Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

One-on-one with Mississippi State head soccer coach Aaron Gordon

Mississippi State head soccer coach Aaron Gordon talks about last season, the upcoming season, fan support, his team's schedule and the new soccer building.

What are your thoughts about the upcoming season?
"We are excited about the upcoming season. I look at it in much the same way as I did last season in that I thought that there was going to be a real bump in how we competed. And that proved to be correct. I had a lot of expectations last year even though we were going to be super young. The class that was going to define us was the 2015 class. And that proved to be correct because we had more wins and more points in the league than in the previous 10 years.

"I felt we played competitive games up until the last game. We needed at least a tie against Auburn and we would have been in a five-team tie-breaker that we would have won and that would have put us into the SEC Tournament. That would have been something that we have not done in over twelve years. Our injury situation probably hurt us in that last game. In our last two game series we had a couple of injuries that hurt us. One of them was Ari Holmes, our big, powerful central defender. She was like having a big middle linebacker for our team. She had an injury the week before and wasn't 100% when we played Auburn.

"I felt like we broke through and became relevant and competitive last season. When we beat Kentucky here last season we started seven freshmen. And that was seven class of 2015 kids. I think that gave our kids and our staff the feeling that we were going to continue to progress because that is the type player that we can recruit now."

And you have a lot of those players returning and some really good ones coming in.
"The year before when we didn't have a chance to recruit anyone we had a few kids who have turned out to be really good. There are nine players in that class and they are now juniors and know their way. Mallory Eubanks, who is one of them and is our team captain, has been called into Youth National Team Camps, which has never been done here. She is a unique talent for our program. And I think she has a chance to be a breakout performer for us this season.

"We also have a couple of players coming in who are going to make an impact for us, just like last year's players did. One of them is MaKayla Waldner, a forward. She is super explosive, an exceptional athlete. She won the 300 hurdles in the 3A in the state of Missouri and her time could have won the 5A. And she finished third in the 100 hurdles after hitting the last hurdle and stumbling. She also finished fourth in the long jump, something that she had never done before. I am super excited about her because I think she is a goal scorer, much along the lines of Elisabeth Sullivan. I think she has that type potential, although I'm not saying that she is the next Elisabeth Sullivan. We also have a girl coming from New Zealand who has experience with U-20 National Team in terms of being invited to camps. I feel she is a very good athlete. Her name is Johanna Hamblett. She is a great kid and great for team chemistry. We also have two really, really talented players in the class who were going to make an impact but won't due to tearing their ACL. One of them is Natalee Heiser. She is fantastic but unfortunately she tore her ACL at the end of her high school season. The other girl is Valentina Duque, a member of the Colombian U-20 National Team. She also tore her ACL. And all of the players in this class are very talented players. And they are adding depth and athleticism to our team. I think all of those kids will push for playing time.

"(Because of those players) my expectations for this year's team is we are going to make another positive step. We are going to be better but I don't know how much. The league continues to get better in terms of transition. No one is in transition this year because there are no new coaches. But I believe, even with the injury situation that we are in, we have a couple of new players in the fold who will help us in a way that makes us better."

How do you feel about your three goal keepers?
"I consider us as having true quality depth at goal keeper. I would put any of our three goal keepers in a game and feel fine. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I would use the analogy that the position is so unique it is like a quarterback in football. You want to feel comfortable that if anything happened to your number one you could put in the next player and maybe they perform at the same level. I think that we are in the position with our goal keepers where that is the case.

"Tanya de Souza was our number 1 goal keeper but there was a point in the season where she got a little fatigued. And Courtney Tompkins, who had been playing well, got her opportunity and played great for us. And Rhylee DeCrane got into some games as well. They are all super competitive in practice and push each other very hard."

What are your thoughts about this year's schedule?
"Soccer, like other sports, is playing the RPI game. But unlike a sport like softball where the conference can carry you, soccer is much different. (The SEC) is not a predominately power conference. You still expect a certain level of RPI, then you have to go find the right games to balance it out. And you are still trying to play teams such as Southern Miss that is an instate rivalry because when you play those games a lot of people show up. South Alabama is another one like that.

"I want us to be competitive. My ultimate goal is not just making our own tournament but to be in the NCAAs. But last year only four teams in our conference made the NCAA. Winning a number of games is important, not having RPIs over 200 is important although sometimes that is out of your control. Last year we went from a 235 to a 125 RPI. That was because of scheduling. We had the right balance of opponents and I think that is what we have done this year. I always try to schedule a top-20 RPI team every year. Last year that was South Florida. They were something like top-15 in the country. This year we are playing Virginia Tech from the ACC."

You mentioned having an RPI of 125 at the end of last season. What do you need to have a chance to get into the NCAA?
"You have to be in the 40s. There are 32 automatic qualifiers and most of those teams fall within that number."

Along with improvement in your team there was also improvement in fan support.
"Tremendously. Fall is a great time for everything. There is newness in the air, everybody wants to get out and do something. We are definitely a product of that environment. We have also worked extremely hard, as a staff, to get out into the community and worked hard with marketing. That is something that I wanted to do, make us more visible in the community. At the same time marketing was going through a transformation with Scott Wetherbee and Leah Beasley in terms of what they were bringing to the table. I think their energy and our energy was the perfect storm.

"Instead of having 700 at a game with a few people on the hill, we now have people tailgating on the hill. We have broken every attendance record and continue to break our own attendance records. I think that is a tribute to our kids and staff getting out but also to marketing. It has been a collaborative effort.

"A positive of that effort is when we bring a recruit in and they see that crowd they say they want to play in front of it."

Speaking of a collaborative effort, you have a new clubhouse being built for soccer. That has to be big in a lot of different ways.
"It is. What it means for us today is the logistics of where we have to go to do things has been cut back dramatically. The trainer's office and my office is in the Hump and they will have to come over here a few times but the new clubhouse is their home in everything that we do, pre-practice, post-practice, film study. Just everything we do can be done over there. That improves everything."

What will the clubhouse have in it?
"It will have their locker room with shower facilities, our equipment room with all of the uniforms and laundry, a training room, a combined lounge and video room and a coaches conference room. It is 3,700 square feet and costs about 1.8 million dollars.

"While the immediate impact of the building is huge for our current players, in recruiting the players that it will impact the most are the class of 2019 players. That is the class that we are recruiting right now. When we bring them in they will see that building. I wanted this facility to be something that a recruit would see and realize the real commitment that Mississippi State University has made to soccer. As they see the Seal Building for football and the softball stadium, the baseball stadium, the Mize Building for basketball, they now will see the soccer building and see the commitment that is being made to soccer."

What else do you feel you lack?
"I would like it so our fans feel like they are closer to us. Right now, due to security and where we are on campus, there is a (tall) fence that goes all the way around the field. Because of that, our fans are a little disconnected due to the distance. I would like to take that fence out and move it up to the parking lot. We would still have security that would keep people from getting out on our field. We would then build a wall on the field level that would be 30 to 40 inches tall. Right now, due to the height of the current fence, people have to sit high on the hill. The lower fence would allow people to see over the wall easier and allow people to fill the grade of the hill all the way to the bottom. That would allow people to be closer to the game."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the website, the source for Mississippi State sports on sports network.

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