Steel is strong and unmoving, but when placed into the intense fires of a forge, it becomes workable and emerges stronger. Texas State women’s soccer coach Kat Conner has embraced this heat for most of her career. Allowing those challenges to mold her into the coach she is today.
Conner began playing soccer at four years old after she took home a little league flyer with soccer legend Pelé, born as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, doing a bicycle kick.
Even in the early years, Conner faced adversity, according to her mom Sylvia Conner.
“Her first adversity was coaches,” Sylvia Conner said. “Youth soccer was so new in Irving it was difficult to find coaches who knew the game. Her first coaches were volunteer moms who were learning the game along with their team.”
This, along with the fact there were few teams for girls, meant Conner was learning on the fly while playing against boys’ teams.
Despite this, her talent was on full display, and at just 10 years old, she was playing in an age bracket above her own.
“They were all older girls, I was scared,” Conner said. “We were playing in a championship… and I got a PK (penalty kick) and put it away. It sent us to the regional championship of the United States, so I think that was one where it clicked in.”
With passion, talent, and dedication, Kat became a successful athlete. At the conclusion of her high school career, she had the ability to play in college. Unfortunately, there were not many choices at the time.
Determined to stay close to home in Texas, Conner said there were only two schools in the state offering scholarships in 1987, Southern Methodist University and Harden-Simmons University.
“Those were your two choices if you were going to stay in Texas,” Conner said. “I knew SMU had two phenomenal forwards. I was a forward at the time and so I knew that wasn’t going to happen and so Harden-Simmons asked me to play and I said of course.”
Despite the limited options, she excelled early, helping Hardin-Simmons get into the final four of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament before falling to eventual champion, Berry College, in the 1987 season.
The next season she led Hardin-Simmons back into the NAIA tournament. Kat and her team reached the finals of the tournament only to see the championship slip away again in a loss to Pacific Lutheran University. Despite these setbacks, she held herself up as an influential leader, according to Gerald Guerreri, her coach at the time.
“She was my team captain and was very influential in the way we play and was a key figure and leader on and off the field,” Guerreri said.
Following the end of the 1989 season, Conner was rocked by bad news. Hardin-Simmons was going down to Division three which meant the end of scholarships. Like every other time, Kat overcame this adversity and joined the program that had defeated her two years prior, Pacific Lutheran.
In the 1990 season, Kat, playing under legendary Hall of Fame coach Colleen Hacker got her team back to the championship. Pacific Lutheran’s third in a row but once more, Conner tasted the bitter sting of defeat.
“When I lost it that last time, my senior year, I took off my cleats and threw them in the trash,” Conner said. “My teammates pulled them out of the trash and said ‘No, no, no.’ That was the final realization I wasn’t going to get that national championship. Bummed as a player, but I knew I wanted to get into coaching.”
Hacker said she also knew Conner was destined to coach.
“(I knew) two student-athletes (who) I met who were going to coach the rest of their lives and Kat was one of them,” Hacker said.
Joining PLU as a graduate assistant coach, she was able to help them get back to the championship. Leaning on all she had learned and experience earned from going through the experience as a player. When that game concluded Kat was finally considered herself a national collegiate champion.
Shortly afterward, she would join her former coach, Guerreri, at Texas A&M University, which had just started their soccer program.
After an extraordinarily successful run where A&M saw multiple appearances in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament throughout the early and mid-90s, Kat was finally given the chance to run her own program and earned the head coaching job at Texas State in 1999.
Conner was immediately successful and won the Southland Conference title in her first season, going on to win again in 2001, 2002 and 2004. For the next three seasons, however, the Bobcats struggled, posting their worst season in 2007 when they stumbled to a 5-11-2 finish.
Conner knew adversity well and if anyone was gonna come back from it, it was her. The Bobcats emerged from the disastrous 2007 season, putting together the best season in school history claiming the Southland Conference trophy and getting into the NCAA tournament.
She had yet to face her greatest challenge, however. In 2015, Conner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“It changed my mindset,” Conner said. “I think as athletes sometimes we think we are superheroes. Sometimes you just think you’re ten feet tall and bulletproof. That definitely knocked me to my knees to show “no you’re not. you are human’.”
She credits the psychological aspect of sports, of digging deep to achieve as part of her fight. All the adversity she had faced in her life had given her the strength and ability to fight cancer off. In her fourth year of survivorship, she has become stronger and a living testament to what she preaches, said current junior goalkeeper Heather Martin.
“She takes what has taught her, and she is grateful for every day and she shows that in her work and care for us,” Martin said.
The Bobcats are coming off their first Sunbelt Championship and are poised for big things in the future.
Behind their battle-hardened coach, the sky is the limit. Like steel, Kat Conner let her fires reshape her into greatness. Like steel, she now stands strong and unyielding no matter what the team may face; and in doing so, has become the heart of women’s soccer at Texas State.