On the field since day one

The journey to the top is not always easy – just ask University of Detroit Mercy head women’s soccer coach Mike Lupenec. 

Lupenec is in his 22nd year as head coach of the Titans. He has won two Horizon League championships, has an NCAA Tournament victory, three Horizon League coach of the year awards and is the winningest coach in Horizon League history.

And earlier this month, he guided the Titans to the cusp of the 2014 Horizon League title. (UDM lost 1-0 to Valparaiso in the championship game.)

But his road to this level hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park.

Lupenec began his collegiate career at the University of New Brunswick, where he played a year of soccer. After deciding it was not the right fit for him, he left the school and returned home to Canada to work at a steel plant.

It was a visit to see his twin brother, Morris, at Oakland University that reignited his passion for soccer.

“I visited my brother, who was in his freshman year at Oakland,” Lupenec said.  “I decided, ‘Hey, I could play here too.’ ” 

After completing his necessary credits at Macomb Community College, Lupenec went on to have a successful playing career at Oakland, where he was a three-year starter and reached two Final Fours.

From Oakland, Lupenec moved on to the professional ranks, returning to Canada to play for the Windsor Wheels.  Bad knees that led to six surgeries brought his playing career to an end. 

“I chased the dream,” Lupenec said. “But back then, there wasn’t the big money there is today. There was no MLS, so the closest thing to it was to go play professionally in Canada. Who knows, if I had stayed healthy, I could have probably made it a lot further as a player.”

Still, Lupenec felt the need to continue to fuel his passion for soccer. 

In 1989, he and his brother founded Vardar Soccer, a youth club based in Michigan. He helped build the club into a national powerhouse, recording national championship victories in both indoor and outdoor divisions.

While still maintaining his position at the club level, Lupenec came to Detroit in 1991 as an assistant to Morris who was hired as the head men’s soccer coach. This stint was short-lived, however, because the following year the school decided to start a women’s program and offered Lupenec the job.

Since taking the job in 1992, Lupenec has built the women’s soccer program into a perennial contender. But this level of success has presented challenges.

“My first year we went into Canada and recruited seven or eight girls right away,” he said. “We played some schools that weren’t very competitive and got some wins. But once we got into conference play, I realized we had to get a lot more athletic and tougher.”

Recruiting grew harder as more colleges added Division I programs. He had to deal with the challenges of budgeting and facilities, as well.

But through those tough years, Lupenec has found a way to coach his team to a level of success unrivaled by many programs in the Horizon league. 

“I’m not sure how many people will agree with this, but if you look at Mike now and 20 years ago, he’s actually a much calmer and wiser coach,” said Steve Corder, a former player for Lupenec and UDM assistant athletic director for NCAA compliance. “Back then, coaching was just a ‘rub some dirt on an injury, get back in there and sell out for the team’ mentality. But now student-athletes are much more aware of physical and mental health and Mike has really adjusted to do everything possible to make sure his players reach their full potential both physically and mentally.”

Since beginning his coaching career, Lupenec has also gotten married and had three kids. 

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time away from home with both teams,” he said. “But luckily I have a very understanding wife that realizes this is my passion and that I am fortunate enough that soccer provides for our family. As long as I still have the fire and the desire, I could see myself doing this until I’m 100.”