October 28, 2013 9:18:11 AM
STARKVILLE -- Tiffany Huddleston admits she didn't know what to expect in her freshman season at Mississippi State.
With a new coach -- Aaron Gordon -- who wanted to instill a new attitude and change the culture of the school's women's soccer program, Huddleston thought she might have an opportunity to make an impact.
Little did the Starkville native realize she would get as much playing time at as many positions as she has this season. From center back to holding midfielder to forward, the former Starkville Academy standout has started seven of MSU's 17 games. Her first goal came last week in a loss to Vanderbilt. Even though MSU lost to No. 13 South Carolina 1-0 Sunday in its final home game of the season, Huddleston believes she has learned a lot that will help her make even bigger contributions in the future.
"Knowing the coaches (think) you can go here or you can go here or go wherever, I am glad I am able to do that," Huddleston said last week. "Against Vanderbilt, I played forward. I felt really comfortable there, but I haven't played much of that this year. I feel more comfortable in a position I have played for a little bit. The Shannen (Jainudeen) got hurt and I played right forward for a half and then I moved to center forward. There are a few differences there. It just comes with time."
Injuries to other players have prevented Huddleston from settling in at one position. The silver lining is Gordon has been able to use Huddleston's athleticism and versatility to compensate for those injuries. He said Huddleston, who also has two assists, has used her background as a standout soccer and basketball player at the high school level to ease into the college game. He admits the transition hasn't been easy because it is a significant step from club soccer to playing in the Southeastern Conference.
"I think she has gained valuable experience because of the situation of our roster size and injuries, which has been good for her," Gordon said. "I think that will help her next year. I think she will get there, but it certainly was eye opening for her. She has had good games and not-so-good games, but, at the end of the day, we still value her in terms of putting her in places, and sometimes it is just a stop gap. That would be challenging for any player, not knowing where you might play, and she has had a great attitude about it."
Huddleston said she would be willing to play wherever she was needed when coach Neil Macdonald recruited her to MSU. That mind-set didn't change when Gordon, the former assistant and associate head coach with the Texas Tech women's soccer team, took over at MSU. She said coaches have encouraged her to use her size (she is 5-foot-8) and her aggressiveness wherever she is on the field. Those qualities have helped her hold her own at defensive midfield, a position she hadn't played a lot, and in other places where she had to adjust to offensive and defensive roles.
"I am glad I can do that, but it is hard to switch your mind-set quickly because it has to be done quickly, not 30 minutes into the game," Huddleston said. "I think I have grown the most in the midfield. That is something I have had to learn little things like where I need to be when the ball is on the opposite side of the field and when we are trying to keep our shape."
Huddleston also said she learned more about the tactical game early in the season when played center back, a position she had little experience.
With a big recruiting class expected to arrive for the 2014, Gordon will have a number of players moving into new roles. He said Huddleston's year of experience could help her settle into a more permanent role. He wants her to use the spring season to mature as an all-around soccer player.
"I think next year is going to be very interesting," Gordon said. "The spring is going to be very beneficial for her because for the first time in her life she is going to get to train for the purpose of development. The college season really doesn't allow for that. ... Her position next year is going to depend on how some of the young players come in and transition. We are not deep enough and we will not be deep enough next year to be able to pre-determine you are going to play here and you are going to play here. The transition is going to determine if they are going to do it and people are going to have to fill in roles. Her experience will be the most valuable asset she has."
MSU (3-14, 0-10 Southeastern Conference) will close the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Ole Miss in Oxford. The matchup will be for the Magnolia Cup, which goes to the winner of the annual match between the programs. MSU won the Cup in 2012 thanks to a 3-2 double overtime victory.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.