By GABE COHN
Here we are: the beginning of the fall semester of the 2016-2017 school year. UT students are getting acclimated with their classes and athletes are shaking off the rust from summer break. After extensive preparation and training, all of the fall sport athletes are suiting up for their regular seasons and gearing up for a conference championship run.
After a long offseason, the women’s soccer team, led by second-year head coach Erin Switalski, looks ready to build off of what was a very successful 2015 season. Last year, Switalski and company posted an impressive 13-5-5 record and a solid 5-2-1 mark in Sunshine State Conference play after they were originally picked to finish fifth in the South Region in a pre-season poll.
UT had a good SSC tournament run but finished runner-up after falling to Barry University by a 2-1 score in overtime. The Spartans, after their solid performance in the conference tournament, then earned the No. 3 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament.
UT won their first two games in the NCAA tournament against Lee University and North Alabama to make it to the regional final where they faced off again against Barry University. Unfortunately, the team lost a heartbreaker to the Barry University Bucs in the final by the score of 1-0, abruptly ending their tremendous season.
When looking back, even though the Spartans had a successful season in 2015, they were initially unsure what to expect heading into that season according to junior defender Miranda Gonzalez.
“Last year was a very interesting year,” Gonzalez said. “The team was new, the coach was new, and the expectations were new. No one really knew what to expect coming into the season last year, but, once the season started everyone realized that this team had the ability to go far. The name that our team eventually adopted during the season was ‘the little team that could’ because no one believed in us, but we believed in ourselves.”
That belief and culture that was created under the new coaching regime was the X-factor behind the team’s overall success and will be a major factor going forward. Midfielder Lauren Cicero, who is the only senior on the team, believes that her team’s work ethic and drive will continue to lead them to success.
“Last season our biggest strength was our ability to act and play as a team,” Cicero said. “We may not have the most individual talent on the field, but as a team, we played for each other and had a common goal that we worked towards achieving. We will utilize our team’s chemistry and drive to reach greater heights this season.”
The ability to work together as a team will generate more continuity as the Spartans progress through the 2016 season, but they can’t win without focusing on stamina and overall team fitness as well.
“Besides working well as a team our other main focus last season was to be the most fit and most hardworking team on the field,” Gonzalez said. “I think that that was a huge strength for us last season, especially because we won a good amount of games in overtime. I believe that this will be a strength heading into the upcoming season as well.”
That fitness and stamina led the Spartans to eight overtime wins (seven in 2OT) out of their 13 total wins in 2015 and helped maintain their incredibly stingy defense, which allowed less than one goal per game.
There may have to be a few adjustments that need to be made because of the loss of three key seniors (Cici Gonzalez, Lauren Moore, Audrey Hayward), but the girls are ready to rise to the occasion according to sophomore midfielder Nastasia Asgedom.
“So far the new girls are adjusting well to our style of play and will most likely fill in the missing gaps,” Asgedom said. “Everyone is considered a threat on our team and has the opportunity to have a breakout performance this year. [Coach] Erin has high expectations for all of us and she wants to see different players raise the bar.”
The coaches always have high expectations for their team heading into the season regardless of what the national rankings say, but this year, the expectations for them nationally are also high. Going into this season, the Spartans are ranked 15th in the nation and are picked to win the SSC title by the coaches in their pre-season poll. This high praise comes after the team was under the radar last year.
These rankings also open another chapter in the rivalry between Barry University and UT. Barry is currently ranked sixth in the nation, but they were not picked to win the conference, which presents the perfect backdrop for their highly anticipated matchup on Saturday, Oct. 15.
The road back to the conference final for the Spartans also includes matchups against North Alabama (#18), University of West Florida, Texas A&M-Commerce and Armstrong State (each received top 25 votes).
Overall, even though more adjustments need to be made and the pressure is on for them to win, this season looks incredibly promising for the young Spartans.
Gabe Cohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org