Nikki Grossberg knew she was entering a more challenging stage of her soccer life when she became the first Montana player signed to play on the University of Montana’s new women’s team in 1994.
It wasn’t the first time she was in on the ground floor when it came to soccer.
She already had played on the first women’s club team in Helena and was part of the first year of high school soccer in Montana as a sophomore at Capital High School.
These days Grossberg lives in Missoula where she is a supervisor for Child and Family Services. She’s been with the agency for six years, the last four in her current position.
It’s a state agency that investigates alleged abuse and neglect of children in Missoula County. As supervisor she oversees investigations and ongoing interventions with families that become involved in the legal system.
It wasn’t always a sure thing that Grossberg would make full use of her criminology/sociology degree earned at UM in 1998.
Fresh out of school she became an assistant soccer coach at Montana State-Billings while at the same time working in group home care for at-risk kids and on a master’s in sports management.
“I thought I was going to go do collegiate coaching and kind of took a turn and wanted to stay in state and work with families and children,” Grossberg explained.
After three years in Billings she moved to Bozeman to work with a social service agency there for a year. Then it was back to Missoula where she hooked on with a couple different agencies before finally joining Child and Family Services.
“I worked part time for the Youth Homes while I was in school (in Missoula),” Grossberg said, “so that was kind of where my passion for kids and families started.”
Grossberg continues to play some co-rec soccer in Missoula. When she first arrived back in town she coached Strikers club soccer for three years and also played more heavily at that time.
Growing up in Helena she played baseball, basketball and soccer, but put most of her focus on soccer by the time she was a freshman at Capital High School. Up to that time club and Olympic development soccer occupied most of her time and attention.
Despite being just 12 she played on a U-18 team when the only competition was teams in Bozeman and Missoula.
By the time Grossberg was a junior she knew she wanted to play in college, but there were no teams in Montana. She had her eye on a small Division I team in New York and a couple others around the country until spring 1994 until UM’s first coach, Betsy Duerksen, got in touch with her.
“She came up and watched a game in Kalispell,” Grossberg recalled, “and through her watching that game and a couple of conversations I felt like it would be a pretty exciting thing to be part of the first team at the University of Montana.”
Grossberg was excited to learn there finally would be women’s college soccer in Montana.
“It was a huge deal for Montana to have a college team and for it to be a Division I program,” she said. “And then to have Betsy come with her experience and how quickly she developed the program, looking back it was a very exciting and impressive time.”
According to UM records eight of her first recruits came from Washington, three each from California and Idaho, and two each from Oregon and Colorado.
“Excited but nervous” was how Grossberg described her feelings when the team first came together. “I had been exposed to out-of-state players through ODP and some tournaments in club ball, but Montana being behind we didn’t always do great.
“So I knew kids coming from other areas were gonna be highly skilled players,” Grossberg added. “Every single practice was a challenge. Every single time we got on the field everyone was competitive (and) played 100 percent.
“It was just a completely different caliber of soccer.”
Grossberg definitely felt like she improved with each practice and game.
Two more Montana women - Michelle Badilla-Gesek and Jen Yeats of Whitefish - joined the team in 1995, but it was two years after that when Missoula’s Natalie Hiller brought the number of Montana players to four in the program.
Grossberg described playing for Duerksen as “the best and some of the hardest times of our life.
“She pushed you every day which was great,” Grossberg said. “I hadn’t played for a coach like her before. I really learned the game. I understood systems of play (and) what we were trying to do as a team.
“And that piece was something I’m very grateful to her for because it wasn’t a knowledge base I had prior to college soccer.”
When that first UM team arrived there was no South Campus Stadium. The team played its home games on a field at Fort Missoula, something Grossberg was used to but her out-of-state teammates were not.
“Being from Montana, facility was the last thing on my mind,” Grossberg noted. “(For the other girls) when they did their recruiting trips facility was a big deal. For me I was just happy to be there. I didn’t care where we played.”
Once the stadium came into play, however, the excitement level increased.
“It definitely felt like a college sport at that point, like you were really part of the university and that we were a Division I program,” Grossberg said. “And it’s been exciting to see how that field and complex have been developed since then.”
UM also was without league affiliation, too, until the Big Sky Conference added women’s soccer in 1997, Grossberg’s last season. Before that happened, and even after, Duerksen scheduled aggressively, putting her teams up against the likes of Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado College, Minnesota and several Pac-10 teams.
The number of games increased from 15 in 1994 to 21 in 1997 when the Grizzlies were 16-5 overall and won the first Big Sky title with a 5-0 mark.
“For it to be our senior year and to win it made it that much more exciting,” Grossberg said of the brief conference experience.
During Grossberg’s career the team won 50 matches, lost 24 and tied once. Grossberg capped her career by being one of 12 UM players to be named to the all-Big Sky academic team.
Because of the caliber and speed of players Duerksen continued to recruit Grossberg’s playing time decreased as her career went on. At one point she considered transferring to a school where she could play more but ultimately decided to stick it out at UM.
“The relationships, the friendships, the camaraderie on our team were significant (to) why I stayed here,” Grossberg said. “I enjoyed making sure everyone was always challenged so that (whoever) was playing in front of me was going to have to earn that.”
When she got back to Missoula and into coaching Grossberg attended UM home games regularly and encouraged her players to do the same. While her attendance has tapered with her busy career she still gets to some games.
Grossberg stay in touch with a number of players from that first UM team and with Duerksen, who now lives in California and is out of coaching, as best she can.
Grossberg said Duerksen maintains contact with individuals in Missoula that Grossberg works with, so she keeps up with her former coach through that grapevine as well.
Grossberg admits to having been somewhat surprised when Duerksen left coaching after her 10th season in 2003 and moved to California.
“She was very family oriented and understood that was more what she wanted to be doing,” Grossberg pointed out.
Duerksen’s emphasis on academics for her players wasn’t much of a change for Grossberg who had always been a pretty serious student.
“That original class, all of us were academically pretty sound,” Grossberg noted. “Actually it was helpful because she was able to secure academic scholarships in addition to athletics (ones) by recruiting athletes that had good academic standing.”
Grossberg also has struck up friendships with more recent UM players some of whom have coached in Missoula or continue to play soccer.
In retrospect Grossberg is convinced she made the right decisions by coming to, and staying at, UM. But she occasionally thinks about what might have been.
“For the majority of us it (college athletics) is four years and what you get out of that is a lifetime,” Grossberg said.
“I often wonder had I left my junior year and played at a different school in Washington or Oregon how that would have gone,” she added. “(But) based on the friendships that I’ve maintained and being part of the university, and then staying in Missoula and being a Montana native I’m definitely happy with the choice I made and how it played out in my life and the bigger picture.”
How she dealt with her UM soccer career taught her lessons she has carried forward.
“The work I do is extremely challenging every day,” Grossberg said, “and the commitment it takes to be a college player and perseverance and to get beat up and stand back up and play again definitely helps me in the profession I do now.
“And when I’m coaching younger kids it definitely has shaped how I coach and how I motivate kids and what those relationships look like.”