Cassandra Koppen would rather be in the thick of the action than calling the shots from the bench when Merewether take on New Lambton in the opening leg of the Herald Women’s Premier League semi-finals at Alder Park on Saturday.
The 32-year-old pharmacist has guided Merewether to two championships since taking the helm in 2015 but coaching was not on the radar until injury cut short her playing career.
It proved a lifeline back into the sport she loves and, while eyeing a third title this year, Koppen will be reminding her charges to make every on-field moment count.
“It sounds so cliched, but every game could be your last and you have to enjoy the moments while you’re playing with your friends,” Koppen said.
Koppen grew up in Cairns and represented Queensland in softball and netball before soccer became her main focus.
By her final year of high school she had a soccer scholarship at the Queensland Academy of Sport. Selection in the Australian under-19 squad followed in her first year of university.
However, when sport and study commitments clashed Koppen chose the latter, mainly due to seeing first-hand the financial struggle of women footballers at the elite level.
“I was a uni student and [Matildas player] Heather [Garriock] asked to borrow money to pay for rent,” Koppen said. “It shocked me they didn’t have an education or a job and they were really struggling through life.That was a big turning point.”
A few years later a passion for the game was reignited when playing in the men’s Northern Inland Premier League while working in the Armidale-Tamworth region.
Koppen had accepted a job in Newcastle when injury struck the first time, snapping the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee while wakeboarding.
She played the end of the 2010 WPL season with Valentine before joining Charlestown and earned a spot in the Jets W-League squad for the 2011-12 season.
In late 2012, while water skiing, she crashed and dislocated the same knee, snapped her ACL and medial cruciate ligament and broke her fibula.
When Koppen attempted a comeback in 2014 it was discovered the surgery had failed. Subsequent surgeries also failed leaving her with chronic knee pain and instability.
I largely stayed away from the game. I was so disheartened and devastated.Cassandra Koppen
“The end result is that I need to go back and have a reconstruction of both my medial and anterior cruciate ligaments, which would be a three-stage surgery,” she said.
“I’d be looking at an 18 months to two-year [recovery] period. It’s emotionally draining and I didn’t want to go through it all again.
“In hindsight, I probably wish that I had so that I could make the decision to leave the sport on my own terms.”
Koppen helped coach at Merewether while injured and thought “I might as well give it a go” when offered the job in 2015.
“To be honest, I largely stayed away from the game. I was so disheartened and devastated,” she said.
“It was such a mental battle with injuries and I was quite depressed from it. I think something in me recognised that and thought I needed to rediscover a different passion.”
In her maiden year in charge, Merewether became the first club in the WPL to capture the minor premiership-championship double.
The next year, “with a massive target on our backs”, they bowed out in the semi-finals.
That loss fuelled the fire for a strong 2017, in which United narrowly missed the minor premiership then turned around a 3-1 half-time deficit to beat Warners Bay 4-3 in the grand final.
“There are definitely hard moments and coaching can be very lonely, and in women’s football especially you take on the role of development for the whole club,” Koppen said.
“But I’m definitely glad I did it. It’s a very big challenge but I do enjoy the tactical side and I enjoy game day and it’s very rewarding when you make changes and a goal happens or you get a win from it.”
This year “we have had our backs against the wall” after losing players key to both titles then a run of injury and unavailability.
Merewether still finished second and Koppen believed finals experience would count against the Eagles.
“Even though they’ve got a couple of players that are obviously incredibly experienced, finals football is a whole other ball game. We’ve just got to fight it out I think,” she said.
Warners Bay and South Wallsend play at Walker Fields on Sunday in the first leg of the other semi-final.
The winners across two weekends meet in the championship decider.