TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One part old, two parts new.
Or is it two parts old, one part new?
Laura Lee Smith looks at the 2014 Alabama women’s soccer team and sees a balanced squad that mixes nine returning starters — and 12 letterwinners — with 10 freshmen and five sophomores.
Regardless of how you describe Alabama, Smith, who is one of five seniors on the team, feels this group has the potential to get the Crimson Tide back on track after a 6-12 (4-7 in the Southeastern Conference) season in 2013.
“I have kind of felt like the last two years, even though we were not as successful on paper as we were in my freshman year when we made the NCAA tournament, the talent on the team was better,” Smith said. “We have decided as a team — and I think this has shown to be true in the preseason — that little details were killing us. Injuries, yes. … But little details, like a little trap here or a little trap there, (were hurting us). I think we had made it a subconscious habit within our team to say, ‘It’s OK. We’ll get the next one.’ This preseason, we have made a conscious effort to call each other out in a nice way. … We have really held people accountable and not let the little things slide that don’t seem that big in practice because in a game that one moment can be the one moment that you could have scored.”
Alabama will try to turn that accountability into results at 7 p.m. Friday when it plays host to Kennesaw State in its season opener. The match is the first of 11 home games the Crimson Tide will play this year at the Alabama Soccer Stadium.
For seventh-year coach Todd Bramble, this year will be a great chance to capitalize on a 4-0 spring season in which Alabama outscored opponents 14-1. Alabama defeated Montevallo, West Alabama, the Ghana Under-17 team, and Alabama-Huntsville. The level of competition will increase starting Friday and throughout the season. A home match against Atlantic Coast Conference power Virginia at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 is the marquee non-conference match on the schedule. Bramble hopes that match will give Alabama a taste of what it can expect in a SEC that was controlled by Florida and Texas A&M last season. Those teams were picked one-two, with 164 and 162 points, respectively, in this year’s preseason coaches poll. Alabama was 12th with 51 points, ahead of Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
“Assuming we stay healthy, and every team is going to say that is a key to being successful, we have enough depth, enough talent, and great leadership,” Bramble said. “I think all three ingredients are in place, and I think that is super important.”
Smith feels the Crimson Tide are capable of proving plenty of people wrong. She praised Bramble for adding assistant coaches Erwin Van Bennekom and Jerrod Roh. She said the coaches have helped the players adjust their attitudes and not let things slide and correct them immediately. She hopes the Crimson Tide can maintain their level of possession and convert more scoring chances by taking what teams give them.
Senior Theresa Diederich said several of the older players were on campus in the summer to help and to support the newcomers in their transition to college. She said that presence helped some of the players establish bonds with the freshmen, who she said are required to attend summer school.
“Since I have been here for five years, I would say this is the most well-bonded team we have had so far right off the bat,” Diederich said. “There were eight freshmen and two transfers that came in, so it was a lot of new people. I think that was something we were nervous about going into, but the personalities coach recruited have fit well, and we really haven’t had any issues so far.”
Diederich said things have clicked so well because the team’s mentality is different than previous years. She said it will be crucial for everyone to know their roles and for everybody to help each other with the details will strengthen those bonds.
A year ago, former SEC Freshman of the Year Merel Van Dongen missed the final 12 games of the season with a knee injury. Van Dongen, who is one of three players on the team from the Netherlands, injured the knee in September training with the Netherlands Women’s National Team.
The return of Van Dongen, who scored four goals in the first six matches last season, bolsters an attack that scored only 24 goals last season. But with so much experience returning, that mark figures to improve if everyone can stay healthy and the team can maintain its bonds. Diederich feels the Crimson Tide will be able to do that. If they can, Alabama might be back on track to returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
“I think the chemistry was strong (last season), but we still had some people who weren’t totally bought into what we were trying to do,” Diederich said. “This year, we have really told the new group we’re here to win and if you’re not in you need to figure out a way to mentally get back into it.
“We have been through a lot in the past few years, and this is the time we really want to succeed and everyone needs to be on the same page.”
Alabama will have to make that climb from the bottom of the SEC. Back-to-back losing seasons have followed a 10-9-3 finish in 2011 that ended with a 3-2 double-overtime loss to Miami in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Diederich, who is one of five seniors on the team, believes it is time for the Crimson Tide to succeed. She said the team has had the talent in previous years but hasn’t been able to put it together. She said chemistry will be a key in helping to assemble that puzzle.
“I feel in the past it has been always seniors saying it is the last time, it is the last time, it is the last time,” Diederich said. “It is something you always want to keep in the back of your head with that urgency, but something we have talked about as a senior class is we want to keep it about the team, not just about us. Having that goal in mind, I think that will help us succeed.”
Bramble said team chemistry hasn’t been left to chance. He said he has a great sense that the 2014 squad could be the “best team ever” in that department, but he cautions the team hasn’t faced adversity, so he is anxious to see how it reacts.
“We have the largest collection of selfless players we have had since I have been here,” Bramble said. “What gives me the most encouragement is the veteran players we have also are really, really strong leaders, so I think this is going to be the best team in that department as well in terms of leadership.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.