August 8, 2013 10:10:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- Tiffany Huddleston doesn't mind that there is an alphabet soup following her name on the roster for the 2013 Mississippi State University women's soccer team.
The fact that the former Starkville Academy soccer and basketball standout is listed as a forward/midfielder/defender on the team's roster online isn't surprising because she has played a number of positions in her youth and prep career.
Huddleston had a chance to showcase her versatility Wednesday morning at MSU's first official practice of the season. The training session allowed first-year coach Aaron Gordon to begin to sort through 10 freshmen, or "newcomers," as he refers to them, and figure out where everyone will fit prior to the squad's exhibition match at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16, against the University of South Florida at the MSU Soccer Stadium in Starkville.
At this point, Gordon relishes the idea of using Huddleston in a variety of positions because it gives him more flexibility for what he hopes will be an up-tempo pace in training and in games.
Gordon also joked it was nice not to be doing paperwork preparing for the start of the season. He acknowledged his first MSU team dealt with its share of anxiety Wednesday in part due to the presence of so many newcomers. Overall, though, he liked what he saw from the team.
"They really got acquainted with the soccer ball and with each other in a way that is a little bit more training structured, not just pick-up soccer, but I thought it went well," Gordon said. "A newcomer comes in, they learn what you do, how you do it, your expectations, your standards, and then you let them jump in there. The beauty of collegiate soccer is freshmen have the opportunity to come in and impact right way. It really is up to them how they make that transition."
Huddleston believed she would face a higher pace of play when she arrived in college. Being a part of the Mississippi Fire club team helped Huddleston understand the magnitude of the jump from prep and travel soccer to the college game. She and Mississippi Fire teammate Abby Phillips and the rest of the first-year players at MSU hope to contribute because Gordon feels the Bulldogs, who were picked last in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll and last qualified for the SEC tournament in 2004, will need all hands on deck to change the culture in the program.
Huddleston's stint with the Mississippi Fire could help her contribute as a freshman. Two other players from the team -- Kat Stratton, the sister of former MSU pitcher Chris Stratton, and Hailey Brohaugh, are freshmen at the University of Alabama, so the Mississippi Fire players had plenty of quality preparation to get them ready for college. Huddleston said she doesn't mind where she plays as long as she is helping the team.
Gordon knows Huddleston had a lot of success as a soccer and as a basketball player at Starkville Academy. As the team's point guard, Huddleston helped the Lady Volunteers sweep to district, Class AAA, and overall Mississippi Association of Independent Schools titles the past two seasons. He also believes her time with the Mississippi Fire primed her for her debut with her hometown team.
"She is just a winner," Gordon said. "She knows how to compete. Her biggest transition probably is going to be the speed of play in soccer, but the speed of play of how to compete or how to win, she has that down. I think the sky is the limit for her."
Huddleston said she did "OK" in her first training session. She said her goal is to improve on something every day so she can put herself in position to play a key role.
Huddleston took summer classes at MSU in June and has been at the school playing with her new teammates and adjusting to Gordon's style of play. She said the former Texas Tech University associate head coach focused on conditioning in the initial practice. She said he and the other coaches made the training less monotonous by having the players keep balls at their feet so they worked on their fitness and their touch at the same time.
"There wasn't a lot of down time," Huddleston said. "I like how he kept things going, one after the next. We got a lot accomplished within an hour and a half or two hours. It was good to get a feel for what I feel like most practices will be like."
Huddleston's teammates also noticed her versatility. After practice, Huddleston said senior forward Elisabeth Sullivan asked her, "What position do you play because I feel you have been everywhere?" She said that is true because she played so many positions prior to her arrival at MSU and that she doesn't consider herself just a forward or just a defender.
Gordon said Huddleston's versatility will help him and his coaches determine where she plays. He said the team likely will play its first 11-vs.-11 scrimmage in two or three days so he can get his first real taste of how things look.
Until then, Gordon believes Huddleston will provide a number of options.
"The best part about Tiffany is she is versatile, she is coachable, and she is a good athlete, so she will be able to plug holes wherever we need," Gordon said.
n Ole Miss holds first practice: At Oxford, the University of Mississippi women's soccer team held its first practice of the preseason Wednesday morning. The session was the first of two scheduled for the day. The first day of the preseason helped set the stage for the team's season opener against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23.
"It was nice to have a great day to work with and get off to a great start," Ole Miss coach Matt Mott said. "This morning we worked a lot on some fitness stuff, some short technical stuff with movement, and the speed of the game. Tonight when we take the field for our second practice, we'll do 11-on-11 and focus much more on the tactical thinking and game-related work."
When the squad hit the field, the coaches were excited by the fitness level of the returning players, the work ethic of the newcomers, and the technique and play of the squad.
"We're really fit, definitely the most fit we've been to start a preseason since I've been here," Mott said. "We look strong. The players who were here all summer look really strong and the four or five who weren't here did lots of work over the summer and look good. We are in a better spot than we've ever been from a fitness standpoint.
"A lot of the newcomers looked great. Addie Forbus (of Amory) was really sharp and quick. Mackenze Parma, Gretchen Harknett and Heather Lacy looked real sharp. Our freshman goalkeeper, Madi Killeen, looked good. I was happy with all of them."
Nine new members join a squad that featured 10 newcomers a year ago. This year's squad features six seniors and a junior to go along with the talented underclass.
Adding to the excitement is the return of Mandy McCalla and Rafaelle Souza, the Southeastern Conference's leading goal scorers from a year ago. The pair earned All-SEC honors from the league's coaches and tied for the conference lead with 13 goals and 33 points each last season.
The Rebels also return junior goalkeeper Kelly McCormick, who helped Ole Miss post eight shutout victories in 2012 and a school-record 483 consecutive shutout minutes as part of an eight-game win streak to open the year.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.