Like coach, like player: How Natalie Bukovec has shaped the soccer atmosphere for female Rams players

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Growing up, Natalie Bukovec never had a female coach. Now, she’s one of the only woman soccer coaches in the OUA

By Ella Bonaldi

Photos by Hung Le

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occer season doesn’t start until August. But after leading her team to the best finish in program history this past season, the head coach of the Ryerson Rams women’s soccer team, Natalie Bukovec, is already preparing for next year.

Bukovec was the first female women’s soccer head coach in Ryerson history and her journey to becoming the first of her kind is a unique one.

Growing up in Etobicoke offered many opportunities for young girls wanting to start playing in sports leagues. The Bukovec family chose soccer.

Natalie began playing soccer in house league at age five, similar to what many kids in her area participated in at that age. By the time she turned 10, she was playing soccer almost every week for the next eight years of her life.

When it came time to apply to university, she couldn’t leave that part of herself behind.

“Eventually, my love for the sport led to opportunities with the provincial program and then the national program, which obviously didn’t work out, so university was my best choice,” said Bukovec.

In 2010, Bukovec enrolled at McMaster University for sociology with a specialization in leadership and organization. She called McMaster her home for five seasons and played for the women’s soccer team. After her first year, she had aspirations to play professionally.

Bukovec played in semi-pro leagues in North America and was a member of the player pool for the Croatian women’s national team after university.

When she graduated from McMaster, her head coach expressed interest in hiring her as a graduate assistant—which ultimately made her decide to take the career route in coaching.

“I made the decision to not pursue the professional route relatively soon,” said Bukovec. “Usually when you graduate university at 22, the next step is to push for a career playing overseas. I knew there was something about coaching that I was really attracted to.”

Straight out of university, the then 22 year old started as an assistant coach with McMaster. She helped the team to a 7-6-3 record in their 2015 season. That same season, the Marauders finished in fourth place in the West division, an improvement from their sixth-place finish the year before.

After a year of coaching at McMaster, Bukovec looked for employment with other teams in the OUA to boost her coaching resume. Ryerson was looking for a volunteer assistant coach, and for her, this was the perfect start.

At Ryerson, Bukovec was the volunteer assistant coach for the 2016 season. But just a year later, she was hired as a part-time assistant coach. With the players and staff putting their trust in her, Bukovec moved up in the ranks and her name was put forward as a possibility for interim head coach of the Rams for the 2018 season.

“I was very excited and happy that everyone had seen how hard I work,” Bukovec said on the opportunity.

Not long after, in December of 2018, she was hired as a full-time head coach at Ryerson, making her the only women’s soccer head coach in the OUA at the time.

Although Bukovec feels she has never dealt with discrimination because of her gender in a male-dominated community, she hopes there are more coaching opportunities that open up for other women.

“Maybe there is something as a nation or a province that is being missed, whether that’s developing more female coaches or providing more opportunities when players are younger,” Bukovec said. “If they don’t get the experience when they’re younger, how are they going to obtain that career path later on?”

Bukovec believes it’s important for young girls to see women in these “power roles,” such as coaching, refereeing or owning a team.

“As of early 2020, there are three female coaches across Canadian university sports in total. It’s a really small pool—that number is insanely low,” Bukovec said. “I never had a female coach growing up. The coaches that I played for were definitely more old school in mentality.”

Most recently, two women have been hired as coaches by OUA soccer programs. Just this month, the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks announced that Audra Sherman would become head coach of the women’s soccer program, and in February, Miranda Wiley joined McMaster as their head coach as well.

To Brooke Pearson, a second-year midfielder for the Rams, her head coach is paving the way for the next generation of female coaches.

“What she’s doing will set the bar for the next coaches to come at any school in the OUA,” Pearson said.

Bukovec believes her gender serves as an advantage as well, as it allows her to connect with her soccer players even more.

Instead of looking at just on-field success, Bukovec likes to create a good relationship with the Ryerson athletes, making sure they are doing well academically and personally. This, plus the small age gap between herself and players on the roster, helped her connect with the team on a whole new level.

Although her playing days are now behind her, she says she’s found that coaching girls—in the same position she was in just five years ago—is her passion and something she finds rewarding.

“I’m here to teach and guide these athletes to be able to learn it themselves,” Bukovec said. “That’s where I get my joy in the sport.”

Pearson says Bukovec’s coaching style is different compared to other coaches she’s had, but effective. Before games, Bukovec will show the team videos of their opponents’ recent matches to show which tactics will work well against them.

“Natalie has a very modern way of coaching in that she tries to give players as much freedom to be creative in their position,” Pearson said. “I enjoy playing under her, it’s as simple as that.”

Samantha Naus, a defender for the Rams, says the mental preparation Bukovec led the team through was crucial in helping them find their opponents’ weak spots. The second-year player loves Bukovec’s catchphrase—asking the players “how they can be excellent today.” Naus credits her coaching style for the Rams’ record-breaking past season.

“We are always trying to improve as a team and we are all doing it together,” Naus says. “Thanks to coach Natalie, we have a family atmosphere that has helped a lot in our journey.”

As a head coach at only 25, Natalie believes that her experience in the league as a recent student athlete has had a huge impact on the connections she’s made in her time coaching at Ryerson.

“I know exactly how the academic challenges are, how much work and effort you have to put into your weekly regime of training and games, how taxing it is on the body, so that gives me a little bit more relatable insight.”

Bukovec says there are four main qualities she looks for in her players: team culture, academic success, on-field performance and volunteer experience and community engagement.

“At Ryerson specifically, off-field success is something that is really valued,” Bukovec says. “As a coach, I am not doing my job if my athletes are failing in school.”

Keeping busy, Bukovec has also spent time as an assistant coach with the Oakville Blue Devils women’s program in League 1 Ontario. She also works with the Ontario Provincial Projects U-14 team as an assistant coach.

As for next season, Bukovec has her eyes set on qualifying in the OUA final four. But mainly, she wants to focus on growing the program all year round, and not just in goal scoring and playmaking.

The players share the same vision as Bukovec. They say they’re excited for what’s to come in the development of the program—they’ve put their trust in her and she’s ready to lead them.

“It will be a long journey for this team,” Naus admitted. “Everything is possible as long as we all have the same mindset and work ethic, and with coach [Bukovec] this is possible.”

When asked about what she hopes young women athletes take from her performance as head coach, Bukovec paused for a moment to think about her answer.

“Play soccer for as long as you can,” Bukovec said. “Use sport to instill confidence in yourself and develop skills that you need to overcome barriers in your life. Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t think anything is impossible.”

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