ERIE — In four years with the Mars girls soccer team, Mani Brueckner posted gaudy statistics and helped the Planets reach new heights.
Her freshman season at Gannon University featured much of the same.
After leading the Golden Knights to the most wins in program history, Brueckner was recently named Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Athlete and Freshman of the Year.
She tallied 10 goals and 13 assists in 19 games for Gannon, becoming the first player to earn both PSAC awards since 2006. Her 13 assists broke the school record and her average of 0.68 assists per match currently ranks second in the country.
Freshmen often have trouble making the jump from high school to collegiate athletics, and initially, Brueckner was no exception.
“I wasn’t doing as well as I had expected to do,” she explained. “I guess I just wasn’t used to the physicality of it. That was the biggest difference for me.
“At first, it was scary making the change. I was always used to being the dominant force on the field,” Brueckner added. “For me to come in as a small little freshman, I had to adapt to how other people were used to playing.”
It didn’t take long for her to become comfortable, though.
“After you get those first-game jitters out of the way, you realize it’s just another soccer game,” she said.
Brueckner broke through for the first goal of her career in the fifth game of the season, a 1-0 win over Bloomsburg on Sept. 14. It was one of three game-winning goals on the year.
“After the first couple of games, I got accustomed to it and figured out a new way to play,” said Brueckner. “Once I started getting used to that, I started doing really well.”
From Sept. 19 to Oct. 6, the Mars grad scored eight goals in eight games, including a superb showing against Millersville with three goals and one assist.
The outburst of production was a pleasant surprise to 11th-year Gannon head coach Colin Peterson.
“She meant a great deal to us,” he said. “It wasn’t just that she was scoring, it’s that she was scoring important goals.
“I knew she was talented, but you don’t really expect somebody to make such an impact, especially coming in from a high school season,” he elaborated. “The game is a lot quicker, it’s a lot more physical, it’s a lot tougher. Not only that, but mentally it can be draining, too.
“She took it all in stride and she did a phenomenal job.”
Brueckner’s 33 points were the fourth-most in Gannon history and ranks 25th in the country. She’s already fifth among the school’s leaders in career assists.
Peterson believes one of Brueckner’s greatest assets has nothing to do with her physical attributes.
“She has instincts, which you can’t really coach,” he explained. “She has a nose for the goal and there’s not too many of those kids that come around.
“Just her mental strength, too,” Peterson added. “She’s competitive and she likes to win.”
The two-time Butler Eagle Girls Soccer Player of the Year was an outside midfielder during her days with the Planets, but switched to forward after a few games at Gannon. Playing up top meant she didn’t have to waste as much energy on defense, giving her more opportunity to apply pressure on opposing keepers.
“Just in terms of her getting behind defenders, that was big for us,” said Peterson. “She made a lot of good penetrating runs with and without the ball. That kind of set her apart a little bit.”
Gannon finished the year 13-4-2 and was ranked No. 7 — the highest in program history — in the final Division II regular season poll, spurring the Knights to an NCAA Tournament berth.
Although Gannon suffered a 2-0 upset loss to West Virginia Wesleyan in the first round, it was an eye-opening experience for Brueckner, and one she wants to encounter again.
“As a freshman, I didn’t really understand it,” Brueckner admitted. “I didn’t see what the hype was all about. To me, it was just another tournament, another playoff opportunity.”
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