August 16, 2017 9:55:44 AM
STARKVILLE -- It all starts with Mallory Eubanks.
That might be putting too much pressure on one player when 11 or more are counted on each match, but that's the kind of attitude Mississippi State women's soccer coach Tom Anagnost wants Eubanks to take entering her senior season.
"In the end, we want all of our players to pass Mallory the ball," Anagnost said. "We want Mallory to get the ball from all of our players. I think she is an extraordinary facilitator of the game and creator of scoring chances. For our team, we also want her to put herself in more scoring-chance situations and shoot the ball more, etc. I think that has been a focal point of our team. I think she is too unselfish of a player. Everything about her is about our team, but I want her to be even more, as I use the word a lot, alpha and selfish because it actually will make our team better."
Eubanks will get her first official chance to take on that role at 7 p.m. Friday when MSU plays host to Stephen F. Austin in its season opener at the MSU Soccer Field. The game is part of an opening weekend that will include a match against Missouri State at 1 p.m. Sunday in Starkville.
Eubanks, a 5-foot-4 forward from Lexington, Kentucky, is coming off a junior season in which she earned second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors. She led the team with three goals, three assists, and nine points. Eubanks also started 17 games and logged 1,482 minutes and ended the season on an eight-game streak of 90 minutes or more played.
Unfortunately, MSU's 6-12 record (1-10 in the SEC) marked its seventh-straight losing season. The Bulldogs have won four matches in the SEC in the last four years. Anagnost, a former head coach at Miami and Central Michigan, hopes to change those results in part by stressing a "get better every day" philosophy. He sees Eubanks, who is one of 10 seniors or graduate students on the team, as someone who can help change the mind-set in the program.
"They have been awesome since day one," Anagnost said of the seniors. "They are an incredible group of young people that you want to be around. They have really tried to be the reason for the change, and they're great ambassadors for the program.
"As Mallory stated, our season will live and die by them. They have created a culture and an environment of serving each other and playing hard for each other."
Eubanks feels the Bulldogs are in a "good place." She feels the preseason has provided "the best preparation we could have had" entering the season, and that everyone is "playing every game as if it is the last game of our senior season." For Eubanks, that mind-set involves the possibility of playing professional soccer. She has played with the Under-19 United States Women's National Team in 2016 and with the U-23 USWNT earlier this year at the Portland Thorns Spring Invitational. She started all three matches against the National Women's Soccer League's (NWSL) Houston Dash, Portland Thorns FC, and Chicago Red Stars.
But Eubanks battled mononucleosis in April and then again in May. The illness played a role in her opting not to play with the U-23 team to the Nordic Open tournament in Sweden in June. Eubanks said she wanted to take the time to recover so she is 100 percent for her senior season.
Eubanks used the offseason to get a taste of soccer at the next level when she played with Motor City FC of the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), a national league in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that is a step below the NWSL.
"It is exciting to play over the summer and get good touches and be with the coach up there who challenged us every day and expected a lot from us," Eubanks said. "I think it was a good experience to be up there with (MSU teammate) Carly Mauldin and players from Florida State and to be surrounded in an environment in the summer with such great players and people who wanted to get better every day. It was great."
Eubanks played in only one match with Motor City FC, but coach Aaron Byrd said Eubanks made an impression on him in the two-and-a-half weeks she was with the team.
"She always wanted to be doing something to improve, or whatever she wanted to work on that day," Byrd said. "I couldn't keep her out of the gym or off the field. She has that drive."
Byrd said Eubanks plays with confidence with the ball at her feet. He said she can play simple or she can facilitate for others or for herself in a variety of ways. Eubanks showcased that ability Friday when her cross found the head of Olivia Hernandez for the clinching goal in a 1-0 victory against Memphis in an exhibition at the MSU Soccer Field.
Byrd said Eubanks can be a "game-changer" because she reads the game well and is super dynamic and athletic, but that he also sees how Anagnost would want Eubanks to be selfish in a good way to make a bigger impact on the match.
"She is such a nice, team-first person a lot of times and she likes to pass when she had an opportunity to go herself," said Byrd, who saw Eubanks train and play in 11-vs.-11 scrimmages. "She is an all-around team player who a lot of times will get the team involved more so than herself. At times that can be a fault because at times she had the ability to take the game over herself."
Byrd said one way to convince Eubanks to be more "alpha" is to give her and the other Bulldogs direction on what to do and where to go when they have the ball.
Judging from his comment Monday at media day, Anagnost has tried that approach and intends to give Eubanks the freedom to showcase her skills and her ability to create for herself and for others.
"If you're putting the onus on her, it is the tone with which she talks to people and how early she does when the game is going on," Anagnost said. "Without the ball, (it is) putting herself in better scoring positions. It also is our team, and as a staff, we have to show moments where we can get her the ball better in certain situations."
Eubanks credits Anagnost and associate head coaches Matt Kagan and Jason Hamilton for putting the program in position to have success this season. She said all three are "really great" and have created a dynamic where everyone is pushing the players to get better. She said it is an "all-in" approach where everyone wants to get better every day.
As for her soccer future, Eubanks said being a professional is wanting to do it every day, which is an attitude she hopes to sharpen this season.
"Going out there and being in Detroit and in that environment with people who want to do that every day, we went there for soccer, so everything revolved around when we had practice and meetings, so it gives you a taste of the environment you will be in," said Eubanks, who was selected the SEC Community Service Team in 2015, was named to the President's List in 2016 after posting a 4.0 grade-point average, and named to the 2016 Fall SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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