"First off, we have been recruiting the right type kids, ones that are committed to playing soccer and it's a priority for them. Obviously, it's a big time commitment to ask them to be here a month before the season starts. They all took six hours of academic classes and they also took the weight and conditioning class.
"From day one, it was an issue for us that kids we recruited had soccer as a priority. I felt early on that there were a lot of kids that had soccer pretty far down their list of priorities. But now we had an enthusiastic group that is passionate about what they do. And I think that will help our program a great deal.
"And, hopefully, by being in early they should be in a certain level of fitness which will be good for injury prevention when two-a-days comes along."
Looking at your roster, you seem to have a really good mix of veterans and youngsters. Talk about the senior class first.
"I think our senior class is an excellent group, although a small class of four. Stephanie Dallas is a returning captain. Kevyn Shelledy is also a captain. Jessica Davis and Treena Ferguson are the other two seniors.
"While they weren't completely my signing class, they were part of the first year that I took over the program. That year, we went to the SEC Tournament, we were second in the West and fifth overall in the league. This senior class knows what it takes to get there, to do it. Hopefully, they have the tools and leadership, something that we have been lacking the last couple of years, to drive the unit forward and take us back to the SEC Tournament.
"Treena is our top goal-scorer returning from last year. Kevyn has started at center of midfield for us her entire career. Stephanie, as a freshman, split time and has slowly built up her minutes as a goal-keeper. And Jessica - JD we call her - is a versatile player that can play a number of different positions. She will be a striker with Treena this year."
You have a junior class of six kids.
"There is a lot of quality in that group. And they've all played a lot of minutes. I would say the major standout in that class is Mariclaire Fancher from Greenwood. She has been a rock in the midfield for us. And she is extremely passionate about the game and a very physical player who loves contact. She is really well-known in the SEC because of the physical presence that she brings to the center of the park. She'll be a junior captain this year.
"Bethany Frazier is another Mississippi kid who is a very, very highly rated left back. She was an All-SEC Freshman selection. She is a defensive player who can attack.
"Meredith Jacobson, from Tomball, TX, has tons of experience. I expect her, along with Hannah Tyler, to lead the center back positions this coming season."
Who are the standouts among your sophomore class?
"Sophomore-wise, there are a lot of kids who will contribute.
"Katie Lynn Harden is probably our strongest returner. She has played in the center of the midfield for us. She can control the field and tempo of the game because she's one of those players who has the ability to put her foot on the ball and distribute it very well.
"Hannah Tyler is another Mississippi kid who saw minutes up top as well in the back. She will be an anchor for us on defense this year. She is very quick, very athletic and has a lot of experience because she's been high up in the Olympic Development Program.
"Ashlee Drake, who is from Iowa, is probably the most creative player that we have on our roster. She has great vision and good passing ability. But she's been dogged with injuries since she's been here. We are hoping she will be 100% this year because she is the type player that we really need. We definitely missed her last year. Plus, she is a fantastic student-athlete, a 4.0 student who is a double major. She is the complete package."
Who are the standouts among your incoming freshman class?
"Danielle Kite, who has English National Team experience, is obviously a player that we are going to look to to come in and make an immediate impact as a freshman. She has been at national camps with England and has representated them at different age group levels. She has the versatility to play a number of different roles for us.
"Another standout is Leanna Baldner from Meridian, MS. She is one of those very physical type players who is very, very aggressive and good on the ball. She will win a lot of balls on the center of the park for us this year and dominate a lot of teams with her physical presence."
What's your schedule like this year?
"We always try to play a tough non-conference schedule. There are two ways to look at it; you can cushion it, but not be prepared for the Southeastern Conference or you can play a tough non-conference schedule and, hopefully, be prepared for the SEC. Due to that, we play a very competitive schedule."
Who are some of the non-conference teams that stand out?
"We open with Kennesaw State (13-2-2 in 2006) at a tournament in Birmingham. They are a renowned team located in Atlanta, Georgia. We also play Middle Tennessee State (17-4 in 2006), a team that always has a large contingent of international players on their roster, so they are always a tough team to play. Rice (11-6-1 in 2006), from Conference USA, will come here. Central Florida (11-6-2 in 2006) always has a very good woman's program. We also have North Florida (11-6-2 in 2006) coming in as well. And Memphis (11-6-3 in 2006) also has a very good program which has a large contingent of international players. I think we will play a very tough non-conference schedule."
You seem to have a good mixture of veterans and young kids. Would you say your program is about where you hoped it would be as far as getting the right mix of kids in that will allow you to be competitive in the SEC?
"Yes, I think we are getting there. We are at a point now where we have good, consistent groups - freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. We hope to never have to take a massive recruiting class again. That is important if you want to be consistent."
Now that you have your type players in your program, will your team's style of play change?
"We used to be a very, very defensive team. Now we try to play attractive, attacking soccer. So, we've changed the mentality from being defensive to attacking."
Ten of your twenty-four kids are from Mississippi. It appears that the talent in Mississippi is pretty good now.
"Absolutely. I work very closely with the Olympic Development Program in the state. And they've had a banner year this year, both boys and girls. Both have been recognized regionally and nationally. So yes, the soccer in this state is improving.
"Obviously, we have a core of Mississippi kids who have come through the ranks and competed at the club level very well on a regional basis. When they are coming through and they are your own, I think we have a responsibility to recruit them. We want to keep the best and brightest in the state, so that has always been a focus for us."
You mentioned that a couple of the teams that you are playing have a number of international players. Is recruiting more international players something that you may do more of in the future?
"That is something that we are working on, but it's not easy to do. Obviously, we have Treena Ferguson from Canada and we will have Danielle come in this year. And we are looking to bring in another English international in 2008. We are always looking to build ties with other countries. We've even done some work with Chinese players as well."
What is your long range recruiting plan?
"My main thing is if there are kids in this state that are good enough to play for us, then we will recruit them. They are getting stronger in this state all the time. And we are pretty much on the pulse of what is happening in the state of Mississippi. We will focus our recruiting in the southeast. But we will continue to try and create a mix of in-state talent with out-of-state and international. I think the internationals brings something very different to the table. So, if we can bring in one international every year we will be doing very well."
How are international players different from players in the United State?
"They probably have a deeper understanding of how the game works tactically. Usually, their technical ability is a little bit stronger as well; technique, ability on the ball, finishing, passing. They probably understand the little nuances of the game a little better because they have watched the game at a higher level since they were little kids. Whereas, in America that is still in its development."
As far as recruiting is concerned, how do you locate and recruit players?
"We go to what we call large club events. Those kids are at a certain level of commitment. Their parents are probably paying for them to get a proper coach on a team that travels and competes with other teams from other states. Due to that, we focus on club tournaments year round. That is where we are going to see top level players competing against each other.
"And the Olympic Development Program is an avenue we look at to identify talent."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.