Heading home for the Summer after a long, and in some ways draining, spring season can be a very rewarding prospect; however it was inevitable that things would feel a little different this time around.
Exams are finally over and you can start to breathe again, but at the same time it’s a daunting prospect when graduation is on the horizon and we were set to lose eight of our starting eleven players. Not only were we losing incredible and integral players on our team, but some of our closest friends, leaders and characters. They’ve had a massive impact on the culture and connection of the program, not to mention the foundations they laid to help build a successful team; one that has managed to capture four consecutive conference regular season titles, four conference championships and four straight NCAA tournament appearances.
You start to wonder…how do we rebuild from here?
It’s easy to let the fear of the unknown creep in, but this is where you have to take a step back and put faith in your coach and the players around you. Change surrounds the nature of being a student athlete and you always have to be prepared for the next challenge as things develop in such a short space of time, and before you know it, you’re heading into your last year when it only feels like yesterday since you started.
With this being said summer was an opportunity to train hard (mostly by myself), look forward to the new season and getting myself in good shape to come back and hit the ground running. There were certainly days where running was becoming tiresome, all you really want to do is get back into the flows of playing and having a ball at your feet, but that’s where you have to remind yourself of the bigger picture.
Going into the last month of summer, things were feeling vastly more real and the countdown had begun. Connections were being established as we signed fifteen new players coming into the new season, from an array of different countries and places. Therefore, all hands were on deck heading back to the States at the end of July, as we had to get these players settled and be ready for when the alarm clock struck 5am. The first week back was an intense and busy period as the day starts off with an early morning conditioning session followed by strength and resistance work in the weight room. A shock to the body to begin with; but you slowly become accustomed to the routine of sleep, eat, train, repeat.
After two weeks of physical exertion and getting back into the swing of things we jumped into two sessions a day which would undoubtedly bring about more aches and pains. But this is where the real work started, becoming more tactical and technical, adjusting to a new formation that we adopted in our spring season (5-3-2).
Going from a 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2, we knew coming in that it will take some time to adopt a completely different style of play. As well as getting the new players on board with something they may not necessarily be used to, but with the talent we recruited it is easy to see just how dangerous this formation can be when it’s at its best. It focuses heavily on team unity, everyone working on the same page; which is why we spent a lot of time in the first week embarking on various team bonding activities, as in the long run it will play a crucial role to the effectiveness of the formation.
On top of this, it is predominantly based around quick transitions and counters, getting the ball up the field in the quickest time possible, exploiting teams and creating attacking opportunities with supporting options. Therefore we have spent a lot of time in recent weeks working on defensive shape, defending and pressing from the front as well as incorporating an array technical passing drills.
After two weeks of intense training, we were just about ready to play someone who wasn’t wearing the same jersey as us. However, in an unfortunate turn of events we were rocked by a storm in that last week and after five minutes of playing or first pre-season match, the game was cancelled due to excessive thunder and lightning (South Carolina weather at its best) and onto the next training session we went.
Luckily we didn’t have that long to wait for our second pre-season game where we were playing a regional rival that we had previously lost 1-0 to in our spring season. We started the game quite slow and fell to a relatively soft early goal within the 15th minute, not what we had intended. For the remainder of the first half things remained very scrappy, but we were very much in the game creating chances toward the end of the first half.
We welcomed a stern but optimistic half time team talk from our coach, in which he reaffirmed that we just needed to relax and start doing the simple stuff. With that being said, we came out in the second half looking like a different team, pressing in the early stages and scoring an early goal which got our confidence up. From that point on we began controlling more areas of the field and could feel a second goal within our sight, which eventually came with 10 minutes of regular time left to play, the comeback had been completed!
It certainly felt uplifting to get our first win especially considering it was a close and gritty match up from start to end. We showed resilience and character to come from a goal down which are two very important traits to carry with us going into the start of the season, especially as we begin our season with two extremely tough away fixtures facing off against more regional foes. Although pre-season can often feel like it will never end; all of the early morning get ups, the aches, the pains and the tiredness all become a distant memory as the regular season rolls right around the corner.
This what I’ve been waiting for all summer long and I’m extremely excited to begin our conference title defence in my final year!