August 12, 2011 10:17:00 AM
OXFORD -- Matthew Mott is eager to put the growing pains behind him.
A year ago, Mott hadn''t met eight of his new players on the University of Mississippi women''s soccer team. His transition from assistant coach at the University of Texas to Ole Miss came at a late juncture and forced everyone associated with the program to adjust.
With one season completed and a better understanding of Mott''s personality and coaching style, the Rebels are primed for a breakout season. The team opened two-a-day practices Aug. 3, and will kick off the 2011 season at 7 tonight when it plays host to the University of Tennessee-Martin in an exhibition game at FNC Park.
"We feel really comfortable about the ability of everybody and everybody is on board and playing well," Mott said. "When you have transition, there always is a time of, ''Well, we used to do it this way.'' There is none of that going on anymore. Everybody is focused and committed for the same goal."
Despite the departure of coach Steve Holeman and the arrival of Mott, Ole Miss still started strong. The Rebels appeared to be on track to earn a bid to the eight-team Southeastern Conference tournament before a six-game winless streak (0-3-3) forced the team to take a different route.
Mott said a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury to left back Abbie Curran depleted depth and forced the team to change its approach to more of a defensive mind-set. He said the final game of that stretch, a 4-4 tie against the University of Arkansas, helped reverse the team''s fortunes. Victories against the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt put the Rebels in position to qualify for the SEC tournament, but a loss to Mississippi State ended the season at 7-9-4 and 3-5-3 in the SEC.
This season, Mott feels the team is prepared to play a more attacking brand of soccer. It went 4-3 in the spring season and capitalized on Mott''s decision to move Alix Hildal from center back to forward. Hildal led the team in goals and assists in the spring.
"She has come back in in great shape, better shape than she was at any point last year, and it playing really well," Mott said.
Hildal knew entering the spring season she would move from defense to offense. With added depth and the development of other defenders, Mott said Hildal was involved in 10 of the 12 goals the team scored in the spring.
"She strikes the ball extremely well," Mott said. "She hits it with not a lot of spin on it, which makes it very difficult for goalkeepers. She gets her foot around the ball, so at odd angles she is still able to put the ball on frame, and she has great pace. She is a speed threat almost immediately, which is something we needed help with on our front line."
Ole Miss returns 12 players from 2010, including leading scorer Dylan Jordan, All-SEC second-team honoree Alix Hildal, and All-SEC Freshman Team selection Mandy McCalla. It also welcomes 11 newcomers to this year''s team, including transfers Rafaelle Souza (Salvador, Brazil), Emily Reid (University of Oklahoma), and Emily Sinovich (University of Alabama at Birmingham).
"It is a good group," Mott said. "Emily Sinovich has come in as a left-footed center back. She is going to be battling for playing time. Emily Reid is a very talented player that I recruited when I was at (the University of) Texas (as an assistant coach). She will be an attacking mid/forward type for us. Rafaelle is fantastic and is fitting in really well with the girls."
Kelly McCormick, from Laguna Niguel, Calif., leads the freshman class. Mott said she is battling senior goalkeeper Alley Ronaldi for playing time. Ronaldi and senior defender Meredith Snow are team captains.
Snow, who also was a captain last season, is a four-year starter. Ronaldi, who is tied for seventh all-time in career saves with 109, is a first-time team captain.
"We are at such a better starting point than we were a year ago," Mott said. "The girls have come in very fit. They did really well on our fitness test and in our fitness standards. It really surprised me. Every one of our returners passed on the first go-around, which is rare. It was very exciting for me, and that goes to our commitment level."
Tonight, there will be a $5 charge per car, and all of the money will go to youth soccer teams in Oxford. There are no stands or bleachers at FNC Park, so fans need to bring chairs to the game.
Ole Miss will open the regular season at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 when it plays host to Southern Miss. The first 100 fans who print out the coupon on the Ole Miss Soccer Facebook page and have it stamped at the Southern Miss game will receive two free tickets to the Ole Miss/BYU football game Sept. 3.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.