The 2014 season for the women’s soccer team was a historic one that saw the Cougars win its first Ohio Valley Conference title and make the NCAA Tournament.
The fairly young team will be without last season’s top goal scorer, Michelle Auer, and key outside defender, Samantha Jones, both of whom graduated last year.
Head Coach Derek Burton said he is not scared of what the offense will look like without its top forward from last season, due in part to its recent triumphs.
“We have a lot of returners, which is obviously a nice thing, especially when you’re returning from a successful season,” Burton said. “To have a good amount of players that have that experience of winning and achieving under their belt is huge.”
Burton said reaching the NCAA Tournament last season not only helps as a recruiting tool to bring in new players, but also as a way to reinforce what his current athletes should be looking to as an objective.
“It’s one thing to have goals and at times there might be within players themselves a thought of, ‘Is this goal realistic? Is it something we can actually achieve or are we setting goals that are beyond our reach just because it sounds good?’ I’ve known for a couple years now that those goals weren’t beyond our reach, but now the players really know it,” Burton said. “To me, that’s the exciting thing is to have high expectations and to know we have what it takes to get there.”
Essential returners to the 2015 team include seniors goalkeeper Jennifer Pelley and midfielder Cassidy Sherman. Both were team captains last season named to the All-OVC second team.
Burton said the winter has not been easy on the senior leaders, or the rest of their teammates, but he wants to make sure everyone is ready to start the season strong.
“We have just a great group of athletes here that have high expectations, and we set a goal from December or January on where we were past the end of our season to not rest on our laurels. If anything, they had the most grueling off-season that they’ve ever had because of that,” Burton said. “We wanted to make sure the point was made that there’s no reason to get full of yourself; nothing’s going to come easy. If anything, it’s going to be hard because teams in our conference will expect more from us.”
Also critical to the Cougars’ 2014 success was the freshmen class. Forward Emily Grahl and midfielder Marissa Vollmer, both now sophomores, were named to the All-OVC Newcomer team and will be expected to play a larger role offensively.
Burton said getting the young players the chance to experience the Cougars’ off-season regime was important for the upcoming season.
“We had nine freshmen this year who experienced the off-season for the first time, so it was something new for them,” Burton said. “Being the younger players and not having experienced that type of off-season, we saw a lot of big gains from them.”
Hoping to see the same level of achievement from this year’s freshmen class, Burton and his staff have brought in five first-year players. Included among them is defender Taylor Reynolds, who won three state titles at Saint Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park, Kan. and won All-Great Region honors by TopDrawerSoccer.com.
For Burton, seeing the freshmen play has been fun, but getting to know them is even more important to him and his staff.
“[The incoming freshmen] are all quality players and great kids who really fit the mold of our team and the culture of our team,” Burton said. “With great personalities and work ethic, they’ve been around and committed to us for a long time so they really know what to expect. I have seen them play for awhile, so I know they are really talented players, but I might be most excited about what kind of people they are because that’s a big part of the success we had last year.”
One of the biggest things Burton has been pushing in the off-season is the team’s ability to score on the counter, using the speed of a wing player, such as Grahl, to catch the opposition off guard.
“On the physical side of things, with our off-season conditioning program, [the players] did a lot of work on their speed and explosiveness, first-step quickness – those kind of things,” Burton said. “Especially before we could go outside, we spent January and February this year inside.”
According to Burton, another side of the ball the team has focused on in the spring is the team’s defense, where the Cougars will be without a senior field player on defense during the 2015 season.
“When we got outside and we could train again for five or six weeks in the spring with games that are essentially practice games, we worked on specific things that might seem minor but will bode well for us in the fall,” Burton said. “Really, our team’s defensive work and the way that we play defensively starts individually, so we did a lot of individual work. Then we grew that into how we approach the game defensively as a team.”
The women’s soccer team’s first game of the year is an exhibition game at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, at Korte Stadium against Loyola University. The Cougars open the regular season on the road at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 in Bloomington, Ind., against West Virginia University.