That’s what separated Mississippi State women’s soccer from a spot in the Southeastern Conference tournament last season.
Despite being tied on points and record in SEC play with Florida, the Gators advanced to Orange Beach, Alabama, while the Bulldogs’ season ended. That tiebreaker has turned into something good for this program: motivation heading into the 2022 season.
“Last year was an interesting year,” head coach James Armstrong said. “It was definitely the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here, the most committed team that we’ve had since I’ve been here, but we just fell short.”
Of last season’s 16 matches, just three were decided by two goals or more. Mississippi State was well within striking distance of every match played — even those against the powers of the SEC, including Arkansas and Tennessee, both of which were hard-fought losses on the road.
It was a few things here and there that made the difference in the end, but for a team like the Bulldogs, those minute details made the eventual difference.
“The challenge for the returning players is can we just pay closer attention to the little details that make such a big difference, whether it be a clearance, attacking a ball in the box, having the mentality to score when we’re through on goal,” Armstrong said. “Those are kind of the little things that we’re talking about taking the next step.”
Early on, Armstrong talked heavily about the preparations for this season, something that started with a spring schedule that included Auburn and Alabama, and now preseason workouts.
Something of note is the incoming class for the Bulldogs this season, a seven-player freshman class that is already being touted as one of the best in program history.
“It’s a great blend of experience and fresh, new faces that are raring to go,” Armstrong said. “The freshman class that came was the best prepared freshman class that we’ve had since we’ve been here. … We knew they were a special class.”
That mixture of experience and youth plays well for Mississippi State, and when it comes to experience, there’s no better place to start than all-SEC second-team selection Maddy Anderson.
The junior goalkeeper was one of 13 goalkeepers named to the United Soccer Coaches 2022 Preseason Watch List — and for good reason.
She’s one of the best keepers in the conference and in the country, and this distinction only adds to her current trophy case, one that also includes SEC all-freshman team honors in 2020.
“I’m really excited for this year,” Anderson said. “The group is very dedicated, and we’re closer than ever, which I think is very helpful in being able to have that mindset that we want to win everything and we want to go far.”
The veteran presence on this team is strong, with six fifth-year players currently on board, including new UTEP transfer Jojo Ngongo. While those players will be relied upon as leaders, there seems to be a culture shift in Starkville.
Over the summer, the team participated in a strenuous offseason program they called ‘The Program’, which focused on team-building activities and team communication. The hope from this is that from this, any player will feel confident enough to step up.
“That helped us realize as captains that we can hand some of that responsibility down to underclassmen and help them rise to the occasion,” fifth-year defender Andrea Tyrrell said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, but we know that we have our team to rely on to help with that.”
Tyrrell heads a solid back line for the Bulldogs, and like Anderson, she was an all-SEC Second Team selection in 2021 and named to the United Soccer Coaches 2022 Preseason Watch List in early August.
Mississippi State was in the middle of the pack when it came to conceding goals during conference play last season, allowing 15, but it was the offense that struggled once the SEC schedule started, tied for the second-least goals during conference games with 10.
More help up top could very well be the difference between falling just short of the SEC tournament and making it. As expected, this year’s schedule will be difficult, facing Arkansas and Ole Miss, among others.
However, an impressive nonconference schedule including the likes of Miami, Minnesota, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss is going to set the tone early.
“We’re always expecting a lot of competition right off the bat going into SEC play,” second-year captain and junior midfielder Macey Hodge said. “It’s just different compared to other conferences, but I think our non-conference schedule sets us up even better than in the past.”
Every practice, weight room session and game film session has been done internally, and it has all led to Thursday’s exhibition match against Samford.
Mississippi State has two exhibition matches before its season opener at Miami.
“The team has made a great commitment to coming back fitter than ever with a great mentality and bringing positive energy,” Armstrong said. “This has been the most well-prepared team we’ve had since we’ve been here, so we’ve been able to do a lot more with them in training. It’s a great starting point; the hunger is there.”
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