August 14, 2013 9:57:53 PM
STARKVILLE -- The 2013 season is all about opportunity for Aaron Gordon and the Mississippi State University women's soccer team.
For Gordon, the opportunity to come to Starkville to take his first job as a college head coach was too good to pass up, even though he inherited a program that went 58-103-14 in the past nine seasons. In that stretch, MSU advanced to the Southeastern Conference tournament once-- in 2004 -- and finished at or above .500 twice (2004, 2009). The Bulldogs have won five games in the SEC only one time (2004) in that span.
For seniors Elisabeth Sullivan, Morganne Grimes, and Sasha Vrany, this season is a chance to help transform a program and to instill a winning culture that helps it become a regular in the SEC tournament and puts it on track to qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time.
For 10 newcomers, it is an opportunity to make a impression on a new coach and get in on the ground floor on the building process.
That process begins for all parties at 7 tonight when MSU plays host to the University of South Florida in an exhibition match at the MSU Soccer Stadium.
Gordon, the former assistant/associate head coach at Texas Tech University, wanted a test for his team before it opens the regular season at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at the University of South Alabama. He hopes he will like what he sees after a little more than a week of training camp.
"You play every year to honor your senior class," Gordon said. "You honor them with a performance, an effort, and a commitment because that is what you want every other player to do when you are a senior. When you do that, you have given them a gift. It doesn't ensure winning or going to the tournament. It ensures nothing, but the commitment to play and honor them with that is a gift of saying how much you care. That is our mantra this year."
Gordon wants all of his players "to play like they have never played before" for those seniors. He hopes an up-tempo pace in training camp has laid the foundation for that to happen. He understands why MSU was picked to finish last in the SEC with a league-low 21 points. He knows the program doesn't have a lot of tradition, so his goal has been to set the bar higher and push his players to strive for more.
Gordon feels the returning players embraced a new commitment to training in the offseason and a new culture in the program. He feels an undefeated spring season set the tone for the promise of what is to come.
"(The spring season) meant that we wanted to give our best performance every game," Gordon said. "If you give your best performance every game, the results will follow. If you always worry about the result, the performance is going to suffer."
With only 22 players on the roster, health will be a key for MSU. Gordon said the players will have to motivate each other because his travel roster is basically set based on the number of players in the program. With only 16 days to go over all of the items listed in the columns on his dry erase board, Gordon knows there are a lot of things to address. He and his assistant coaches already have focused on making the players more accountable. If the players commit to investing in themselves, Gordon believes the opportunity is there to have success.
"I think it will be rewarding because this team will be fitter than it has ever been and more prepared soccer wise than it has ever been," Gordon said. "We just wanted to break the mold of what these teams have experienced in the past. ... I think I was hired to help change a culture. (Mississippi State Director of Athletics) Scott (Stricklin) said, 'Man, I really want to be relevant in the SEC.' I said, 'I don't want to be relevant, I want to win in the SEC. That is my mind-set from day one. I know we will get there. It will happen in steps, but if we can see progress every day those results will take care of themselves on the field."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.