August 21, 2009 9:23:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When you''re building a program, consistency often is the first ingredient to ensuring success.
University of Alabama women''s soccer coach Todd Bramble hopes the Crimson Tide took a step toward establishing that foundation last season.
A 9-9-2 overall record and a 4-6-1 finish in the Southeastern Conference might not appear to be a huge accomplishment.
But when you consider Alabama has had just four .500 or better finishes in the eight seasons before he arrived last season and had won at least five matches in the SEC only once (2004) in that stretch, it''s easy to see why optimism is high.
This year, Bramble will try to build on his first season with a young squad (15 of 24 players are underclassmen) that lost its top two scorers (Kailey Corken and Jessica Deegan).
Bramble and the Crimson Tide will kick off the season at 7 tonight against the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
"(Last season) was a roller coaster, but we set our goal at the start to be in the SEC tournament at the end of the year," Bramble said. "Through all of the ups and downs of the season, we accomplished that. We just felt that if we could get there and give the players a taste of it, it would be sort of a springboard that would help keep us moving the program in the right direction.
"Now that we have accomplished that the makeup of this year''s team is completely different, with almost half of our team being freshmen. Now the challenge for that group is to establish some consistency in the program and can we be a team that can be there year in and year out."
Alabama''s results indicate progress. The Crimson Tide lost 7-0 to USC on Sept. 7, 7-0 to LSU on Oct. 12, and 6-1 to Florida on Oct. 19.
Alabama then nearly shocked the league in the SEC tournament, losing 2-1 to top-seeded Florida.
Bramble pointed to that loss to show how something with his players clicked.
"I think it took all year with the team that we inherited was what does it mean to have a winning mentality," Bramble said. "If you can point back to one moment last season, it took us that long between the time we played Florida that the transition was sort of made and the players understood what it truly means to have a winning mentality.
"We have been left with the feeling of a game we should have won against Florida in the SEC tournament to getting our hearts ripped out. That feeling has stuck with us in the pit of our stomach all through spring training to where we are right now. While it may seem on the surface that it may not be advantageous to have half our team being freshmen, we''re looking at it as a good thing because they''re not coming in here with any preconceived notions. We get to shape them the way that we want right from the beginning."
Bramble said for most of the 2008 season the players didn''t take on teams that were perceived to be better than them with "the deep belief" they could win the game. He said he didn''t know why the players'' attitudes changed against Florida in the SEC tournament, but he was gratified that the message finally got through to his players.
This season, he hopes the returning players can help mold that approach even more and that the newcomers can develop that attitude right from the first match.
"We have a pretty nice blend," Bramble said. "With the sheer quantity of players coming in, they are all over the field. They are versatile. This group is technically sound and we are real happy with their comfort level on the ball. We think it is going to allow us to play soccer in the style that we ultimately want to get to."
A 10-player signing class likely will play a key role in helping the Crimson Tide replace six starters and improve a defense that allowed 38 goals last season.
Alabama is coming off a 1-0 exhibition loss to Mercer on Aug. 13 and a 4-0 loss to Clemson to Aug. 15.
Bramble helped Clemson advance to the NCAA tournament every season from 2001-07. The team reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 2006. He left the school after the 2007 season with the belief he could accomplish the same thing at Alabama.
There is nothing Bramble has seen in the first year and into year two at Alabama that makes him think that isn''t possible.
"I think it would be very difficult on any type of prediction on what we can accomplish or what our record could be," Bramble said. "We have to take the focus away from what our results could be. We could suffer some heavy losses this year and we could pull some fantastic upsets. I think we could be all over the place. I think if we spend too much time focusing on that we''re going to get away from what we need to focus on, which is being competitive every game. If we can put ourselves in that position, not only can we win some games, but we can avoid a 7-0 loss or a 6-1 loss. Even if we come out of some of those games not winning, those scorelines don''t need to be so lopsided."
Juniors Victoria Frederick and Brooke Rogers, who each had three goals and 10 points last season, will lead an offense that saw only two other players score two or more goals.
"We certainly will look for them to continue their development as they get up in their years," Bramble said. "We think (Rosaly) Petriello has the ability to produce for us. We will rely on Kelsey King, who is a senior this year. She has the responsibility to carry some of the burden in that area.
"We do have some freshmen who early on have shown they have a little bit of something to offer on that side of the ball. In what roles they will play, it hasn''t been sorted out, but I think we have some new players who can help us in that area."
Bramble knows there always is a lot of uncertainty with newcomers, but he is confident the new players can help the Crimson Tide take the second step in their progression.
"Our expectations are to be in Orange Beach (Ala.) in November (for the eight-team SEC tournament)," Bramble said. "I will never shy away from that being the goal of this program.
"From a talent standpoint, the pieces are there. It has to come together. I don''t know how incredibly deep this team is. That hinges on how healthy we can stay. That is the same with any team. But if we can stay healthy with the balance of upperclassmen with a bunch of exciting new players, there is no reason we can''t be down there again."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.