August 19, 2010 10:06:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It''s all about an attitude this season for the University of Alabama women''s soccer team.
After seasons of nine and six wins in his first two years at the school, coach Todd Bramble hopes an infusion of 11 newcomers and the maturation of his underclasswomen helps his program make strides in the Southeastern Conference.
The Crimson Tide have qualified for the eight-team SEC tournament only twice in the past 10 years. The program last made the NCAA tournament in 1998, so Bramble still has work to do as he tries to build a program in the fashion he helped mold Clemson into a national power.
At Clemson, Bramble led the Tigers to the NCAA tournament seven consecutive seasons from 2001-07, including a trip to the Elite Eight and two appearances in the Sweet 16.
Bramble believes Alabama has the same potential, and he feels the pieces are there to begin putting that dream into motion. He hopes his willingness to give his players more freedom on offense this season helps the program move forward.
"It starts with our attitude and you combine it with pure tactics," Bramble said. "I would be the first to admit I was more conservative than I would like to have our teams play last year. I thought it was what we had to do stay in games longer."
Alabama''s lack of scoring punch put more pressure on the defense. The Crimson Tide (6-11-1, 2-8-1 SEC in 2009) scored only 14 goals last year, including three in SEC play. One of those goals came in a 1-0 victory at Mississippi State on Sept. 29.
Bramble hopes the development of upperclasswomen like senior forward Brooke Rogers allows his team to play more attacking soccer. He said the Crimson Tide have to be willing to open themselves up a little bit more tactically and to add in the attitude and mentality of the players that they''re going to be a more balanced team this year.
Initially, Bramble didn''t think that would be the case. He admitted he thought at the start of training that his team would be "really, really young" this season. But his opinion changed after he saw the work the upperclasswomen invested in the spring. That effort has carried over to the preseason and into the first two exhibition matches. Six players scored goals in victories against Tennessee Tech and Mercer, reinforcing Bramble''s belief there will be plenty of competition for playing time.
"I think we''re going to be a fairly balanced team. It won''t be like half of our team will be freshmen when we start," Bramble said. "We have a lot of close races for playing time," Bramble said. "It has created a really competitive environment and makes us feel good about the depth we could have this year."
The addition of nine newcomers from six states and the transfer of sisters K.K. and Meghan Duffy from Clemson will provide that depth. Bramble feels the ability of Alabama to attract top-flight recruits shows it is building a program. He said the next step is to produce on the field.
Junior goalkeeper Justine Bernier, a second-team All-SEC performer last season, will anchor the defense, while Rogers and senior midfielders Victoria Frederick and Rosaly Petriello hope to emerge as leaders up front.
Bramble said it is "indescribable" how much better the team''s fitness level is compared to the same time last season. He said the coaches recognize the investment the players made and have faith that more members of the team can contribute at the SEC level. He hopes the result will be a team that will be able to go to its bench often to maintain a high tempo and wear opponents down.
That''s an attitude any coach would love his team to adopt.
"I am really excited," Bramble said. "Part or the excitement is going to come from the mystery of who is going to play. If this was the day before our first game and we were going to try to scratch out a starting lineup, it is still really, really wide open. The excitement comes from seeing who is going to emerge come Aug. 20, but I am cautiously optimistic. I know the league as a whole has gotten better, so if we''re making progress at a normal rate we''re staying the same because everybody is doing that. What we''re looking for is to make some exceptional progress if we''re going to move up the table. I think on paper that is something that can be accomplished."
Alabama opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday against Samford. It will travel to the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Sunday.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.