Still, when the players assembled at head coach Neil McGuire's house 24 hours prior to officially meeting for preseason drills, they coped with a tragedy in their own way watching a video from Hubert's last game, a memorial to Courtney and Erin shown before their funeral and a highlight tape from last season made by a former player. When it came down to setting goals, McGuire gave them different options of how to remember their fallen teammate as a majority of them fought through tears.
The team chose to remember Courtney in their own way, though. Some players wrote poems while others etched quotes onto rubber band bracelets that each of them will wear this season. But, when it was all said and done, the players decided on one thing - her memory will be honored this season, not because of things they have chosen to do or say to remember her by, but because she will still be on the field with them, playing right behind every one of them. The 12th man.
Although recording just six victories and one tie during the 2002 campaign, the Mississippi State soccer team rebounded in a very successful Spring season. While putting the polish on a complex defensive system, the Bulldogs surrendered just five goals in seven spring games, in addition to shutting their opponent out four times. The offseason also saw the resurgence of a few of State's offensive weapons and gave the team a look of confidence heading into summer conditioning.
"I think that the Spring brought us back to reality and an understanding of what it takes to be an elite level athlete, in terms of discipline, accountability and work ethic," McGuire said. "I think now we have learned that, to be good, we have to be good at all times. So now, our preparation has been better."
Behind the return of 18 letterwinners from the 2002 campaign, Mississippi State will field a wealth of experience for the upcoming season, placed primarily in the hands of its senior class which has seen its share of ups and downs over the last four years. Nine starters and a top 50 recruiting class will also share the headlines of a season that will see the Bulldogs rebuild and reload for a surge back to the SEC Tournament, as well as an initial berth into the NCAA postseason.
"In my fourth year since my arrival here, obviously we are going to start seeing the fruits of our labor from a recruiting perspective," McGuire said. "We have 28 players on our roster and, certainly, this is the deepest we go in terms of talent. It is going to be a long and hard season and we are going to require all of those players to be ready to go at any time."
In the annual poll of the conference coaches, the Maroon and White were tabbed to finish fourth in their division, while obtaining a vote to win the conference outright from one coach. The Bulldogs will face a tough conference schedule, both home and away this year, with a majority of their conference tilts coming on the road. MSU will open its SEC schedule on the road at preseason-No. 14 ranked Tennessee the beginning of four-straight road matches before returning to Starkville to start a four-game homestand with defending SEC champion Auburn. Following State's battle with South Carolina on regional television that will mark the end of the home schedule, MSU will travel to Oxford for its bi-annual Magnolia Cup clash with Mississippi.
"In my mind, this is the strongest that the SEC has ever been," McGuire said. "Every team, from top to bottom, has the ability to beat each other. I think it is important that we take every game seriously because that is the only way that we are going to have an opportunity to be successful."
Mississippi State will see its most challenging non-conference schedule in school history as the Bulldogs hit the road for Big 12 tilts at preseason-No. 12 ranked Nebraska and Iowa State, along with a pair of local rivals in Memphis and Southern Mississippi. The home non-conference slate does not get any easier as the Maroon and White will see the likes of Missouri and South Alabama, as well as Southwest Missouri State, Florida International, Middle Tennessee and Jacksonville State.
"If we are going to recruit the best athletes, we want to be competitive on a national level," McGuire said. "It is very important that we go out of region to play against the best teams in the country. That will help us attract the better players to come and play for us. So, in order to be good, we have to play the good teams."
Friday night home games will adorn the MSU schedule for the first time as lights were added to the home complex during the offseason to give the Maroons a different atmosphere.
"I think that playing in the evening gives a whole new meaning to games on Friday night," said McGuire. "We are going to be able to play a different style because it won't be as hot or as humid and that will allow us to be a little bit more upbeat, higher tempo and higher pressure. It is going to change the way that we play."
Mississippi State will feature a much taller team this season with the signing of an outstanding recruiting crop that, once again, hit Soccer Buzz's listing as one of the best in the country. The ranking, released in mid-April, marks McGuire's second top 50 recruiting class after a similar one prior to the 2001 season.
Featuring a littering of talent from all across the South, as well as overseas, Mississippi State will showcase 12 new faces on its roster this season. With the exception of Sheri Toler, who played with the Maroon and White during its Spring campaign, all of them will make their Division I debut on opening day against Memphis.
Hailed as possibly State's most athletic team in program lore, McGuire believes his athletes will exhibit a much different look than anyone has even seen in Starkville.
"I think that the easiest way to compete at the major Division I level in women's soccer is to be athletic," McGuire said. "I think that, over the last several years, we have added very athletic young ladies. On top of that, the last two years, we have added players that can really play the game of soccer and are both technically and tactically aware of what they are doing.
"The incoming class is a class of character and are very hardworking, blue collar young ladies. That, added to what we already have, is going to be a defining quality. We have great team chemistry and, hopefully, that will be one of the key aspects of our success."
Although losing two of the most productive scorers in the history of the program in Jessi Moore and Amy Van Zandt, the Spring season, coupled with a very good recruiting season, has the Bulldogs looking very strong at the forward/stiker position.
Betty Ann Casey, one of the Maroon and White's top returning scorers, and junior Ngum Suh, used the Spring season to gauge their play and bring it to a new level. The tandem combined to score five of MSU's nine goals during the offseason and both have had an upbeat work ethic during preseason drills to elevate their game even higher.
Challenging them will be an array of returning faces, as well as newcomers. Shola Gaji and Leslie Nickles have proven themselves on a consistent basis, with Nickles ranking in the top 10 of State's career assists list. Memphis signee Heidi Ondra brings a rare combination of size and speed, while Toler and two-time junior college all-American Allison Mullen will bring an added element of collegiate experience up front as well.
"The players that we have now are vastly different, in terms of style, to Amy and Jessi," McGuire said. "However, they have the ability to be as productive. I think that Ngum Suh, Betty Ann Casey, Shola Gaji and Heidi Ondra all do a wonderful job. They are very talented in their own right. It is really up to them to step up to the plate."
Without a significant loss anywhere on the pitch, the midfielder position, again, looks to be well stocked entering the 2004 campaign. Albeit various position switches during the Spring campaign, all four starters during the 2002 season return for 2003, with key additions that will give the flanks added explosiveness.
In the middle, April Berry and Elke D'Hollander return, as does Kristin Peterson on the outside. The trio combined to start 40 games for the Bulldogs last season and will give the area experience as different combinations are used on a needed basis. Seniors Becca Edwards, Amber Rose and Amber Meesey will also contribute in the area, with Rose and Meesey being used defensively as well.
"We are very talented and we have great depth," said McGuire of his central midfielders. "The good thing about it is that we have not only have depth, but good experience. So, I feel very comfortable with our central midfield."
A majority of the recruiting season was spent on the left and right flank area where McGuire inked some much-needed talent to compliment junior Kristin Peterson and sophomore Meghan Odom. Newcomers Megan Nugent and Sharmaine Samuels will likely be season veterans by midseason because of their speed and awareness, but State can experiment with combinations as well with its speed at the striker position. Tupelo native Kimberly Corbett will bring her experience in as well, with Chelsea Izquierdo battling for playing time after a summer bout with mononucleosis that forced her from preseason drills.
"In Megan Nugent, we have a wonderful right midfielder who has been very successful at the club and Olympic Development level," McGuire said. "Sharmaine Samuels is a forward who will convert to a left midfielder if things go well in preseason. Kristin Peterson is now in her junior year and she has done a wonderful job for us. I think that, to go back to our depth, we are very strong in a lot of positions."
Without a doubt, State's most talented area will be its defense for the upcoming season with a bevy of starters returning and recruiting additions that have made it even stronger. The experience returning, as well as the marking back speed, could give Mississippi State a new look in the back this season.
Morgan McDonald, an honorable mention all-SEC selection and MSU's minutes played leader in 2002, will return to head up a cash crop that could prove to be the missing link to the success of the team. Add starters Heather Ammann, Kristen Benefield and Kristin Peterson to the mix, and MSU has a recipe for defensive success never matched by the program before.
"We have six, and maybe as high as eight players that can start for us in a number of positions, whether it be the ouside back or the central defense," McGuire said. "We are very excited about them because it is going to be a large part of what we do.
"Morgan McDonald, who has been our MVP the past two years, is back as a junior and will be the backbone of what we do this year. She is a tremendous leader and she is a tremendous role model for everyone else."
McDonald and Sandrik were the only two players to start all 20 games last season, while Benefield and Ammann add 30 more starts to the resumé. The recruiting additions of Sara Moore and Susan O'Brien will allow State to move forward with the ball more this year, giving the team more options offensively. Seasoned veteran Emily Meyers and freshman Heidi Frazier can and will push for playing time at the marking back position as well.
The loss of Hubert in May left a huge hole in many fascets of the team and, for the first time since the 2001 season, left State without an experienced netminder. However, McGuire was able to sign both Jill Breland and Luisa Marzotto late in the recruiting season and it has left the Bulldogs very comfortable in that area.
"In their own right, both are very talented and will be a large part of what we do here," said McGuire of Breland and Marzotto. "We are very fortunate that these two young ladies have chosen to join our program at a late stage in the recruiting season. We are very excited about them and I think that they will both give us what we need in that position."
Both Marzotto and Breland have already proven themselves at higher levels. Marzotto has a wealth of experience as the starting goalkeeper for the U-19 Australian junior national team, while Breland nabbed an all-America award as the starting goalkeeper for Hinds Community College last season. Their experience will be sought out immediately to lead the team.
"Courtney Hubert will never be replaced in this program," McGuire said. "I think that the goalkeepers that we have brought in are, certainly, very good goalkeepers and are here to help honor her memory."