By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information Coordinator/Soccer contact
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It’s time to dust off the cleats on another Tennessee Tech soccer campaign as the Golden Eagles unwrap the 2014 season with an exhibition tilt at Middle Tennessee State on Thursday night. Kickoff at Dean A. Hayes Soccer and Track Stadium in Murfreesboro is slated for 7 p.m. CT.
Tech marches into the exhibition opener with a new look and feel thanks in large part to the addition of first-year head coach Steve Springthorpe, who will be making his Tech coaching debut after enjoying success as an assistant coach at Duke and head coach at NC State and Fresno State. Heading into the matchup with former OVC rival MTSU, Springthorpe eyes it as an opportunity to accomplish a number of things before the season officially kicks off on Sunday, Aug. 24, at home vs. East Tennessee State.
“We’ll try to see as many play as we possibly can in that 90 minutes just to get an idea of what we have at each position,” the first-year head coach noted. “We’ll have particular things that we want to try to accomplish with regards to style of play, how we want to defend, and how we want to attack. It’s an opportunity for our players to find their places on the field, to see who’s going to end up where.”
A lot of new faces make up Tech’s 2014 squad as the team says hello to eight incoming freshmen and welcomes back senior goalkeeper Rebecca Toler, who transferred to Georgia State in the fall of 2012 after suiting up for two seasons in TTU purple and gold. For Springthorpe, the plethora of young talent has looked sharp in the early stages of the year before they take the field on Thursday for the first time against an opposing school.
“Our new players have been great. From a work ethic standpoint, they are all training hard, they have a great attitude, and they’re competitive,” Springthorpe claimed. “As new players, they are learning how to play at this level in regards to speed and athleticism. They’re fitting in well and it’s also a testament to the upper classmen involving the freshmen and helping to make it a seamless transition for them.”
As far as the upperclassmen are concerned, the Golden Eagles bring back five seniors and three juniors after the departure of last year’s five graduating seniors. Among the returners, senior Katie Phillips should help bolster Tech’s defense, while senior Kelsey McGohan and junior Taylor Sutton have the potential to play pivotal roles as midfielders.
“Katie [Phillips] will ultimately be one of our starting center backs. She comes into the season with experience and that will be important to us,” Springthorpe said about the Cincinnati native. “Kelsey [McGohan] is showing a lot of great leadership, and she’s one of the individuals I’ve been able to count on to get the team moving in the right direction. Taylor [Sutton] has had a great preseason, she has a very high fitness level, and she’ll be at the midfield position.”
From an offensive perspective, the Golden Eagles are faced with the challenge of replacing Ellie Iaciofano, who capped off an extraordinary career tied for sixth on the all-time Tech list with 15 goals after leading the 2013 team with four scores. The Loveland, Ohio native also finished her Tech tenure tied for fifth on the all-time list with 11 assists and 41 points.
For Springthorpe, the scoring will take a group effort and with a number of key offensive pieces in the mix, the potential is there.
“We don’t have any returning major goal scorers, so I expect we’ll be a committee of goal scorers for us this year,” Springthorpe commented on his club’s offense. “Up top [junior] Taylor Blazei and [senior] Amanda Koch will be there. [Sophomore] Abi Gearing is another that will play a role and freshman Zoie Hensley will be an attacking forward. She can play in both areas and we’re expecting great things from her.”
Gearing finished second on the 2013 Golden Eagles with six points, two assists, and two goals, while Hensley comes to Tech after a remarkable high school career at Taos High School in New Mexico that saw the 5-foot-4 forward finish her senior season with 54 goals and 17 assists en route to the Gatorade New Mexico Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
MTSU finished the 2013 season with a 6-8-4 overall record, which included a 3-0 home win against Tech on Sept. 15. While a win in the in-state rivalry is important for Springthorpe and the rest of the club, there is still a lot that can be accomplished in the exhibition tilt, regardless of the final outcome.
“The team wants to win. It’s Middle Tennessee, and that’s right up the road. We have players from Nashville and Murfreesboro on our team, and some of our players know some of their players. It will be competitive,” Springthorpe said of Thursday’s match. “Our coaches and players all want to win every game we play, but that’s not the purpose of this particular game for us. If we get to see the players, and begin to develop a style of play, winning or the result is not going to matter.”
After the match, Tech will continue its preseason practice schedule leading up to its first regular season game of the season, a matchup with East Tennessee State at Tech Soccer Field on Aug. 24. The match will be live streamed on the OVC Digital Network.