The decision to become a coach at NNU was an easy one for head men’s soccer coach John Powell.
He had played soccer for most of his life, including four years as a collegiate student-athlete at Cal State Stanislaus, where he was named the school’s Male Student-Athlete of the Year in 2010-11. During his playing days, two major factors stood out to him that were key in influencing his decision to become a coach once his playing career was finished.
The first was a classic component for most coaches in any sport—he had a love for the game and a passion for teaching and sharing it with others who had a similar love for the sport. The second had to do with great leaders he had seen in his life and wanting to keep their mission and philosophies alive for the next generation.
“A big influence in my decision to become a coach was my evaluation of the good and bad leaders I had experienced in my life,” said Powell. “The best leaders I observed were those who chose to lead by love. They took every opportunity they had to serve those they were tasked with leading. I truly believed in their example and decided to model my philosophy after them.”
At the same time, Powell knew he wanted to be able to integrate his Christian faith into his coaching philosophy. For the first seven years of his collegiate coaching career, he was not on staff at a Christian university. The time he spent in those roles was memorable, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything, but aspects of those positions didn’t allow for speaking about his faith.
“Religion always seemed to be a topic that was not discussed,” said Powell. “When I applied for, and accepted, the job at NNU, I was thrilled to be going into a Christian higher education environment because I felt it would allow me to coach and teach in the way I was called to lead.”
“When coaching for a Christian higher education institution, you are allowed to speak about your own personal walk with Christ and how your faith has guided you through all the ups and downs in life. I am also able to fully speak about servant leadership—with Jesus Christ being the perfect example.”
Something about NNU specifically had drawn Powell’s interest, as he had also applied for the head men’s coaching job when it had been open two years prior.
“Both times I applied for the open position at NNU, I was attracted to the University because it appeared to be a very close community that valued the same things I did. It was clear that the Christian faith, a great education and high-level athletic performance were of great value at NNU. Then, after my interview in 2021, I was blown away by the leadership from President Joel and Kelli, the Athletic Director, and believed in their mission after just one day on campus.”
While many of his interactions with members of the team occur on the field in a competitive and fast-paced environment, Powell enjoys ministering to his athletes off the field as well. He wants every player that comes through the program, regardless of background, to be affected in a positive way and benefit from his Christ-centered example during their time in Nampa.
“Working at NNU allows me to share my whole self, including my relationship with Christ,” said Powell. “My team comes from all different backgrounds when it comes to their faith, so we are able to connect on many different levels. Some young people come from families who were very active in the church their whole lives, while some haven’t spent much time at all committed to their faith.”
“My approach is to just focus on the core values of my faith, which are now the core values of the soccer program. My coaching staff and I value and prioritize servant leadership, selflessness and love above all else.”
In just two seasons with the Nighthawks, Powell’s philosophy has paid off tremendously in the men’s soccer program. This past season in the fall of 2022, NNU achieved greater heights than any other team in the history of men’s soccer at Northwest Nazarene University.
The Nighthawks went 15-4-3 overall and 9-2-1 in GNAC play, earning the GNAC Regular Season Championship, and won three NCAA Tournament games to make it all the way to the NCAA Super Region 4 Final (Elite 8). They were only the second athletics team in school history to make it that far in the NCAA Tournament, joining the 2021 baseball squad that made it to the final six at the College World Series. NNU earned a program-record nine All-GNAC honors, including Powell himself as Coach of the Year and Nestor Serrano as Newcomer of the Year. Four different players received All-Region honors, including consensus First Team pick Lorenzo Valentini, who, along with teammate Sawyer Price, was also named an Academic All-American.
During the season, NNU was ranked in the United Soccer Coaches Top-25 once at No. 22 before finishing the season sixth in the nation following their deep postseason run. The Nighthawks also set a new program record for wins in a season in 2022 with 15, eclipsing the mark of 14 set by the 2014 team, the only other group in program history to reach the NCAA postseason. NNU was extremely resilient all season, never going two games in a row without a win as they followed up every loss or draw with a victory.
Powell is quick to point out that it was not all his doing that led to the team’s success.
“I was blessed with a fantastic team and a tremendous coaching staff when I arrived in Nampa,” said Powell. “The boys worked extremely hard for a full calendar year to be prepared to achieve what they did this year. It was not by chance or by coincidence.”
“I believe there were a number of keys to their success this year, but the leadership within the team and their relationships as young men are the first two that stand out to me. We had the best captain and vice captains I have ever coached, and they were able to serve their teammates and put the team before themselves on numerous occasions. That type of selflessness is contagious, and I believe the culture of the team was almost as perfect as it could be.”
That strong and positive culture was evident to those outside the program as well, as many people expressed that the team appeared to be very close off the field, which contributed in huge ways to their success. That closeness and love for one another was evident to Powell as well when he first stepped on campus.
“I noticed how close the group appeared to be right away when I came for my interview, and I remember thinking, ‘It’s either exactly as it seems, or it’s an act.’ It was clearly the former as this group truly loved each other and had a lot of respect for each other,” said Powell. “I cannot take the credit for that as I was lucky to inherit it, but one of my initial goals was to keep that going, and I believe we were able to do that extremely well this year.”
“The team’s bonds and love for one another played a massive part in their success. There were so many occasions where most teams simply would have given up, yet my boys dug even deeper and persevered. I don’t think it is possible to achieve all they did this year without those close relationships built from the right foundations. I pray that this has now become a staple of our program going forward.”
If what Powell has been able to achieve in his short time in Nampa thus far is any indication, the program is in very good hands and will look to continue that success in the future. He hopes to persist in finding ways to combine his faith and his knowledge of soccer to create a championship tradition within the program. He knows that with its mission and philosophy, NNU is a fantastic place to do so.
“In my opinion, Christian higher education is so important. It allows the educators and leaders of the institution to serve and love our students as Christ did,” said Powell. “Here at NNU, we can pour into these young men and women and prioritize faith and the spiritual component of our lives, which often feels neglected in today’s society, and be critical agents of hope and change in the lives of our student-athletes.”
Josh Burkholder, Director of Athletics Communication