Danielle Mendez was a senior at the Academy of Holy Angels in suburban Minneapolis when Chris Citowicki first entered the goalkeeper’s life, arriving as he tends to do with an energy that’s contagious — and alluring — to anyone nearby.
The coach, having just concluded his first season leading the program at nearby St. Catherine, a Division III school in St. Paul, arrived with a message that sounded nothing at all like the pitches Mendez had been hearing from coaches of other schools throughout Minnesota and Iowa.
And it had nothing to do with Citowicki’s accent, an amalgamation of a life lived in Poland, Italy, South Africa and Australia, followed by stops in Pennsylvania and then Minnesota.
Citowicki’s first team at St. Kate’s had gone 1-17, but that was just a starting point according to the coach as he made his recruiting pitch, the first step on a much longer journey that was headed for bigger and better things. Citowicki convinced Mendez to look forward, to what might be.
“You’d think, Why on earth would you go to a program that’s not doing that great?” said Mendez. “Then I met him. His excitement about the game and what he had planned and his idea of what a program should be just drew me in.
“Obviously, the results weren’t drawing me in. Instead, it was the things he wanted to create and how far he wanted to take it. I was like, This is it. I need to be here and be part of this. I was sold.”
That 1-17 finish in 2011 became 9-8 in 2012, the biggest turnaround in Division III that season, with Mendez starting in goal all but one match as a true freshman.
Citowicki and Mendez have been together ever since. She coached club soccer with Citowicki after graduating from St. Catherine in 2016 and was hired as the goalkeepers coach at North Dakota last season, following Citowicki to Grand Forks during his one year with the Fighting Hawks.
So when Citowicki was hired in early May as Montana’s fourth head coach in program history and had a spot to fill on his staff, one who could train goalkeepers and proselytize everything the new coach believes and holds dear, there was only one phone call he had to make.
“I want to build a strong culture, first and foremost, and to do that I need to bring in people who understand how I operate,” said Citowicki, whose first Griz team will open its season in less than a month.
“Danielle was recruited into the same culture we’re going to build here. She lived it and experienced it, and was a big leader within it. When it came to picking someone who could help me implement that same message, she jumped right to mind.”
Mendez completes Citowicki’s first staff, one that also includes Katie Benz, who spent last fall coaching under Mark Plakorus.
In Plakorus’s absence — it was announced in late January that the seven-year coach’s contract was not being renewed — Benz guided the program through its spring season, then turned the reins over to Citowicki.
“She had such an amazing experience for that four- or five-month gap. For her to run the program in the spring, she learned a lot and picked up a lot of new skills,” said Citowicki. “Katie and I see things the same way, about how we develop people and want the program to operate.
“What I love about this staff is that we can honestly communicate with each other. That’s huge. I’m not working with people who just say yes to me every single time.”
Mendez would become a four-year starter at St. Kate’s, and the Wildcats would win 35 matches between 2012 and 2015, a four-year stretch capped by a 12-win season in Mendez’s final year, when she compiled a 0.88 goals-against average and a .810 save percentage while posting seven shutouts.
She is the program’s career leader in goals-against average (1.44) and shutouts (19), and ranks second in saves (288).
After graduating from St. Catherine in 2016, with a degree in exercise and sports science, Mendez continued her playing career as a member of the Minnesota Twin Stars, a semi-professional team, in 2016 and ’17.
She also coached in both the Burnsville Fire Soccer Club and Minnesota Thunder Academy, dating back to her days as a player at St. Catherine.
After Citowicki left St. Kate’s following the 2016 season to join first-year coach Chris Logan’s staff at North Dakota, Mendez soon followed, giving the Fighting Hawks their goalkeepers coach last fall.
She coached Catherine Klein to Big Sky Conference Goalkeeper of the Year honors, and Logan was voted by his peers the league’s Coach of the Year after guiding North Dakota — with help from Citowicki and Mendez — to a 4-5-1 conference record, the Fighting Hawks’ best finish since joining the Big Sky in 2012.
“Danielle was the type of goalkeeper who would lead out of the back and get the team organized and solve problems before they happened. She had that vision,” said Citowicki.
“As a coach, she connects with players the right way. She can lead them, organize them and explain things to them very well. She made our goalkeepers at North Dakota so much better, and she’ll do the same thing here.”
Mendez will be gifted in her first year at Montana one of the Big Sky’s top goalkeepers in redshirt sophomore Claire Howard, who led the league last fall in goals-against average (0.70) and ranked fourth in save percentage (.795).
Howard’s 10 wins were the most ever for a freshman goalkeeper in program history.
With his staff in place, Citowicki can now turn his full attention to the season ahead, his first as a Division I head coach, one he embarks on with exactly the type of coaches he wants at his side.
“I’m surrounded by two very strong, empowered women who are willing to say what’s on their mind and eager to get better at what they do,” said Citowicki. “I’m very lucky to be in the spot I’m in.”