August 13, 2013 8:57:46 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- At 5-foot-5, Elisabeth Sullivan easily could have gone unnoticed, but her speed didn't allow it.
Instead of blending in as just another freshman on the 2010 Mississippi State University women's soccer team, Sullivan made her presence felt immediately by scoring a team-high six goals and leading the squad with 17 points.
Sullivan's success made her a marked woman.
As a sophomore, the increased defensive attention could have prevented Sullivan from being a disruptive offensive force, but her shiftiness wouldn't allow it.
Rather than suffering through a second-season lull, Sullivan again paced Bulldogs with 13 points and tied for the team lead with five goals.
If it's possible, Sullivan's name climbed even higher on opponents' evaluations of MSU. Stop Sullivan, the scouting report said, and you stop MSU.
The defensive attention only served to push Sullivan to have her best season in 2012, as she led the team in goals (12) and points (28) and became the program's all-time leading goal scorer.
So how does Sullivan plan on topping all of those accomplishments in her senior season? She doesn't plan on changing anything. She intends to remain a quiet, destructive force that ignores the tugs on her shirts and the hard fouls designed to knock her off her game and make her final year in Starkville one to remember.
"I consider myself to be pretty fast, so that is what I like to do, to take them on," Sullivan said.
Sullivan and MSU enter week two of the Aaron Gordon era looking to come together in preparation for their first test of the season, an exhibition match at 7 p.m. Friday against the University of South Florida at the MSU Soccer Stadium. The game will give Gordon, the former assistant and associate head coach at Texas Tech University, a first true glimpse of his 2013 squad.
Regardless of the look, Sullivan will be counted on to be a focal point. The Memphis, Tenn., native has started all but four games in her MSU career. She enters her senior season with a school-record 23 goals and 58 points in 59 games. She is five points away from breaking the school record for points held by Jessi Moore (62 in 42 games in 2001-02).
"She is amazing," MSU senior defender Morganne Grimes said. "She is probably one of the best players in the history of Mississippi State offensive wise. If we are getting the ball to her feet, the team trusts her enough to know Elisabeth is going and we are all going to be behind her 100 percent."
Sullivan's productivity has remained high despite the fact MSU hasn't had a lot of success in her career. MSU finished a 9-10-1 (2-10-1 in the Southeastern Conference) last season and failed to qualify for the SEC tournament in what turned out to be the final season for Neil Macdonald, who was re-assigned within the athletic department. Macdonald was 58-103-14 in nine seasons as coach. He guided MSU to the SEC tournament only one time -- in 2004 -- and had only two seasons (2004, 2009) in which the team finished at .500 or better. The Bulldogs have won five games in the SEC only one time (2004) in the past nine seasons.
Through it all, Sullivan has led the team in shots on goal each of the past three seasons. Last season, she had double the number of shots on goal (47) than the next closest teammate. With only two other seniors and 10 newcomers, Sullivan knows she will have to shoulder a significant role if MSU wants to reverse its fortunes.
"I think she will score and she is going to continue to get chances to score," Gordon said. "Wherever she plays up front, she is going to be dynamic in that role."
Sullivan's speed is one ingredient to her deadliness. Her ability to have her back to an opponent, to receive the ball, and to turn her defender makes her even more dangerous because defenses likely won't catch her if she gets a step on them.
"She is probably the fastest girl on the team," Grimes said. "Another really tricky thing about Elisabeth is her turns. She has such fluid movement that it is harder to defend because it is so confusing and tricky. I have defended her for three years. I still don't know where she is going."
Grimes said she is glad Sullivan is on her team because it would give her headaches trying to slow her down. Gordon hopes Sullivan can continue to be an offensive force. He has experimented with moving her closer to the goal in an effort to increase her scoring opportunities. It remains to be seen how close Sullivan will be to the goal or how the offense will try to feed her, but she said she likes what she has seen from Gordon and how he is trying to change the culture in the program.
"I am really excited," Sullivan said. "I have never really been this close to the goal as I have been, but I am really excited to see what happens."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.