hempen was reluctant to uproot his two young children in order to pursue another Division I coaching opportunity.
Hempen concedes it has been an adjustment moving from a top-flight collegiate program to the small-school level of high school. At a recent practice Hempen pointed out one particular Mustangs player running through a drill. Clearly she displayed the sort of tall, athletic frame ideal for soccer, yet Hempen noted the awkward knees and elbows flying all akimbo as she moved along.
The observation is simple: At CU every fall, Hempen inherited the best high school talent the country had to offer. At Alexander Dawson, his duty will be to develop and maximize the limited talent available in his little corner of the world.
"It's a complete change of life, no doubt," Hempen said "But coaching is coaching. I know that by April, I will see a distinct difference from (earlier) to that point. That's the thing you look forward to. You do that at the college level, and you do that at this level, too. I think there is a chance of something kind of cool happening with this group."
For their part, the Mustangs' players cannot believe the good fortune that brought such a decorated coach into their program. Hempen will be challenged to lead Alexander Dawson back into the 3A state tournament -- the Mustangs were eliminated in the first round last year -- after the loss of the team's top two scorers and a large group of seniors.
Yet Hempen wouldn't have it any other way, given that is exactly the sort of challenge he wanted when he took the job.
"I was blown away when this happened," said senior Annie Sullivan, the team's top returning scorer. "David Hansburg had been teasing me in the hallways saying, 'Oh, we're going to get Hempen.' I thought he was completely joking. When the word came out it was happening, it was awesome. He's coming up with some great drills that are helping both our young players and the ones that have been playing their whole lives. He's been great."
Pat Rooney can be reached at email@example.com