August 5, 2010 7:42:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State''s soccer team has been re-tooling its attack for the past three seasons, and coach Neil Macdonald believes the firepower issues are a thing of the past.
Last year''s squad took a step toward contending in conference play, posting a 9-8-2 record and earning draws against ranked sides Florida and South Carolina.
MSU posted its first winning season since 2004, but six shutout losses and six goals scored in the Southeastern Conference revealed the weakness remained.
Senior forward Kat Walsh netted a team-best nine goals -- third-highest total in team history -- in her first season of eligibility after transferring from LSU.
Walsh is a proven scorer, but Macdonald is banking on Taylor Turnipseed''s return from a string of injuries and Danielle Kite''s move to forward to strengthen the attack.
MSU''s primary system of attack last year was often direct, using 5-foot-11 Rachel Wannek as a target forward who could hold possession and spring Walsh forward.
But with five striker options and midfielders Monica Alvarado and Jasmine Simmons returning in the team''s 4-3-3 lineup, Macdonald is looking to develop better linking play between midfielders and forwards.
"We worked most of the spring on indirect play and possessing more of the ball," said Macdonald, whose team opens practice Friday. "The forwards we have this year are most successful with the ball on the ground. With the addition of (freshman Elisabeth) Sullivan and Kite into the frontline, we can approach differently."
Macdonald expects Sullivan to make an immediate impact, and the first-year player could be relied upon early if Turnipseed has another injury.
Kite''s quickness will provide a boost at center forward or on the flank, but Turnipseed appears to be the X-factor at striker.
The junior scored three goals in 14 games as a freshman before knee issues, a concussion, and an elbow injury derailed her ''09 season. Turnipseed played just 34 minutes last season, but Macdonald said she''s 100 percent after a solid spring.
Senior center back Leanna Baldner agrees the forwards will play the most pivotal role this year, but not necessarily by finding the back of the net.
In the 4-3-3, it''s vital to have forwards aid in defense. Knowing when to fall back is just as important as being aware of team defending, Baldner said.
"Our movement at the back starts with them," Baldner said. "It helps cut off a lot of transition from the other team and makes defending easier for the team. The quicker we get back the ball, the quicker we can go forward.
"The biggest thing we''ve missed is that leader up top who''s going to be the first one to step to the ball."
Baldner''s concern about team defending is warranted, as MSU has just 84 minutes of college experience in goal. Skylar Rosson takes over for graduated Taryn Holland after playing three matches in ''09. And much like her former club teammate Turnipseed, the Oklahoma native is fit after having two anterior cruciate ligament surgeries since coming to MSU.
Behind Rosson, the experience is thin with freshmen Lisa Monteith and Abby Risner.
Macdonald expects Rosson to lock down the first-team spot, as does Baldner.
"Skylar did great in the spring, and it didn''t take long to adjust to her," Baldner said. "We play with confidence in her because we know what she can do."
Rosson has benefited from working with MSU''s new goalkeeper coach Robbie Kroger, a South African native who played professionally in Germany.
"Their approach to training under him as been excellent," Macdonald said.
The key to league success this season will be MSU''s ability to get results on the road, a task it didn''t handle well last year when it closed the season with six straight road losses in its last seven games. During that stretch, rain forced the Bulldogs to hold the majority of their training sessions indoors.
MSU has a similar stretch this season, playing at Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts five days before embarking on a four-match road swing to start SEC play.
"Our work started with that in the summer with 28 of 31 of our players in summer school," Macdonald said. "The girls have spent the summer lifting and running throughout the week with our strength and conditioning guys. Mentally, it''s tough to go on the road like that, but we''ve got a greatly experienced team that knows when to get the rest and how to keep their bodies fit.
"It''s a challenging non-conference and SEC schedule we have this year, and as coaches we''ll have to be aware of when to push them and when to back off in training."
MSU opens the season Aug. 20 at Tennessee-Martin before debuting a new playing surface Aug. 27 against the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
MSU will try to string together back-to-back winning records for the first time in 13 years.