April 5, 2013 10:31:23 AM
STARKVILLE -- Aaron Gordon has a vision of what the final product will look like.
All the new Mississippi State University women's soccer coach has to do is look back on his time with head coach Tom Stone and see what the fruits of his labors can produce. In six seasons at Texas Tech University, Gordon played an integral role in transforming a program that won more games overall (60) and in the Big 12 Conference (23) than it had in the previous nine years. Last season, the Red Raiders won a school-record 16 games, advanced to the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament for the first time, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in their first appearance.
Since November 2012, Gordon has been working hard in Starkville to lay a foundation that will help MSU realize similar success. With his wife, Ashley, and Phil Casella on board as assistant coaches and Robbie Kroger as a volunteer assistant coach, Gordon will take the next month to evaluate his players in scrimmages to begin preparations for the 2013 season. The next step will come at 1 p.m. Saturday when MSU plays host to Jackson State University. The Bulldogs will have two more scrimmages this month Gordon will use to continue to install a new high-pressure style of play and to take the next steps in changing the culture in the program.
"You just have to have a story and a vision and an opportunity," Gordon said. "There are so many good players in this country. The building process is just as alluring being part of a winner. That's part of it, too. You want to come here and be the team that you look back on in four years and say, 'We're the ones that turned the corner.'
MSU played its first scrimmage of the spring March 2 at Georgia State University. Statistics weren't kept in the "match," which actually was three 25-minute periods. With only 10 healthy players (signees won't join the program until the summer), Gordon said he felt that format was the best way for the teams to have a competitive afternoon. MSU was scheduled to play the University of Memphis on Thursday, but that match was postponed.
Gordon took over for Neil Macdonald, who was re-assigned in the athletic department following a 9-10-1 season (2-10-1 Southeastern Conference) that saw MSU beat the University of Mississippi to win the Magnolia Cup but fail to qualify for the SEC tournament. Macdonald was 58-103-14 in nine seasons as coach. MSU advanced to the SEC tournament only one time -- in 2004 -- and had only two seasons (2004, 2009) in which it finished at .500 or better. The Bulldogs have won five games in the SEC only one time (2004) in the past nine seasons.
Forward Elisabeth Sullivan, defender Morganne Grimes, and midfielder Sasha Vrany will be the only returning seniors for the 2013 season. Gordon acknowledged there has been attrition within the program since he took over, but he said roster turnover is a natural part of coaching changes.
MSU will bolster a roster of 14 players with the addition of at least nine more players. In February, the team announced the signings of Abby Phillips (Tupelo) and Starkville Academy standout Tiffany Huddleston and New Jersey forward/defender Chelsi Bender, Florida defender Savannah Boswell, Canadian goalkeeper Meara Johnson, and Georgia forward/midfielder Kayla Puzas. Last month, the Bulldogs announced the addition of Annebel ten Broeke, a forward from the Netherlands, and Florida standouts Jamila Coner and Darbi Filliben.
"Our reach has been way bigger than I ever thought it would be," said Gordon, who has extensive experience as a club coach in the state of Texas and as a professional coach with the Atlanta Beat in the now defunct Women's United Soccer Association. "I thought it my take a little longer, but you come to realize being out of the SEC, and the Big 12 where I am from is huge, but the SEC in its scope and what you relate college sports to, most people go SEC right away. It starts to hit home in your recruiting."
Sullivan, who led the team in scoring with 12 goals and four assists (28 points) last season, said the Bulldogs have worked on a lot of technical work, which she believes is helping prepare the team for the regular season.
"It really hasn't been that hard," Sullivan said. "The main thing would probably be the weights and the running. We have done a lot of that. It has been more intense. Other than that, the coaches are great. You can tell they wan to help us win and get us to Orange Beach (Ala., the site of the SEC tournament), which is what we all want. We are really excited to start and play more games.
"We can already tell from all of the weights we have been doing and all the running (that we are stronger). We are so much more fit than we have been."
Grimes, who started all 20 games last season with Sullivan, agreed and said Gordon has the team playing a high-pressure style that is a big change from the zone approach she said Macdonald used. She said the pace of play has been a lot faster and that is requires the players to be more organized and to communicate more.
"Ever since day one he has told us he doesn't have these crazy expectations for us and that he wants us to be better today than we were yesterday," Grimes said. "We have progressed so far. The first period (against Georgia State) was a little hectic, but as soon as we all settled down we showed we could really depend on each other and we really came together and got the result we wanted."
Gordon said qualifying for the SEC tournament is the "first step" to moving the program in the right direction. Even though the addition of Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri has made the SEC even tougher, Gordon feels MSU can be one of the 10 programs that doesn't turn in its gear after its final regular-season game. He hopes a new style of play will help MSU realize that goal.
"Our style of play is kind of dictated by effort and intensity," Gordon said. "I have just tried to pick up a responsibility to defend, to get after it, to dictate on the other side of the ball. That is something I really believe in, and I don't think that is an individual trait. That has to be a team trait -- a group trait -- and everyone has accountability to each other."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.