Heather Nelson is the only head coach that has guided the Southeast Missouri soccer program since its inception in 1999.
In 18 years under her guidance, the Redhawks have posted 13 winning seasons and compiled a 174-113-44 record. Nelson has coached five Ohio Valley Conference regular season champion teams (2001, 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2014) and back-to-back OVC Tournament championship squads (2006-07) that earned berths in the NCAA Tournament.
Since the inaugural 1999 season for Southeast Missouri women’s soccer, no Ohio Valley Conference school has captured more than the five regular season championships Nelson’s program has earned.
After the inaugural season in 1999, Nelson guided Southeast to 10 wins the following year, a figure that was matched or surpassed in each of the next eight seasons and nine times total in the following 13 years.
By year three, she helped guide Southeast to back-to-back OVC regular season championships (2001, 2002), which saw the Redhawks go undefeated in conference play during each of those years.
In 2001, Southeast stormed onto the scene with a 16-2 overall record and 5-0 mark in league play. The Redhawks posted an .889 winning percentage, which currently stands as the best in school history.
That team, which claimed the program’s first-ever OVC title, boasted the nation’s lowest goals against average (0.44) and the country’s top shutout percentage (0.72). The Redhawks allowed only eight goals and posted 13 shutouts in 18 matches. Southeast also ranked 10th in the nation in points per game (2.67). The Redhawks set conference records for wins in a season and goals allowed, posting shutouts in all OVC contests.
Southeast repeated as the league’s regular-season champion in 2002, posting an overall record of 14-4-2 and 6-0 mark in conference play while leading the league in shots, goals allowed, goals against, and shutouts. Following the 2002 season, nine players earned All-OVC honors, including Valerie Henderson and Jenny Hamilton, who were named OVC Player and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively. Despite the dominant records and accolades, an OVC Tournament title eluded the Redhawks in each of those seasons. Eastern Illinois pulled off upsets in the tournament championship match of both campaigns.
The Redhawks finally broke through in postseason play during the 2006 OVC Tournament. After a fourth-place regular season finish, Southeast knocked off top-seeded Samford and blanked Morehead State in the OVC Tournament finals to secure its first NCAA Tournament berth in 2006. The Redhawks drew nationally-ranked Illinois in their first NCAA Tournament game and stifled the Fighting Illini offense for much of the first period before eventually falling by a score of 2-0.
Southeast turned that momentum from the 2006 run into a memorable 2007 season that saw the Redhawks finish 12-2-4 in the regular season with an unbeaten 8-0-1 record in OVC play. Southeast won a second-consecutive OVC Tournament, blanking UT Martin in the semifinals and outlasting Samford in penalty kicks in front of a home crowd at Houck Stadium to earn a return berth to the NCAA Tournament. Southeast drew in-state rival Missouri and made history in the 43rd minute of that clash when Courtney Alexander scored the program’s first NCAA Tournament goal. The contest went to penalty kicks, where Missouri prevailed despite a valiant effort from the Redhawks.
Nelson earned her third OVC Coach of the Year honor in 2007, marking the most of any women’s soccer coach in league history. Southeast swept the OVC postseason awards with Alexander claiming OVC Player of the Year, Lindsay Pickering earning OVC Defensive Player of the Year and Ashley Runion collecting the program’s first OVC Freshman of the Year honor.
Nelson’s Redhawks won their fourth regular season title in 2011 with a 12-6-1 record and 8-1-0 finish in the OVC. The eight league wins tied the conference record, which was set by Southeast and Samford in 2007. Nelson was named OVC Coach of the Year for a record fourth time. Jessie Crabtree earned OVC Offensive Player of the Year honors in her lone season at Southeast while Erin Shulman claimed OVC Freshman of the Year honors.
The 2012 season was one of adversity for the Southeast soccer program as the team overcame numerous hardships and a tragedy that impacted the entire university and Cape Girardeau community. Nelson was injured in an accident over the summer and spent time away from the sidelines recovering during the first month of the season. In early September, senior defender Meg Herndon was involved an accident that tragically cut her life short. Equal parts a captain, friend, sister and teammate, Herndon displayed tenacity as a driven defender on the field and was admired by the countless lives she touched in competition and her personal life. Herndon’s No. 2 jersey was retired one year later during a celebration of her life prior to the annual alumnae match. During the event, Herndon’s mother, Cindi Silvey, presented a check for the newly-formed Meghan Herndon Memorial Scholarship.
“It’s amazing knowing that Meg’s legacy is going to live on through her scholarship,” Nelson said. “Her family has been so wonderful as we’ve honored her. It reminds me of my relationship with Meg and how pleasant it was to work with her.”
The 2012 Redhawks overcame many obstacles to finish 7-10-4 overall and 5-3-2 in OVC play to place fourth in the conference. Southeast closed the season by going 4-0-1 and qualified for the OVC Tournament for the third consecutive year. The momentum continued during the tournament as the Redhawks defeated Belmont for the program’s first postseason victory since 2007. The memorable run ended in a 1-0 loss to UT Martin, the eventual OVC champions. Haley Abbott became the fifth player under Nelson to earn OVC Defensive Player of the Year.
2013 marked the 11th winning season in Nelson’s career. Southeast went 8-7-3 overall and 6-2-2 in the OVC to finish third in the conference standings. The Redhawks earned a berth in the OVC Tournament for the fourth year in a row. Ashton Aubuchon was named OVC Defensive Player of the Year, marking the sixth time in Nelson’s tenure that a Southeast player received the accolade and second time that Southeast has claimed the award in back-to-back seasons (Jenny Hamilton, 2001-02).
2014 saw the Redhawks claim their fifth and most recent OVC regular season championship. The Redhawks finished the season 11-6 overall and 8-2 in league play. Southeast defeated SIUE in the regular season finale to win a share of the OVC title with the Cougars. With that win, Southeast earned the right to host the postseason tournament and earn a bye as the No. 1 seed. Freshman Kindra Lierz made history as the first player in the OVC to be named OVC Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Lierz was also named First Team All-OVC and All-Newcomer Team. Aside form Lierz, the Redhawks had four others earn postseason honors following the 2014 campaign.
2015 was the Redhawks' third consecutive winning season, a feat that hadn't been done since Southeast had eight straight winning campaigns between 2000 and 2007. Southeast finished the 2015 season going 9-6-7 overall and 3-2-5 in league play. Southeast's seven draws were a program record. Following a pair of road losses to Austin Peay and Murray State, the Redhawks went on to finish the regular season undefeated, going 2-0-4 in the final six matches. Carrying the No. 6 seed into the OVC Tournament, the Redhawks drew No. 3 Jacksonville State in the opening round. The Redhawks played the Gamecocks to a 1-1 draw in a double overtime thriller and it was Southeast who advanced in the to the semifinals following penalty kicks. Southeast took on No. 2 Tennessee Tech and the OVC Defensive Player of the Year in the semis in Murray, Kentucky. The Redhawks took down the Golden Eagles 2-0 to advance to the Championship round for the first time since 2007. The season came to an end following a 1-0 loss to top-seeded Murray State in the Championship match. The Redhawks and Racers played to a scoreless draw in regulation but Murray scored the winning goal with 53 seconds left in the first overtime to capture the OVC title.
The 2016 season was highlighted by a season-opening victory over Southeastern Conference opponent by way of a 1-0 shutout. The win sparked a 6-0-1 start to the campaign. The win over Tennessee was the third over an SEC foe in the history of Nelson’s program and the first since 2004.
Developing Standout Student-Athletes
In her 18 seasons at Southeast, Nelson has coached four OVC Players of the Year, seven OVC Defensive Players of the Year and three OVC Freshman of the Year honorees. Additionally, Nelson has coached 78 players who have earned either OVC first-team, second-team, third-team, honorable mention or all-newcomer accolades since 1999.
The Redhawks also earned regional recognition in 2012 as defender Hayley Abbott earned third-team all-region honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). For the second time in three seasons, a Southeast player received NSCAA recognition as defender Nikki Edwards earned honorable mention all-region honors in 2010.
Nelson’s teams have also performed extremely well in the classroom, posting a 3.3 point grade point average or higher in each of her 18 years leading the program. For the 2013-14 academic year, the Redhawks posted a 3.72 cumulative grade point average as a team, ranking second nationally out of 323 NCAA Division I soccer programs. It also marked the highest total in the 18-year program history. The Redhawks posted the third-highest Division I GPA the year prior. Nelson’s student-athletes have earned CoSIDA Academic All-District VII honors on seven occasions. She has also coached 37 OVC Medal of Honor recipients. The Redhawks have earned the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Team Academic Award in each of the last seven seasons.
Prior to building the Redhawks soccer program, Nelson coached at Florida State from 1995-98, helping lay the foundation for the Seminoles in an extremely competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Nelson’s 1996 and 1997 teams finished with the ACC’s second-best GPA.
Nelson coached the 1986 age group Missouri Olympic Development Program (ODP) team to the 2003 Midwest Region II Championship and represented Region II at the 2004 ODP National Championship.
A former member of Canada’s national team pool, Nelson was a four-year starter at the University of Saskatchewan. After earning her Physical Education degree in 1992, Nelson went on to get her “B” license and coaching diploma at the National Coaching Institute at the University of Victoria in 1993. At the time, Nelson held the distinction of being one of only five Canadian female coaches qualified to coach at the national team level. Nelson and her husband, Paul, Associate Head Coach at Southeast, have four children, Jordan, Taylor, Justi and Chase. Their daughter Jordan is a sophomore at Southeast.