Rebuilding Tradition – With Intensity and Energy

VandyMania takes a look inside one of Vanderbilt's most successful athletic programs: Women's Soccer. The team had a down season last year but optimism is high.

If I asked 20 Vanderbilt fans which athletic program at Vanderbilt was the most successful what do you think the answer would be? Men's Basketball? Women's Basketball? Tennis?

The answer is Women's Soccer, the oldest soccer program in the SEC. In the 90's, the women's soccer team won two SEC Championships, won the SEC East twice and was consistently ranked in the top 20. They made the NCAA tournament from 1994-98, Won 2 SEC Tournaments, finished second twice, and compiled an overall record of 120-68-4. Only one SEC opponent, Florida, has a career winning record against Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt's overall SEC record is an impressive 61-24-2.

At the end of the 1998-99 season, long time coach Ken McDonald stepped down as head coach and Robbie Church took over. At the conclusion of the 2000-01 season, he left Vanderbilt to take the same position at Duke. Then, in came current Head Coach Ronnie Hill from College of Charleston.

Coach Hill played her collegiate soccer at Duke and understands the difficulty of playing a sport on the highest collegiate level while having to balance the rigors of a tough academic environment. At Duke she received the first scholarship ever awarded to a female soccer player, earned All-ACC academic awards, was a captain, and is the career record holder for lowest goals against average in the school's history. She was an assistant coach at Duke, UNC-Charlotte and North Carolina State, and still works on the U.S. Olympic development staff for region III.

The office of Coach Hill has no windows, and has many soccer momentoes and items on available tabletops. Sadly, the SEC championship trophies that the soccer team has captured are displayed in her office rather than in a trophy case down in the lobby of McGugin where everyone could see them. To Coach Hill, it just does not matter. She is enthused and ready to work for more glory, and is not bashful in declaring her goal of getting Vanderbilt a National Championship in Women's Soccer. In fact I say she'd like to create a powerhouse here, and seems to have the energy and desire to do it.

Sitting in Coach Hill's office seeing the way she deals with her players and responsibilities, it is almost without question that Vanderbilt's Women's Soccer program will regain its former glory and likely a whole lot more. I called her to set up an interview and when I finally made it over to McGugin, she was still with three of her players, Senior Marissa O'Leary, Junior Kendra Sasa, and Junior Michelle Bruntlett. Clearly there was a connection between the coach and her players and they seemed very in tune with the tasks before them in the upcoming season. These ladies were also wonderful people and in the few minutes I got to spend with them, they were articulate, funny, and clearly focused on school and the upcoming season. Coach Hill is obviously proud of the players she has on her team-- that could be observed without any comment.

Sitting there, you could not miss the fact that Coach Hill is a hard worker. The summer recruiting period had just begun and here phone rang off the hook. The day before she told me about how she had been on the phone all day calling recruits. When I inquired about the recruiting process (being somewhat ignorant of the whole process a coach has to go through on this level), she opened a full file drawer of prospective recruits. All organized in an order of most important recruits (immediate impact players) to those players who would be borderline, or were unknown. Not an easy task for anyone to have to evaluate that many people. In fairness, when I started asking her about recruiting she does, she quickly stopped me and made it clear that it is a team effort with her assistants. Jarett Smith and Eric Vaughter are part of the team and they do as much as she does in the recruiting process.  Assistants play key roles in coaching and developing the players who come to Vanderbilt. I did get to meet Smith, who was getting ready to leave on a scouting trip to see a player from Columbia play in some games in the Washington DC area. Vaughter was out of town, running a national goalkeeping event in Wilmington NC.

Recruiting is certainly a hot and heavy topic regardless of the sport, and women's soccer is no different. This is Coach Hill's first full recruiting season. She was hired very late in the process last year and had to focus on the upcoming season. This year the entire staff has been working diligently at finding the right players to bring to Vanderbilt, and she will not be denied. It may take a few years to get the top recruits on a consistent basis, but Hill believes she can get any player to come here and be successful. It is that positive attitude and self-assurance that gives you the impression that she knows exactly what she is doing and how this group of players and coaches will have Vanderbilt at the top of the soccer world in the near future.

The other major recruiting tool that Coach Hill now has at her disposal is the new facilities. Looking out through the fishbowl (a meeting room on the backside of McGugin), the whole stadium looks wonderful-- the grass is growing, and it looks as though construction crews are getting close to erecting bench seating. Having this facility will make Vanderbilt a top school for soccer. Coach Hill says this will be one of the best facilities in the Southeast. In her eyes, Vanderbilt is already attractive because of the academics; add the facilities, and she is obviously excited about upcoming seasons.

We then talked about the past season and what the upcoming season will hold for VU fans. Last year the team was hit hard by injuries. The team began the season with seventeen players. Two key players, Jen Talavera and Kendra Sasa, were lost to ACL injuries, and Laura Hershenow was lost for most of the season with an ankle injury. More injuries reduced the team to 11 or 12 players, and Coach Hill was forced to conduct a school-wide tryout to find a walk-on or two for substitutions. She even had to encourage a lacrosse player to add one more player to her roster. That depleted team finished 7-11.  However, seven games were lost by one goal, and considering the team played without its leading scorer, it was a season where there were definitely reasons for optimism for the future.

The spring season was much different. Although the spring does not count for anything (all games are really considered scrimmages), the team, then healthy, finished 5-1-1. A sign of things to come.

Looking ahead to the fall, we began talking about players to watch. As we went through the media guide, Coach Hill said she needs every player to contribute for a successful season. Key players to watch are midfielder Michelle Brunlett, from Pensacola, Fla.; two-time captain and midfielder Kat Carroll from Brentwood; Laura Hershenow, a forward from Littleton Col.; Kelly Kulsrud, center back from Carmel, Ind.; all-SEC midfielder Jennifer Lewis from Birmingham; defender Kendra Sasa from White Ridge, Col.; and forward Jen Talavera from Kenner, La.

Coach Hill also said to expect outstanding goalkeeping by a trio of juniors including Stacee Sproul, Lauren Whitt and Esther Thompson, a transfer from Texas A&M. (At this point, I apologize for omitting any particular players because, according to Coach Hill, everyone deserves mention, but I didn't take the best of notes because I was listening to what she saying and trying to learn as much as possible.)  Incoming freshmen are also expected to contribute on the field very quickly and they should add much needed depth for substitutions.

The team's strength should be at the defensive end and in the midfield. They run 3-5-2 set (3 defensive backs, 5 midfielders, and 2 strikers), and work hard to stifle opponents. It is a scheme that allows for the team to turn solid defensive plays into offensive opportunities quickly.

Of the competition Vanderbilt will face this year, Coach Hill began with the SEC. I quickly learned that the SEC is one of the premier women's soccer conferences in the country (easily top 5 if not 3).  Other traditional powers such as Marquette, Texas, SMU, and Southern Cal are on the schedule, and this season looks very tough. Coach Hill has set expectations high and believes this team will once again be competing for a top conference spot and an NCAA berth.

Practices start August 14.  The team is headed off to a practice facility in Horn's Creek for team building skills, conditioning, and a bit of fun. While there the team will bond, work on many physical conditioning aspects, including some rope courses, and enjoy a white water rafting adventure. The first game is Sunday, Sept. 1, at the new stadium. I plan on being there to cheer this team on and to report for VandyMania as often as I can.

Coach Hill spoke about why she came to Vandy and what she thought of it here. She feels that the dedication of the athletic department to winning national championships was a key. Coach Hill has become a good friend with Women's Golf Coach Martha Freitag, and they along with the other coaches are confident that team championships will soon arrive at Vanderbilt. Coach Hill is a positive, energetic person who gladly gave me the better part of an afternoon sharing her knowledge and love of the game. This is a team that will be making noise in the near future. Vanderbilt fans, get on board now and watch this team just get better.

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