"It is very important that a goalkeeper has good communication skills and understands defensive concepts well. They have to be quick, agile, have good hand-eye coordination and very aggressive off their line. A goalkeeper without aggression is not a good goalkeeper, so we certainly look for a player with a great deal of aggression."
What do you look for in the Defender position?
"Again, defenders need to understand defensive concepts. They need to be physical and tough because they are going to be put into situations where there are one-on-one physical challenges. We look for strong and fast, so that other players can't get behind them and get shots against us. But, we also look for players that have good foot skills who, once we win the ball, distribute it to our offensive players."
What about Midfielders? Are they a combination of Defenders and Forwards?
"Yes, they really are. If you are a quality midfielder, you are a really great overall soccer player, because you have to defend and be on the offensive side of the ball. They are probably the hardest working group on the field because they have to cover so much ground and they don't really get much chance to rest. They have to be very good with the ball, have good field vision and have to understand, positionally, where they need to be both in helping the offense and the defense."
What about the Forwards and Strikers?
"Forwards and strikers are the same position, just named differently. In order to be a Forward, you have to be aggressive because you are going to be diving in and around the ball where there are a lot of players that are trying to prevent you from scoring. You have to be a little bit greedy in order to get into positions to score goals. You also have to be quick and have good foot skills."
Have many Defenders, Midfielders and Forwards do you start in a game?
"In our system, we have 11 players start a match, one goalkeeper, 4 defenders, 3 midfielders and 3 forwards. That is a 4-3-3 system. You can also play a 4-4-2 where you have 4 midfielders. Or you can play a 3-5-2, which is a 3 defender set with 5 midfielders and 2 forwards. It varies depending on what your personnel allows."
Switching over to your personnel, what players did you lose that were major contributors this past season?
"We lost Luisa Marzotto, who was a Freshman All-American goalkeeper. She decided not to return to school due to academic reasons. That was an unfortunate situation for us, but being student-athletes, we require them to be as motivated in the classroom as they are on the field. And Luisa wasn't that, so we lost her.
"(Senior) Elke D'Hollander was a Belgium internationalist who was the central part of our midfield and was really the engine of our team. She graduated in four years, so she is gone.
"Other players we lost were Kristen Benefield, who was a right-side defender and was a player who was one of the unsung heroes of our defense. She wasn't a tremendous talker or a loud personality but she was certainly a role model for the (other) girls. She worked very hard and we will really miss her. Other seniors played part roles coming off the bench."
There was something I noticed when looking at your stats. One player that is returning next year scored a lot of goals for you, but she rarely started.
"Betty Ann Casey is the one you are speaking of. Because of the substitution rules, once you come off the field you can't re-enter, so you have to manipulate which players are going to start and not start. A lot of decisions that were made with Betty in mind were based on (the fact that) when you put a striker like her on the field and then take her off the field, the next person you are putting in may not be as athletic or as fast. It is easier for a defensive unit to go from defending a faster player to defending a slower player as opposed to a slower player to a faster player. Betty was a player who surprised people with her athleticism, so that was more of a tactical decision. Betty scored a lot of goals because defenses weren't ready for her and couldn't increase their speed of play."
Who are some other players that are returning that you expect to play major roles next year?
"In terms of other returners, our backline - our four defenders - is almost completely intact. We lost Kristen Benefield but she will be replaced by Sara Moore, a freshman who started almost every game last year. Others back include Karen Sandrik, a senior who plays at left back. Morgan McDonald is a senior and Heather Ammann is a junior. All three of those young ladies are fantastic players. So, that will be a very experienced, very strong defensive unit.
"In the midfield, we are going to change our structure somewhat, so people will be playing in different positions. Kristin Peterson, who is a senior, will start in the midfield, as will April Berry, another senior. They competed for us when we won the Western Division, so they are very experienced and have played in big games. Heidi Ondra will play in the midfield. She was a striker when she got her, but we are going to change her into a midfielder because her game is more suited to that position. Some of our recruits will also factor in.
"In terms of forwards, we have Allison Mullen, a junior college All-American who will play up front for us, along with Ngum Suh, a senior from Oregon who will play up front after playing midfield last season. We also have Betty Ann Casey. And there are a few others. Sheri Toler is a player that walked on and has done very well for us."
Getting into the class you signed, it really looked like you keyed on offense more than defense due to you signing so many forwards this recruiting season.
"Last year, we were very, very good defensively, one of the best defensive units in the SEC as well as, possibly, in the nation. Nebraska, arguably one of the best teams in the country, found it very hard to break us down, as did Florida. So, some of the best teams in the country struggled to break us down on the defensive end. We were very strong there, so I didn't feel like we needed as much there. (Because of that) we focused more on the offensive side of the ball.
"(However) some of the players we signed have played defense. Jessica Davis, who is a forward, has played defense. Jennifer Turpin, who is a forward/midfielder, also played some defense on her club. So, we have options.
Going down your list of signees, Brandi Parker was Mississippi's Gatorade Player of the Year. What did you like about her?
"There are several things about her. Strictly as a soccer player, she is, arguably, the best player to ever come out of the state of Mississippi. She is the leading goal scorer of all time in the state. The Olympic Development Program in the state of Mississippi is very good and continues to get better. There is a thing called the regional team, which is the top 11 to 18 players in the 14 states that are in this region. Brandi was one of the starters on that team, which is just below the national team level. And I believe she has the ability to play on the national team. She is incredibly fast, incredibly tenacious and a very, very good goal scorer. It is very difficult to find a player like that. She was recruited, as I have been led to believe, by every school in the country. But, she wanted to stay at home."
What did you like about Treena Ferguson?
"The bottom line for this class is they are all very much blue collar work ethic kids. They have tremendous character, tremendous work ethic on the field. Treena Ferguson is definitely in that mold. She is a natural goal scorer. She is a very, very powerful young lady who has a tremendous shot."
Losing Luisa Marzotto obviously caused finding a Goalkeeper a top priority. Talk about Stephanie Dallas.
"Stephanie Dallas, like Brandi Parker, played at the high regional level. Although she didn't make the regional team, she was a part of the regional pool. She comes from a very good soccer background in Georgia and has competed against a lot of great players. She is very composed and a very good communicator. She is aggressive off her line. She has all the intangibles that we look for. I think, as a freshman, you have to have those.
"We also have another player who is a field player that is going to move to goalkeeper, Emily Meyers from Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi."
Another signee that you seem to be very high on is Jessica Davis.
"Jessica comes from a team that is called the Dallas Texans. They were, arguably, the best team in the country last year. She played forward for them as well as some defense. Almost all of the Dallas Texans went on to play high level Division-I soccer. They are incredibly well-coached. (Jessica) leads the line well, which means she really understands her movement up top as a forward. She is a good goal scorer and has good athleticism. More importantly than that, she never stops working and communicating on the field."
Amy Beckwith is another Forward that you signed.
"Amy Beckwith is a player that we have known about through (our) camp. She played at Pillow Academy. She is a very, very good athlete. In fact, she is in a very similar mold to Brandi Parker in terms of her athleticism. It is going to take some time to mold her into the player that we hope she will become but she has the talent to do that. She is a point guard on their team, so, because of her quickness, she will be able to be a threat as she learns more about the game."
What about Jennifer Turpin and Kevyn Shelledy?
"(Jennifer) is a utility player who can play a number of positions. Both she and Kevyn Shelledy come from the Texas Challenge, which is, again, one of the best clubs in the country. It always produces very, very good Division-I talent. She is 5-11 and very athletic, very fast over a distance. She has great endurance and gets up and down the field well. Players from top teams that have played at a very high level are very strong-willed people and will not be affected by things. That is why it is very good for us to get into these top teams."
Based on what you have seen from each of your signees, which ones do you see as coming in and making an immediate impact?
"I think all of them can. I think the player that is least likely to come in and make an impact as a starter is Amy Beckwith, not because she doesn't have the potential but because she has not played at a high enough level of soccer on a consistent basis to understand the system that we will put in place. Brandi Parker, Jessica Davis, as forwards, have all of the ability to come in and start. Jennifer Turpin, Kevyn Shelledy and Treena Ferguson can do the same. Because of their willingness to win and their work ethic, they can compete against our (current players). My bottom line is I never sign a player that I think is going to sit on the bench. Soccer is an up-and-coming sport and continues to get stronger and stronger. So, if we continue to sign better classes, the freshmen coming in should have the potential to start. Now, it might not work out that way, but 6 of these 7 girls truly have the ability and experience to come in and start and beat out our current players."
I noticed that you have almost 30 girls on your roster but only have 12 scholarships. That's very similar to baseball and a few of the other sports. How does the limit in scholarships effect you?
"Next year, we will have between 22 and 24 girls. That's about 50% (scholarship money) each. Some girls get more money than others. While we don't have the advantage of the Hope Scholarship like other stats have, we do have the out-of-state tuition waiver if (a player) has a certain ACT or SAT score. We are very fortunate that women's soccer players, as a general rule, are very academic and a lot of them qualify for academic scholarships. The ACT requirement is 26 and the SAT is 1170. And you have to maintain a certain GPA while you are at State. I would say that 40 to 50% of our girls the last four years have had ACT/SAT waivers and that helps tremendously because it offset costs. If you add in the waiver, that takes our scholarships from 12 to 16."
How can MSU fans who want to contact you about a soccer player do that? And, are there other ways they can help you in recruiting?
"A lot of people email me telling me about players. I really appreciate that. We don't always sign them, but we certainly will not leave any stone uncovered. We look at every recruit that we are told about. We contact the high school coaches and club coaches and other people that we know in the area. We actually have just done that with a couple of sophomore that would have otherwise not be known to us.
"Coming to the games is another way they can help us. The bigger our fanbase is, the more excitement we have. Then, when the recruits come in and look at the school and look at the team, they not only see a good product on the field, but they see that excitement that they want to be a part of."
Do you have specific states that you recruit such as Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee? I ask that because most of your players are from those three states.
"The way recruiting works is we go to major tournaments around the country because we can see 100 to 200 teams in a weekend rather than going to high school games where you will just see 22 players. We go to Texas, Florida, Georgia, the midwest and the west coast. We then contact the young ladies after we see them. If they show interest in us, we show interest back. We've had players as far away as Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Because we have become a well-respected program, we are now in a position where we can nationally recruit and internationally recruit because my assistant coach and I are from Europe. When I first got here, we were 237th in the country out of 259 teams and we hadn't won very many games, so it was very difficult to recruit."
What periods during the year are you allowed to go to tournaments and recruit?
"We don't have a recruiting calendar; we can recruit all year long. So, we can go to as many as we want to. My assistant coaches travel during the season. I won't travel during the season unless it is a special case."
You mentioned that the MSU program was ranked 237th when you first got here. Where are you rated now?
"I think we have moved to 76th. We are still playing freshmen but I think it will be better this year because we are going to have more upper classmen playing. That will help us because we have won big games and have proven that we can compete on a nationally level."
What have you seen, first-hand, that proves to you that your program has progressed?
"The improvement from when we started is unbelievable, it really is. Our strength of schedule is one of the hardest in the country, whereas, when I got here, it was one of the easiest. And we were losing with that schedule. We have gone from 8-11 to 13-8, then had a very poor year of 6-13 due to bad team chemistry, then, this year, we were 9-8-3 against a very, very hard schedule. The 2004 schedule will be, without question, the hardest schedule that Mississippi State has ever played. Tentatively, we are scheduled to play North Carolina, which is the No. 1 team in the nation. They have won 17 national championships and nobody wants to play them, but we have decided that we want to try. We are also playing the University of Southern California, Milwaukee-Wisconsin and St. Louis, all of whom are in the top 100. Then, we play all 11 teams in the SEC."
What location are you playing the non-conference teams, home or away?
"We are playing the (USC) Trojans and North Carolina at the University of Tennessee. We are playing St. Louis and Milwaukee-Wisconsin at the University of Kansas."
Won't it hurt your chances to make the NCAA Tournament if you play those teams and wind up having a losing record?
" ure, we are going to take our knocks, but, over time, I think it is the best way to build a strong program. It has really hurt us in the past (to play a soft schedule) because when we won the Western Division we were 13-8 and didn't make the NCAA Tournament due to not playing a strong enough schedule. Strength of Schedule is a major component to making the tournament, so it is very important that we play a non-conference schedule that is tough.
"Plus, as we continue to grow, the top recruits are more likely to consider us if we are playing against top teams. We have to show them we can compete against the top teams in the country. If we aren't playing against top quality opposition, they are just not going to come to Starkville to play."
Earlier, you mentioned the Olympic Development Program in Mississippi. What exactly is that program?
"There is an Olympic Development Program, the ODP, in every state. I am the head coach of the Youth 19 regional team, which is a combination of the best players in 11 states. I take those players to a national camp. At a grass route level, all of my coaches work as assistant coaches for the Olympic Development Program. Every second Sunday, we go to Jackson, or wherever it may be, and work with the so-called better players in the state of Mississippi to try and enhance the grass routes level of play. A lot of college coaches do that. Our goal is to develop soccer in the state of Mississippi so we can then have in-state talent."
A lot of the summer camps such as football are more about recruiting and less about teaching. Are soccer camps the same way?
"Our camps are pretty much hands on. We try to (teach) them as much as possible because it's not just a recruiting event; it is more a time where they can come and experience what soccer can be and how much fun it is. We've had nothing but rave reviews from our camps."
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.