The Mississippi State University women’s soccer team, returning after their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, is hungry for more.
The Bulldogs will be entering fall play with a new head coach, James Armstrong, who comes to MSU with five NCAA tournament appearances under his belt at his previous coaching position at Auburn University.
Armstrong said entering a program that is coming off of a tournament appearance provides a lot of momentum, which the team plans to capitalize on.
“It’s a great situation to walk into. The best part of it was the intensity that the girls brought to training each and every single day and their commitment to hard work and improving every time we set foot on the field,” Armstrong said.
Although the team made history last year, neither the coaching staff nor the players are content to settle there.
“The other part of it was they were hungry to go even better this time around. Even though we may be in the NCAA tournament, we didn’t make the SEC tournament so really trying to go one better in terms of league play, but also in national play as well,” Armstrong said.
MaKayla Waldner, a senior forward from Dexter, Missouri, agreed, saying the team and staff’s collective goal was to make it as far, and then farther, than they did last year after they made the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, only to lose in extra time in the first game to Lipscomb University.
“We’re building off of the foundation we laid last year so the people who did go to the NCAA tournament. We want to find ourselves back there again and then get farther than the first round," Waldner said. "But the SEC—none of us have ever done that. That would not even be a big one on us, just a stamp on Mississippi State."
One of the challenges the team faces in the upcoming season is integrating the many fresh faces into the program, including 16 new players and an almost entirely new coaching staff.
“Obviously we’re a lot of new faces. We’ve got 16 new players, 12 returning, so we have a lot of teaching to do, but the girls have worked really hard and are doing a fantastic job of applying all the things that we’re doing,” Armstrong said. “We’re getting better each and every single day, so the application, effort and intensity they’ve brought each and every single day has been fantastic.”
With only four seniors on the team and 13 freshmen, Hailey Zerbel, a senior defender from West Covina, California, said it is important for the younger players to learn to be leaders.
“I think teaching the younger girls what it takes to be a leader and leading by example," Zerbel said. "We have captains on our team, but everybody on our team plays a huge role, it’s not just specifically them."
Armstrong agreed, saying the sophomore class specifically will really have to step up in their transition from year one to year two.
“The sophomores bring a lot of experience from last year. A lot of players that played significant minutes and a significant role in the success of that team, with it being a lot of freshmen, that sophomore class has really got to have a lot of leadership,” Armstrong said.
On specific gameplay tactics, Armstrong said the team is going to focus on possession, pressure, counterattacks and execution. Armstrong is also excited about the goal scoring potential he sees in both the new and returning players.
“We have a lot of really creative pieces and players that have scored goals historically,“ Armstrong said. “Whether it be the new players in their club career or players that have played collegiately and have done a really good job of getting on the scoreboard. So, we’re excited about different ways that we can score.”