Freshman Making Plays For Lady'Backs

FAYETTEVILLE -- In the University of Arkansas soccer guide, freshman Sarah Gwisdala of Plano, Texas, is listed as a midfielder and defender.

But 12 games into a surprising season in which Arkansas stands second in the Southeastern Conference West, Gwisdala leads the team in scoring with six goals and 12 points.

Last week the 5-foot-5 new forward became just the third Lady Razorback to earn SEC Offensive Athlete of the Week honors, following in the footsteps of Brittany Burns (1996) and Julie Williford (2003).

First-year UA coach Gordon Henderson must have known something about Gwisdala, because he said in the media guide, "Sarah has great natural athletic ability and a tremendous work ethic; she'll certainly be one to watch."

Both Vanderbilt and Kentucky watched Gwisdala, all right. Her goal in the 84th minute against Vandy was the game-winner in a 2-1 Arkansas victory, and her goal against Kentucky enabled the Lady'Backs to get a 1-1 draw.

"Sarah's award was well-earned," Henderson said. "She has been developing as a player in the last few weeks, and I think she had a breakout weekend against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. She looked composed, held on to the ball well and created well."

Arkansas got another SEC win last weekend, edging Mississippi State 2-1 in overtime, before falling 3-0 to Ole Miss. The Lady'Backs, 6-5-1 overall, are 2-1-1 in the SEC West, a game behind leader Auburn (3-0-1).

The whole season has been a pleasant surprise for Gwisdala, who figured to have to wait her turn.

"I was expecting to just get a little playing time this season," she said.

But her versatility caught Henderson's eye.

"She has already played in the back, too, and up top," Henderson said. "She has strong technical abilities and reads the game well. That has enabled her to get her feet wet and see more minutes."

Gwisdala has also been able to handle the increased physicality of SEC play.

"We're in at least as good a shape as the other teams," she said. "I think we last longer. Kentucky was subbing a whole team against us, but I think we held our own in fitness."

Gwisdala added that Henderson's style of play "enables us to play more as a unit and not lose flow."

From Day 1 at Arkansas, Henderson has stressed team chemistry and creating a "culture of success."

Thus when Gwisdala won her SEC award, Henderson said, "I think Sarah would be the first to raise her hand, realize this is a reflection of what our team has done and say, 'This one is for the team.'"

Arkansas sophomore goalkeeper Carrie Dillsaver, who leads the SEC in saves, underscored what Henderson said.

"We have made it a priority to do things together off the field this season, and I think that bonding has helped us on the field," Dillsaver said.

The team thing is right up Gwisdala's alley. Her Plano West teams made the state semifinals and won regional, area and bi-district championships. She also played for the Dallas Texans '86 club team that ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2004.

Besides making All-State and All-Region in soccer and earning a state Co-MVP award, Gwisdala was in National Honor Society and National Charity League, and was student congress president.

No wonder Henderson recognized her leadership potential and put her in the UA lineup early.

It's been a charmed time for the Lady'Backs, who weren't projected to finish high this season.

"We're in a great place to be -- underdogs in every game," Henderson said. "Other teams expect to do well against us, and that can put pressure on them as the games go along and we're staying with them."

Although Gwisdala did not score last weekend, she could still be the first freshman to lead Arkansas in scoring since Amy VanLaecke had 12 goals and 12 assists for 36 points in 1993.

The Lady'Backs have seven matches remaining, plus the SEC Tournament, assuming they qualify.

Gwisdala is a bit nicked up at the moment, as are three of her teammates. Gwisdala sat out Tuesday's practice with a pulled quadriceps, while Megan McCool missed with an inflamed hip, Meredith Thompson rested with shin splints and Carmen Davis missed with an inflamed knee.

Henderson hopes to have all four for Arkansas' road match at No. 7 Tennessee on Friday.

"Just so we don't get food poisoning again," Henderson said. "Seven of our girls got that before the Vanderbilt game."

Gwisdala would settle for a healthy quadriceps, a win and maybe another goal or two.

She won the media over when, after her first-ever press conference, she said, "Thank you, guys."

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