August 6, 2014 10:12:21 AM
OXFORD -- The next step of the journey starts today for Matthew Mott.
The fifth-year Ole Miss women's soccer coach can look forward to the 2014 season confident that his master plan is paying dividends. The Rebels are coming off a single-season record for victories and their first opportunity to play host to a NCAA tournament game, which they won 9-0 against Jackson State.
But Mott, a longtime assistant/associate head coach at Central Florida, Auburn, and Texas, has been in the business long enough to know getting to the NCAA tournament is just part of the challenge. Now that Ole Miss has established itself as one of the 64 best teams in the nation, Mott knows he and his players will have to work even harder to maintain their position.
"I think it finally came to fruition, what we have been trying to do," Mott said. "We had a team that really understood exactly how we wanted to play and what we wanted to do. We had some marquee players that had great seasons, so I think it all came together. We stayed relatively healthy That was maybe the biggest thing. I made one change to our starting lineup and that was it all year."
Ole Miss, which reported to training camp Tuesday and will start practice today, will begin its new season at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, when it plays an exhibition match at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama. Ole Miss won't have a lot of time to tweak things after that because it will play its season opener at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, against Georgia at the Ole Miss Soccer Complex. The SEC Network will broadcast that game.
Mott acknowledged it is unusual to have to play a conference rival in the first match of the year, but he said he was anxious to get an opportunity to play in the nationally televised game. According to figures released earlier this week with the announcement DirecTV will provide the SEC Network, more than 87 million households will have a chance to watch the match. That is the kind of exposure Mott can use to help ensure the Rebels stay in the upper echelon of the SEC.
Ole Miss will try to solidify its position as a regular in the NCAA tournament with new catalysts on offense. Last season, seniors Rafaelle Souza and Mandy McCalla paced the team with 22 and 15 goals, respectively. They also led the team with 50 and 36 points. In all, Ole Miss scored 63 goals and allowed only 25 in a 16-6-2 season that ended with a 3-1 loss to Florida State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Four other players -- junior midfielder/forward Olivia Harrison, junior forward Bethany Bunker, sophomore forward/midfielder Addie Forbus, and junior midfielder Jennifer Miller -- return after reaching double figures in points last season. That gives Mott plenty of confidence the Rebels will be able to play the same style and produce.
Mott is equally pleased to welcome back junior Samantha Sanders, who played in only 14 games last season. The defender was hurt in the team's 3-1 win against Georgia. Mott said Sanders will strengthen a defense that also should be deep and experienced.
Even though Ole Miss returns only eight upperclassmen from last season, Mott feels he has a group that understands players have to step into new and bigger roles. He said he saw signs in the spring season, which he called the "best" he has had in Oxford, that the Rebels were motivated not to let the loss to Souza and McCalla throw them off track. Dating back to Mott's first season in 2010 (7-9-4), Ole Miss has won more games each season (eight, 2011; 13 in 2012).
"We talked to them about this is a program now. This is not season by season, and we are not going to be a one-hit wonder," Mott said. "It has to be our goal to do better than we did last year. I know we set the school record for wins and got to the second round of the NCAA tournament. That is great, but that is just a stepping stone. Our goals are higher than that. Their goals need to be higher, so we need to continue to work harder."
Mott will look to in-state talent to help him keep the Rebels at the top of the heap. Forbus is a former standout at Amory High School, while Georgia Russell, who played in only 13 games last season, is a redshirt sophomore from Tupelo. Sara Coleman, a sophomore forward from Laurel, and freshman MacKenzie Dickerson, who is from Kosciusko, also will compete for playing time.
Mott hopes his players believe they belong because he said they need to know they can compete with teams like Florida and Texas A&M, which were the best teams in the SEC last season. He said the Rebels showed that confidence last season, which is one reason why 2013 was such a successful campaign. With nine returning starters, including Sanders, early success this season against Georgia and non-conference opponents like Iowa State, Louisville, Minnesota, and Memphis will help Ole Miss begin on the right note.
"I think our midfield is going to be more mobile than it has been in the last couple of years, which I think will help us a ton," Mott said. "We have nothing but pace up front, so I am excited. I am a lot more comfortable where we are as a program after the spring, when we played Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, Samford, UAB, and some of those guys and played really, really well all spring, so that has me encouraged.
"It has been an awesome journey. We have had our ups and downs, but to see where the program was when we took it over to where it is now is very, very special. The big key is having consistency in our staff, with Becky (Fletcher) and Rob (Thompson). All three of us have built it from day one. You see the fruits of your labor, and that to me has been really rewarding because you see the fruits of your labor. It makes me work harder. It makes me more excited about what we can be here. I don't think we are there yet. We are making great strides. I hope this will be another great stride, but we are not finished by any stretch."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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