Deeper, Energized and United Soccer Team Poised to Take Big Steps
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The 2013 campaign was solid but the Southern Miss' women's soccer team wants more in the coming year.
The first year of the Mohammed El-Zare era of Southern Miss Soccer was highlighted by team and individual success. The Golden Eagles set new records and produced other performances that ranked among the best in program history en route to one of the better seasons of the last decade.
Last year, Southern Miss finished with a 7-9-4 record, the most wins in a season since an 8-11-0 showing in 2007 and the fewest losses in a season since going 4-9-2 in 2005.
Golden Eagle Soccer Falls in Overtime at Louisiana, 3-2
Down 2-1, the Southern Miss women's soccer team rallied for the tying goal in the 48th minute but were unable to find the net again, falling in overtime 3-2, at Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday.
The 2013 squad set new marks in saves (138), save percentage (.807), saves per game (6.9), total shots (323), total minutes played (21,092) and goalie minutes played (1,913).
The Golden Eagles' 43 goals were second most in a season behind only the 1997 squad that scored 44. Thirty assists were fourth most in school history and 116 total points were just three off the record of 116 set by the 1999 team.
But, even with the fresh memory of a solid season gone by and as is the norm in El-Zare's program, the benchmarks of success for this year's team will not be set with a number of wins or goals, but in a single word - "Today."
"We want to take it one day at a time," El-Zare said. "Right now, our focus is starting preseason, evaluating all our players and preparing for our exhibition match against Louisiana-Lafayette. Then, we'll take the next game after that. We all aspire to achieve great things, but that doesn't happen if you don't take it one day at a time."
The Golden Eagles play an exhibition match on Aug. 15 at Louisiana-Lafayette before opening the regular season with a three-game home stand against Nicholls State (Aug. 22), Mississippi Valley State (Aug. 24) and Jackson State (Aug. 29). Conference play begins Sept. 26 against Rice.
This year's squad certainly has a chance to make noise in both the non-conference and conference slate. "We have a core group of returning players that have worked extremely hard in the last year," El-Zare said. "Even after the fall season, they worked all spring and through the summer. A lot of them are going to come in at a good form.
"With the returning players and the incoming players, we should have more depth than last year. The gap between players has shrunk, which is a good thing. You want that larger core of players who can contribute. If a player needs a breather or if we need to change our shape, the players we have will give us the chance to do that without the drop-off from one player to another. I think everyone we have will get the chance to step in and contribute."
Joining the returning players is a collection of 13 newcomers.
"We have 13 new players coming in," El-Zare said. "There is a lot of quality and a lot of talent in that group, but we understand that we must allow for a period of adaptation and climatization. It's not easy, so we have to be careful with how we bring our young players along into the college game. We've got to gradually integrate them into our system so that they can be successful."
Yes, the team is deep and blessed with a lot of young talent. Expectations might soar, yet El-Zare and his players remained fixated on that one word - "Today."
"We've been talking about putting an honest effort in every day," El-Zare said. "Whether it's on the field, in the classroom, or in the community, we stress that it's important that we give our best. Our players have done a great job buying into that and putting forth that honest effort every day.
"We are evolving in the right directions in terms of how we play and how we do things. Our leadership, and when I say that I mean our upperclassmen as well as the players who were freshmen last year, have done a tremendous job in terms of spending more time together off the field. They've done a great job of bringing the younger players in and making them feel like a part of the team. It's only going to get better. I feel like all that off the field work we've done, spending time together and focusing on team-building, will benefit us on the field."
On the field, El-Zare expects more development from a defensive group that showed flashes of brilliance in 2013.
"We had a core of younger defenders mixed with upperclassmen last year and they're all coming back," El-Zare said. "We're excited to have behind them Brittany Taylor, who did a phenomenal job as keeper in her freshman year. We have Casey Atkins back and players like Kay Kay Hypolite, and Adriana Garcia and we have a lot of new players coming in who are equally as talented and will help us in that area.
"We're excited about the foundation we built last year. We want to replicate the strong defensive performances of last year but also take it to the next level and play defense in such a way that we are able to convert our defense effort into stronger attacks.
"The bottom line is that if you can't regain and maintain possession, you won't be able to score consistently. So, we really want to focus and pride ourselves on improving in that area."
Offensively, the Golden Eagles will have to contend with Roberts, an all-conference performer, but El-Zare believes his deeper squad has the ability to improve on last year's goal total.
"We have a lot of players who can contribute up front," El-Zare said. "We have players who can play in multiple systems and multiple roles versus last year, when we were playing with a single striker most of the time. This year we have more quality players who will give us options, tactically, when we face different opponents."
Yes, the offense is moving in the right direction and might threaten the record books in ways similar to the 2013 squad. Still, El-Zare and his players remain fixated on that word - "Today."
"It comes down to consistency of performance," El-Zare said. "Show up every day and put in the work and perform day in and day out throughout the season. But we also must trust one another on the field. Without trust, you cannot build anything. It's important the players trust themselves and their talent but also develop a rapport with each other. I think those factors will be key."