August 22, 2009 11:39:00 PM
OXFORD -- Each season brings a new sense of energy for Steve Holeman.
This season, though, will be unique for the University of Mississippi women''s soccer coach.
The Lady Rebels will rely on the experience of 11 returning players, but they also will count on contributions from 15 freshmen who are part of a class of 18 newcomers.
The group of newcomers is the largest since Holeman was hired as the program''s first and only coach in 1994.
This year, Holeman''s challenge will be the mold the talents of the young and the "old" in the ever competitive Southeastern Conference.
Holeman will get his first chance to see his 2009 team in action at 2 p.m. today when it faces the University of Alabama-Birmingham at the West Campus Field in Birmingham, Ala.
"Our newcomers bring a lot of intensity and a lot of enthusiasm," Holeman said. "We have a core group returning, which is key. Our senior leaders set the stage and they have set a standard. The newcomers are buying into our philosophy of working hard."
Ole Miss was 7-10-3 and 5-5-1 finish in the SEC in 2008. The league record was good enough to help the Lady Rebels take seventh and qualify for the eight-team SEC tournament.
Even though the program has only three seniors -- tri-captains Mallory Coleman, Danielle Johnson, and Hannah Weatherly -- Holeman believes his team has the pieces it needs to deliver better results.
"We lost a talented group of (seven) seniors. Six of them were starters," Holeman said. "The dynamic of our team has completely changed. It looks like we will have some pretty good depth, which is always important, and I think we''re going to put out a very solid starting lineup.
"I think we will be quicker and more athletic and have better overall team speed."
Johnson, a three-time All-SEC defender who is a preseason all-league pick by the SEC coaches this year, will lead the way and try to help the Lady Rebels improve on their third-place finish in the SEC West in 2008.
Weatherly started 14 of 20 matches last season and was third on the team in scoring (three goals, four assists, 10 points), while Coleman started 19 of 20 matches and had four assists.
"All of our captains bring a tremendous work ethic, all are extremely talented and they all know what it takes to be successful," Holeman said. "It is challenging for them to have so many new players. The idea for them is to get our newcomers to buy into our system."
Holeman said a key for this season will be performing better in the non-conference schedule. A loss at Western Kentucky, ties to SMU and to TCU, and a home loss to Memphis to start last season damaged the Lady Rebels'' postseason hopes even before they could be imagined.
"We didn''t get it done in our non-conference season," Holeman said. "Our returning players know that and have learned from that. I think you''ll see some different results in our non-conference season."
Holeman said the players'' focus was sharper and the work rate of the returning players was higher because of the competition in training camp. He hopes those things will help the momentum carry over from a 6-0-2 spring season.
"We have told them we don''t have time to be young," Holeman said. "Our newcomers have to step in and contribute right away, and they are really buying into that.
"It looks like we''re going to have a hard-working team. I think our entire team knows it is going to be very competitive with such big numbers. If they want to be in the starting lineup and play on this team in the fall, they''re going to have to have an incredible work ethic."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.