July 12, 2014 10:46:46 PM
STARKVILLE -- Don't expect Aaron Gordon to use youth as an excuse this season.
Looking at a Mississippi State women's soccer team roster that features 19 freshmen among its 20 newcomers, it would be easy for Gordon to give his players a crutch that would allow them to navigate the pitfalls of their first year of Division I soccer and their initial run through the Southeastern Conference.
But the second-year MSU coach isn't going to take that approach. Instead, Gordon's goal is to encourage his players to accomplish things in spite of their youth and inexperience.
"They're all going to have to play," Gordon said. "People can talk about being young. But internally, we're past that. It is the realization of who we are. We can dwell on that, but it would be wasted energy. We have to figure out how to get every player ready to play in the first match."
Gordon won't have a lot of time to let his message sink in. MSU players report Aug. 6 and have a week before they take on Memphis in their first exhibition match. MSU will take on Alabama on Aug. 16 in its final test before it opens the season against Iowa State on Aug. 22 in Starkville.
MSU is coming off a 3-15 season in which it went 0-11 in the SEC. The Bulldogs lost their top two scorers -- Elisabeth Sullivan and Annebel ten Broeke -- from last season. Sullivan, the program's all-time leading scorer, and ten Broeke accounted for 19 of the team's 23 goals and 47 of its 71 points. MSU also will have to replace senior goalkeeper CJ Winship, who started 15 of 16 games she appeared in last season.
Gordon hopes the emergence of freshman Morgan Ferrara, an early enrollee who participated with the team in the spring, and senior Shannen Jainudeen, who has moved to forward, will provide a one-two scoring punch that will help make up for the loss of the speedy and dynamic Sullivan. Gordon also likes the versatility, potential, and depth his class brings to the program. But Gordon, who coached at the professional level and who played a key role in building Texas Tech into a NCAA tournament participant before coming to MSU, understands it will take time to see similar results in Starkville. This season, his goal will be to continue to establish a new mind-set and a new culture in the program that positions it to climb higher in the league and, ultimately, to realize a goal of qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
"There is no step back," Gordon said. "Where we are starting from is reality. Coming into a season the year before, we had a great goal scorer and we had a few pieces on our team, but I really had a lot of players I knew nothing about, and college soccer doesn't allow you to kind of build your way into the season. It is over in two and a half months. I think what we recognized as a staff was there wasn't a common thread that binded our team that would have allowed us to take the steps necessary to grow as a group. We could continue on the same path and expect the same results, or we could change the path. We chose to change the path. I think because we have changed the path it will be fun and it will be exciting.
"But I think there is more of a feeling of accountability and responsibility because there have been relationships built with this group of players, the ones who are still here, and goo relationships are built on trust. We have tried to mentor and help and guide those players. There are relationships with all of the new players that have continued to build, so when you bring those together I think you have a better starting point -- a launching point, hopefully. I would like to launch this team."
Gordon knows his team will be picked 14th in the 14-team league. He said he will use a different approach at the beginning of the season to set the tone on the field, in the weight room, and off the field. He said everything will grasp the importance of giving maximum effort on the field, in the classroom, in the weight room -- everywhere -- so there is more consistency in the program. Gordon hopes a more uniform way of doing things in which everyone is fully committed to will produce results.
Along the way, Gordon understands thoughts will fall back on the youth of the team and first-year players will wonder if they are capable of competing with the best teams in the SEC. But Gordon wants his players to accept that youth and use it as a launching point.
"You can turn that into a positive because there are a lot of teaching moments," Gordon said. "I think in terms of our team, how we prepare, will probably will be a lot different, which may be good for us. It is making our staff re-think our preparation model, or cycle, or rhythm because we just have to figure out how to play games, and that may be a good thing.
"I am going to look at the season just that way, as more of an opportunity to teach players and play them because I don't have any other choice."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.