Beyond Box Scores: Spartans boast new look, same expectations
By Rob Daniels
Coaching changes in college athletics often beget transfers, which beget questions, which beget speculation. When it comes to UNCG women’s soccer, you can check all the above in 2011.
But as a new coach and a tweaked lineup begin defense of a Southern Conference championship that still belongs to the institution, the Spartans adamantly maintain that turnover doesn’t have to equal turmoil. Those who remained after Eddie Radwanski’s acceptance of the Clemson job and the hiring six weeks later of former Georgia assistant Steve Nugent included every rising senior.
Yet they still heard the soccer sorority question just what was going on around Walker Avenue. Air pollution? Acid rain? Bad vibes?
Or was it just the inevitable result of regime realignment? Don’t get them started. Again.
Their program has already won five straight regular-season league titles.
“I think with the coaching change, people took a sigh of relief,” senior goalkeeper Kelsey Kearney said. “Other teams think this is their year, that there’s trouble in the waters, that UNCG has a new coach, that things are changing. But in actuality, we’re just coming out stronger, because, if anything, we have more to prove now. That’s where we find success: when we have something to prove.”
Nobody begrudged Radwanski, who held the job for 11 seasons, for taking an ACC gig. Nugent understood the departure of four eligible returnees was probably going to be part of the deal when he was hired a day before the national signing period started. Rather than freak out, he went about the business of keeping a winner as together as possible.
“When there’s change, there’s going to be some attrition,” said Nugent, a gregarious New Englander with even deeper roots in Florida. “At the same time, we were able to recruit a mix of players to integrate with the current players, and I feel very strongly that we are 23 strong when it comes to our vision of the game and how we want it played and the love they have for this place.”
It helped that last year’s seven juniors stuck around, giving the new guy a nod. They include Kearney, a three-time all-conference performer who is on track to break the SoCon’s record for career shutouts; defender Cat Barnekow, who led the league in assists last year; and Jamie Etten, a stabilizing force in the midfield.
From there, Nugent got on the phone. He didn’t have to initiate the first conversation. He hadn’t even settled into his new office when his cell rang. The Ohio State coach was calling to recommend Karin Sendel, a veteran of the Israeli army who had decided to leave the Buckeye program in search of a more direct style of play.
“I had a couple of offers,” Sendel said. “I’d say when I first got here on my official visit, there were a lot of things that felt great about the place. You could sense the team chemistry right away. The style of play that coach is trying to bring to the team was definitely appealing to me. It felt like a place that could be home for me right away.”
The same was true of Karina Rodriguez, whose youth coach for six years in Boca Raton, Fla., was none other than Nugent. A knee injury had knocked her off the ACC and SEC radar, but old coaches – even young ones and certainly smart ones – never lose phone numbers.
From there, the new staff hit recruiting events in California, Arizona and, yes, Vegas, baby. Californians Casey McCavitt and Shea Glaspey then joined a West Coast group with three others from the Golden State as well as Etten, who three years earlier had traded the benign autumn of her native Spokane, Wash., for the heat and humidity of the Piedmont Triad.
“I just got used to sweating more. And drinking more water,” Etten said.
It’s an eclectic mix of Pacific breezes, Florida sun and familiar fields of North Carolina, and that comes in handy in November, when Thanksgiving break precludes cross-country travel, but those closer to campus are able to provide the holiday atmosphere.
Nugent got enough of a look at his team in spring that he didn’t fear the need to overwhelm the squad with running for the sake of running in preseason training. Much of the conditioning work has been built into innovative drills.
“Steve has us do fitness, and then he challenges us mentally by putting us in game situations where you need to be mentally focused,” Barnekow said. “We’ve been working on new techniques and tactics.”
Offered Etten: “In general, there’s a high level of intensity and concentration throughout the entire practice and at the end of the practice, we expect to finish strong. Steve expects that, and it has really filtered down to us as players.”
As the team gathered after practice on Tuesday, Nugent read off the preseason All-SoCon predictions as offered by the league’s coaches. The Spartans are the choice to finish first again.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” senior Kristin Player said.
Although you could get the sense that nobody would have objected to an August demotion in the eyes of the experts. And the vote was pretty close.
The Spartans kick it off on Friday when Virginia Tech comes to town, which means standard preseason fare is over and normal routine is on.
“And we’re ready to beat up on somebody else,” Kearney chimed in.
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