Jené Baclawski on leading the Underdogs of CONCACAF, St. Kitts and Nevis

St. Kitts and Nevis Jené Baclawski
St. Kitts and Nevis is heading to the Olympic Qualifiers at the end of January and beginning of February. We talked exclusively with head coach Jené Baclawski about the road to qualifying and how she landed with the WNT.

Feature — Jené Baclawski is grateful to the sport of soccer for taking her down various different paths. It’s the sport that’s been in her life since she was four. Baclawski went down the road as a player, but now occupies a coaching role.

Coaching is an area that she thrives in. Baclawski resides around the Austin, Texas, area, but has ventured to and from a small island country in the Caribbean. That country is St. Kitts and Nevis.

Baclawski doesn’t have any genetic ties to the country. However, she does serve as the St. Kitts Women’s National Team head coach. It wasn’t an opportunity that she was seeking out. Instead, the opportunity to coach the national team came to her. Speaking with Last Word on Soccer, Baclawski says that the federation was looking for someone to “make sure the men’s and women’s programs were treated equally.”

“They didn’t think anyone else qualified [for the job] and they wanted a female coach,” Baclawski explains. “I primarily work in coaching education and one of my good friends is the CONCACAF instructors. Then, it was many months of conversation and figuring out what the next step would be. Part of my role is coaching the senior women’s national team. But, it’s also helping to improve the infrastructure for the women and girls in St. Kitts.”

That’s why Baclawski called qualifying for the Olympics a bonus. St. Kitts advanced for a tough schedule of Olympic qualifying matches.

“The credit is completely for them and they performed very well on the field.”

The fateful match against Trinidad

St. Kitts and Nevis booked their ticket to qualifiers with a victory over Trinidad. Baclawski acknowledged that Trinidad and Tobago is a highly skilled team.

Placed in Group A, St. Kitts and Nevis began their slew of matches with a draw against the Dominican Republic. However, neither side could get on the board, with a scoreless draw giving each side a point. Meanwhile, St. Kitts put up six goals against Aruba to build some confidence before heading to Trinidad.

There was a bit of history, too, adding fuel to the fire. It’s a history that Baclawski admits she didn’t know about until the players were getting ready in practices and meetings.

“Trinidad had knocked St. Kitts out of the WWC Qualifying on goal differential last year,” Baclawski explains. “Our players were angry about that and wanted it back. It was the easiest game to motivate them for. They were ready to go. All I did was implement a more appropriate structure.”

Baclawski said that the team wanted to throw Trinidad off their game. Instead of playing in their usual style, Baclawski decided to change the game plan. St. Kitts and Nevis earned their revenge, putting up four goals and notching a clean sheet against their fellow island-nation. However, the work wasn’t officially done yet. The Dominican Republic and St. Kitts were too close on the standings and Baclawski urged her team to score against Antigua & Barbuda to give St. Kitts the edge.

“When we beat Trinidad, you would have thought we qualified,” Baclawski says. “So, the hardest thing there was getting us focused. We had to beat Antigua & Barbuda. We were tied in points with the Dominican Republic, so we needed the goal differential. Trinidad played after us, against the Dominican Republic, so we knew we had to win. It felt awful to score 10 goals, but we knew we needed goal differential.”

 

A feeling of exuberance and exhaustion 

Baclawski and her players celebrated their historic qualification. Meanwhile, the attention swiftly shifted toward the women’s national team. Now, eyes were on them and they were soaking up the attention and using it for good.

“When we got back, the women were participated in the men’s halftime game” Baclawski says. “There was news coverage, there was TV coverage. That’s what we want; to increase viewership of the women’s game. This brings attention to the women’s game in CONCACAF.”

However, the journey out of qualifying wasn’t quite over. Instead, there’s another round to go. There’s, of course, the big-name teams that the St. Kitts team will have to face. The nation was drawn into a group with Canada, Jamaica and Mexico. Two of those teams — Canada and Jamaica — participated in this past summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Baclawski says that she believes St. Kitts got the harder draw — but the better location.

“I live in Texas,” she explains. “I have the opportunity to go to Houston and Edinburg. It’s a phenomenal place. The city, the people. It’s an ideal location to play. It’s much less stressful to play in downtown Houston, to bring in players who, for the first time, will experience playing on the international level. I’m really excited about playing in Edinburg.”

“We’re going to learn a lot of lessons.”

Heading into a Tough Group

Qualifying will begin on Jan. 29 for St. Kitts. First up is Canada.

Baclawski says that qualifying in playing in tough matches against experienced teams will grant the St. Kitts players some veteran abilities. Experience, she says, is going to be a crucial takeaway from the entire experience. But, don’t expect St. Kitts to just sit back. They’ll be competing to win like everyone else, Baclawski said.

“… [I] think about the experience of what it’ll be for the long-term,” she says. “We’re going to learn a lot of lessons. Hopefully some good lessons, but some hard ones too. Everything will help this federation for years to come when we’re in the situation again. Hopefully it’s not the last.”

One contest she’s looking forward to will be against Mexico on Feb. 1.

“It’ll be hard to play Mexico, since Edinburg is basically 30 minutes from Mexico,” Baclawski explains. That game will be a lot like the Trinidad game, in regard to the fans. Those are the best games to play in. It’s not hard to get excited about that.”

Jené’s role and what’s to come for St. Kitts

So, what exactly is Jené Baclawski’s role for St. Kitts?

She’ll be the first to admit one thing: she doesn’t want to coach this team forever. It’s not a statement with any malice behind it. Instead, she wants to help educate current players and women in St. Kitts to become soccer coaches and get involved with the federation.

“My goal is to identify women there who can become coaches of this team and more involved in the national program,” she explains. “There are players on the program who have a vast amount of experience. Half of the players play on the island and half play abroad. We have players from the USA, Canada and in Europe. Then the other players, this is the life they know.”

Phoenetia Browne, who plays in Finland, and Kyra Dickinson, a native of Toronto, are players that Baclawski can see taking a higher step in the federation. Dickinson is actually an assistant coach with St. Kitts and Nevis’ U-20 team.

“She’s good at leading players and is smart and positive,” Baclawski says.

A former collegiate coach, Baclawski said that, with St. Kitts, her approach isn’t just results-driven. In a position that isn’t full-time, she also serves as a technical director of sorts. She has taken an approach that she learned in college coaching and implemented it within the senior national team.

“When you’re a D3 coach, you’re concerned about the realistic approach to your player,” she explains. “But, that’s really similar to this experience. You don’t want to make it results-driven, although they are a priority for the national team. It’s perspective. Being a technical director helps me provide clarity around the organization aspects that are needed behind the scenes in order to perform on the field.”

What’s next for Baclawski and St. Kitts? 

Right now, it’s preparation.

However, Baclawski is also stressing to her players that they need to enjoy the experience. While focusing on the game plan, physical fitness and mental health is important, enjoying the spotlight is important. Taking advantage of interviews is crucial to put a spotlight on St. Kitts and Nevis.

“It’s about relishing the opportunity and taking advantage of it,” Baclawski explains. “We saw players in the first round of qualifications that were contacted by college coaches and scouts. But, also, my message to them is that they get to be the first to be in this situation from their country and lay the groundwork. That’s an opportunity to relish.”

Baclawski said she has some important minicamps coming up for the players. While she focuses on her players, she’s hoping some media attention can get some fan focus on St. Kitts.

Baclawski laughed and said that since the United States and St. Kitts aren’t in the same grouping, fans are “allowed” to root for the tiny island nation.

“If you’re looking for an underdog team to cheer for and you don’t want to disallow your allegiance to the federation, we’re a really good alternative!” she says. “It’s a great story. We need more CONCACAF nations to put forth stronger programs to make all countries better, so it’s not always the USA, Canada, Mexico.” We could use some fans.”

“We’re here and we’re good people!”

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