Only four months removed from the wackiest campaign imaginable due to unforeseen circumstances, the University of Tennessee at Martin soccer squad eagerly awaits the genesis of the 2021 slate this Thursday on their home turf as a return to normalcy etches closer.
Following three ultra-competitive exhibitions to close the shortest offseason the program has ever been dealt, the Skyhawks and 12th-year head coach Phil McNamara have embraced the hand they’ve been given and remain optimistic with a talented roster, aiming for the right recipe to return to Ohio Valley Conference championship status for what would be the fourth occasion in school history.
Before the team can even begin to dwell on lingering OVC matchups, however, they must turn their attention to an eight-game non-conference trek that signals the green light for the 2021 regular season, awaiting a first-time meeting with Southern Illinois just 48 hours from now.
“I know that the players are very excited for the upcoming schedule, as are the staff”, proclaims McNamara, the man responsible for 105 total victories since taking over the program back in 2010. “We’ve been tested heavily in all three games to this point against strong, quality opponents, and I think the team has performed well considering how quickly those games got here with very little conditioning and recovery from this past spring. So we’re quite pleased at this moment in time”.
Of the many reasons for the staff and players to enthusiastically anticipate the 2021 curtain jerker on Thursday lies in the deep pool of seniority and hard-nosed attitude of the Skyhawks’ defensive front, anchored by a pair of All-OVC stalwarts in Maria Castaldo and goalkeeper Erica Myers. Other notable UTM returnees on the deterring side of the field, upperclassmen Kamryn Chappell and Catey Hunt, highlight arguably the greatest strength of the roster preceding the season’s first touch as contributors who only allowed 11 scores all semester over the spring, while giving their attacking teammates a chance to outshoot their opponents by a margin of 70 on their way to a third-place finish in the conference’s final standings.
“We always say the returning group is the biggest piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and our back four in exhibition play has been outstanding thus far. There’s no doubt that our defense will be a key part of the team’s identity this year, especially when you factor in brand new players like Parker Gelinas, who has stepped up in a big way as a starter to help the team gel even more on that side of the field”.
Behind the litany of capable ball-stoppers defensively and one of the conference’s most highly-touted goalies in Myers (a player responsible for 30 wins next to 17 shutouts over four seasons), UTM’s imposing stamina and mettle on D will enable them to stay competitive no matter the quality of opponent, speaking of a team that relegated four different opponents last spring to a blanked output on the scoreboard. Sophomore Kiarnie Latham and true freshman Hannah Zahn have also played significant roles at both defender and midfield through the team’s trio of scrimmages. Behind Myers in the net this semester sees Courtney Turner and Annie McGraw fill up the spots to complete the three-player positions lineup.
While a grand total of 15 bodies come back for another round this year as the Skyhawks have been predicted to place third in the OVC for the second straight time, sophomore striker Emely van der Vliet brings a load of expectations into her first proper season in Martin as the reigning conference Freshman of the Year. A league-leading seven goals and 40 shots (24 of which were on goal), the Netherlands native becomes the focal point of the Skyhawks’ offensive production behind her 1st team All-OVC accomplishment alongside senior Jill Hildreth and the junior duo of Ryann Mushkin and Sophia Mankowski.
“Scoring multiple goals per game tends to be a transitional period of the preseason into the regular season, and it’s the most difficult piece to fit into that puzzle”, inclined McNamara after van der Vliet and Hildreth synced up for 12 of the team’s 16 scores four months back. “We peaked at the right time last year, so we’ll be looking to sprint out of the gates and make a push in the early portion of the schedule”.
First-time collegiate performers Izzy Patterson, Makayla Robinson, Emma Elliott, and Brooke Kala make up a sizable chunk of the team’s nine new faces this fall, balanced out nicely by the experience factor that players such as Bella Roberts, Skylar Boes, and Jill’s twin sister Jaden Hildreth bring to the pitch. Megan Drake, Kira Wells, Lynnette Hawkins, and 2020-21’s leading assist accumulator Hendrikje Baurmann have battled through injuries in the buildup to Thursday’s opener.
“We’ve spoken to the players a lot already about progression as the season gets older. How can we improve day-by-day, game-by-game, and week-by-week? We closed last season nicely after a bit of a tough time getting out of the blocks, but feel like we have a great chance of staying in the mix in the OVC all season thanks to who we’ve brought back into the fold next to a handful of promising new players”.
Following a 6-4-1 final mark and an appearance in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinal round back in April, the Skyhawks emerge from their three scrimmages versus Memphis, Western Kentucky, and Arkansas State preparing to meet third-year program SIU in their own backyard on Thursday. Three straight road outings make up for the first half of UTM’s non-conference journey, beginning with a trip to Little Rock before then visiting the Hoosier State to face off with Indiana and Indiana State four days apart.