September 25, 2009 7:50:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Leanna Baldner knows Hannah Tyler doesn''t have a problem being vocal.
In fact, if a poll was taken of the Mississippi State soccer team, Tyler would likely be named the most outgoing player on the squad.
On the other hand, Baldner is a quiet, lead-by-example player or, as she likes to put it, "more relaxed."
Despite their differences in style, Baldner and Tyler have teamed to play integral roles in MSU''s success this season.
"We like to play for each other," Baldner said. "We have each other''s backs, and we are enjoying being in the back together. We complement each other."
Baldner and Tyler will lead MSU into the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference action against Auburn at 7 tonight and against Alabama at 1 p.m. Sunday.
MSU (8-0) enters the weekend as one of six unbeaten and untied teams in Division I. That mark figures to be put to the test as Auburn (3-2-3) is coming off a 0-0 tie with then-No. 1 and defending national champion North Carolina.
MSU has lost seven in a row in the series dating back to a 2-1 overtime win Oct. 12, 2001, in Starkville.
Tyler, a senior from Flowood, and Baldner, a junior from Meridian, have been key components of a defense that has allowed only four goals in seven matches, and has five total shutouts.
"Leanna and Hannah as center backs have been a major key for us in their ability to communicate with each other and the left and the right backs and the holding mid," MSU coach Neil Macdonald said. "Their experience and the fact that they''re good, quality defenders and team captains has been the bedrock of any success that we have had."
Teamed with defenders Danielle Kite and Serena Prendergast and goalkeeper Taryn Holland, Tyler and Baldner have sparked the best start in program history. The Lady Bulldogs have won their past four matches (Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, East Tennessee State, and Troy) by shutout, which is another school record.
Baldner is one of five MSU players (Holland, Rachel Wannek, Monica Alvarado, and Jasmine Simmons) who have played every minute this season.
Tyler has played every minute in six matches. She didn''t play against Jackson State.
Macdonald said Tyler and Baldner, who were members of the Mississippi United Soccer Club, play so well together because they have different personalities. He said the differences are an essential component to a successful defense.
"Leanna is very quiet and laid back and leads by example," Macdonald said. "Hannah is incredibly boisterous and is a major voice on the team no matter what the situation. They do complement each other."
Tyler scored 165 goals and had 148 assists at Northwest Rankin High School. She transitioned from offense to defense when she arrived at MSU and started 16 or 18 games as a freshman.
Tyler said she was nervous at first adjusting to playing defense, but she said she is willing to play any role to help the team be successful.
"It definitely has been a team effort," Tyler said of MSU''s strong defense. "Defense just doesn''t start from the back line. It starts from the forwards and everyone defending together.
"Me and Leanna do a great job of talking with the back line, and we''re comfortable enough to give constructive criticism when we need to."
Tyler said she hasn''t been surprised by MSU''s effectiveness on defense. The defense has been put to the test more this season because the Bulldogs are playing a more attacking brand of soccer that forces the defense to remain organized.
Baldner said the experience she and Tyler gained last season playing together has helped the team get off to an 8-0 start.
"We have a good solid core in the back and in the center," Baldner said. "We''re all experienced, we all have been there, we all know how to play, and we all know each other''s style."
Macdonald said both players are aggressive and that Tyler loves the physical aspect of the game. He said Baldner is much more of a finesse player who can springboard the attack.
Macdonald said it didn''t take long for the coaches to discover the pairing of Tyler and Baldner would work so well. He said Baldner started out as a holding midfielder and was moved to defender halfway through her freshman season.
Neither player has moved from the defense.
"Communication is the key," Macdonald said. "They have got to organize themselves and everyone else around them. I think they are a fairly obvious partnership.
"They''re fierce competitors, and they love the challenge and not just on game day. They get it done in practice. They are very dedicated and have strong mind-sets and love to represent Mississippi State, which is why they''re leaders on the team and they drive everybody around them."
n Walsh honored: MSU junior forward Kat Walsh received a pair of honors on Monday when she was selected the Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week and named one of 11 players to TopDrawerSoccer.com Women''s College Soccer National Team of the Week.
The Birmingham, Ala., native earned the pair of accolades after she netted both of MSU''s goals in leading the team to the UNF Hampton Inn Ponte Vedra Showcase championship and a school-record 8-0 start to the year.
Walsh lifted State to a 1-0 win against host North Florida on Friday, netting the game''s only goal on a spectacular shot in the 47th minute.
She paced MSU to a 1-0, tournament-clinching win against Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday when she beat two defenders to the endline and beat the goalkeeper with a shot into the top of the net.
The pair of goals gives Walsh a team-leading six, all coming in the past six matches. She also paces the squad with 12 points.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.