September 6, 2013 10:00:51 AM
Matthew Mott is being careful not to get caught up too much in the numbers.
After all, the University of Mississippi women's soccer coach knows his team has played only four games. Still, Ole Miss (4-0) has scored a Southeastern Conference-leading 16 goals in victories against the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Northwestern State University, and Saint Louis University.
Mott is anxious to see if Ole Miss will be able to continue its winning streak this weekend when it faces No. 17 USC (3-0) at 4 p.m. today in the opening round of the Minnesota Gold Classic. Ole Miss will take on tournament host University of Minnesota (4-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday.
This weekend also will feature two SEC-caliber tests for the University of Alabama. Coach Todd Bramble's team, which is off to a 1-2 start, will play the University of Colorado (4-0) at 5:30 p.m. today in it first game in the Denver Invitational. Alabama will face tournament host University of Denver (4-0), which is ranked No. 20 in this week's NSCAA poll, at 2:15 p.m. Sunday.
All four games should test Ole Miss and Alabama against SEC-caliber opponents. Both teams have two non-conference games remaining before they kick off league play Sept. 20 at the University of Arkansas and at the University of Florida, respectively.
Seniors Mandy McCalla (five goals, 10 points) and Rafaelle Souza (three, nine) have fueled the Rebels' attack and have the team as one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the SEC. Arkansas (5-0) is the other.
"I am happy with the number of goals, I am happy with the way we're scoring them, and with the people who are scoring them," Mott said. "We don't go into games hoping to scorer four goals or to score two goals. We don't spend a lot of time on the number (of goals we score). Instead, we focus on creating opportunities to score."
Mott knew entering the season that Souza and McCalla, who were second-team All-SEC picks after scoring 12 and 13 goals, respectively, and tying for league honors with 32 points last season, would attract a lot of attention. His hope was other players would capitalize on the attention the seniors drew and emerge as scoring threats. Sophomore Jennifer Miller, who has three goals, and freshman Addie Forbus, of Amory, has added two to surround Souza and McCalla with other options. Six Rebels have goals and seven have assists.
"Our speed of play has been really, really good and we have been able to move the ball and put teams under a lot of pressure to defend us," Mott said. "With Mandy, Rafaelle, Olivia (Harrison), Bethany (Bunker), and Addie, we have been hard to deal with when we have the ball, and we have been dangerous in trying to find open players in open spots."
Junior goalkeeper Kelly McCormick has worked with sophomores Samantha Sanders and Maddie Friedmann and freshmen Melissa Capocaccia and Gretchen Harknett to allow only two goals, which is tied for the second fewest in the SEC.
But Mott remains tempered in his enthusiasm because he knows his defense will be put under more pressure in the next few weekends as the team inches closer to SEC action. He feels his team is ready for its next tests.
"I feel we have played better in our two road games than we have in our two home games," Mott said. "We are going into the game feeling good and with a lot of confidence knowing we're playing at a good level. (This weekend), we're certainly stepping up in class. USC is No. 17 in the country and has had a great start to their season. They have a ton of good players we're going to have to deal with. On the same side, they're going to have to figure out how to deal with our attacking group. I am really looking forward to the weekend of SEC-level opponents, if not higher."
A similar challenge awaits Alabama, which is coming off a 2-1 loss to Mercer University on Sunday. The Crimson Tide (1-2) held a 21-7 edge in shots on goal, but Bramble said his team's inability to cash in on its possession attack has hurt it after it has fallen behind.
"I just don't think we are really sort of attacking the goal with the level or urgency we need right now," Bramble said. "I think we're coming out and getting comfortable in our possession game and sometimes that has a sense of lulling you into complacency because if you have all of the ball and are getting chances you think it is just a matter of time before we score."
Bramble said that kind of thinking can translate into a "passive" mentality. He hopes a change in the mind-set and better efficiency in the final third will help Alabama cash in on its ability to dictate the tempo. If his team is able to get an early lead, Bramble feels the Crimson Tide will be able to keep the ball and stretch opponents and generate even better scoring chances.
"We're getting into (scoring position) repeatedly and things just haven't gone our way in that department yet," Bramble said. "It is something we have put a ton of work on in the last week and a half. We are hoping the dam will break sometime soon."
Conversely, Bramble hopes defensive issue that arose in the first half of a 3-0 loss to nationally ranked Wake Forest University have been corrected. He said there has been an "evolution" on defense, and that he hopes better production by the offense will ease the pressure on the defense so it doesn't feel it needs to be perfect for 90 minutes. Through three matches, Alabama is one of three SEC teams under .500, and has allowed the second-most goals of any SEC team.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.