August 19, 2011 8:29:00 AM
Todd Bramble is ready to take it to the next level.
The former Clemson University women''s soccer coach has spent the past three years rebuilding the University of Alabama''s women''s soccer program.
But another .500 finish isn''t going to be good enough for Bramble this season, which is why he and his assistant coaches analyzed a 2010 season that started with so much promise and ended with a six-game losing streak at 8-8-2 (3-6-2 in SEC).
What they discovered was a team that lacked the confidence to take another step forward. As a result, Bramble and his coaches attacked the mental side of their players'' games. They worked hard to put the players in pressure situations in an effort to teach them how to win and then offered plenty of positive reinforcement to help build their confidence.
Bramble hopes that work will be what helps push the Crimson Tide up the ladder in an ever-competitive Southeastern Conference.
"I am cautiously optimistic," Bramble said. "Some years I could tell you that we were not going to be very good. Some years I would say I would be shocked if we were not playing in the NCAA tournament. This year, I really don''t know. I do know we have the potential to be a really good team. The key will be if everyone plays within themselves. ... If we can get all 10 field players on the same page clicking on all cylinders, we will be flying at teams and we will be hard to play against."
Alabama will put that potential to the test at 7 tonight when it plays host to Kennesaw State at the Alabama Soccer Stadium in its season opener. Alabama is coming off a 2-0 exhibition victory against Clemson. Bramble said their were periods in the exhibition match in which his team was really good on the ball and on defense. He said there were also times in which Bramble said Clemson found its rhythm and dictated play.
Tonight, Bramble hopes to see culture and the work ethic he and his staff have been building start to pay dividends. He said he is happy with the amount of time his players are investing in their game outside of training. He also said they are becoming students of the game of soccer by watching more of it on television.
The next step, tough, will be believing the Crimson Tide, can compete with the top teams in the SEC. He said his team didn''t handle the initial success last season and that its self-confidence was shattered in a six-game losing streak (seven-game winless run) to end the season. Bramble said doubt crept into the minds of his players that they could beat teams like Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Auburn.
"When you''re playing a game against good SEC opponents, you''re both technically good enough, you''re both tactically good enough, and you''re both physically fit and strong," said Bramble, whose team hasn''t qualified for the eight-team SEC tournament since 2008 and the NCAA tournament since 1998. "Most of the time what decides a match is mental toughness."
That''s why Bramble had the Crimson Tide work with sports psychologists and a lot of different people to learn how to mentally condition themselves. One way the players practiced that skill was to train in a setting in which they were down 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining on the clock and they had to come back. Bramble and the coaches monitored the level of encouragement from the players, the body language of the players, and other things in an effort to get them to trust each other.
"If we can have that belief and stay healthy, we have a chance to play in the SEC tournament and we have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament," Bramble said.
The Crimson Tide will have to get there without leading scorers Brooke Rogers (seven goals, 14 points) and Victoria Frederick (four goals, 14 points). Bramble has heard the talk about how his team will struggle after losing so many key players and 75 percent of its scoring from 2010.
Alabama will try to make up for the graduation losses with a solid defense, led by senior goalkeeper Justine Bernier, an All-Region selection. Bernier enters the season on the Hermann Trophy Watch List, which recognizes the top player in the nation. She also was named one of the top 100 players in the country by TopDrawerSoccer.com.
Sophomore midfielder Molly Atherton and senior defender K.K. also have been identified as players to watch on a team that the league coaches picked to finish fourth in the SEC Western Division.
Bramble won''t mind if one or two standouts don''t emerge because he is even more interested in having as many players contribute as possible.
"We have a lot of the pieces in place," Bramble said. "I am not looking for a leading or a go-to scorer. I want a team-oriented attack. Somebody has to produce. I want to have three and four and five players start stepping up and getting on the scoresheet for us."
Bramble feels a schedule that includes non-conference games against the University of Memphis, New Mexico, Samford, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, San Diego, and San Diego State will help prepare his team for the rigors of the SEC.
"I am incredibly confident with the players we have here," Bramble said. "We have more than enough talent and ability to have a breakout type of season."
All it takes now is for the Crimson Tide to believe in themselves and make it happen.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.