Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
What do you get when you add two concussions with four knee injuries, and subtract five starting players? An historically challenging season for the Vikings soccer teams.
Both the men’s and women’s teams finished seventh in conference, the lowest in their 10-year NCAA history. However, due to the uncontrollable nature of injuries, the coaching staffs do not view these records as a reflection on team preparation.
“Sometimes you get those years when things just kind of align that way,” said Richard Vardy, head coach of the men’s team. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
Team members and coaches say that the struggle revealed the importance of team unity that does not show up on paper, and they plan to make minor mindset adjustments in the off season for either morale or tactical improvements.
Vardy planned a challenging schedule for the men this fall, knowing his team would have seven senior members. Five out of the seven, however, suffered injuries at some point during the season and had to sit out of game. Since the seniors were not back at full strength, even when they were cleared to play, younger players clocked many more minutes on the field than expected.
Younger players getting experience will benefit the team in the long run, but it made the 2023 season difficult for the Vikings, who ended the season with a 5-7-5 record for wins, losses and ties.
The Vikings were knocked out of the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) championship tournament in the first round by Rhodes College on Oct. 28. However, the Vikings beat Rhodes in the tournament’s semi-final round last year and went on to barely lose the finals to the conference’s sixth seed. Vardy views this as evidence that the SAA presents tough competition for any team, regardless of how many injuries they have sustained.
“This conference is very, very competitive right now, and it’s just tough when you’re not clicking 100%,” Vardy said.
In addition to the five ties, five of the Vikings’ seven losses were by a margin of one goal. Vardy said that along with the competitiveness within the conference, this statistic also points to the determination of his players, regardless of their year.
“There’s a lot of pride to look back,” Vardy said. “Even when things were pretty tough at certain points in the season, we always kept battling until the last minute of every game.”
The men’s team discovered that maintaining unity can be a challenge in the middle of unexpected hardship. Senior Tracy Moon, who played attacking midfield and forward, said that although his team is reasonable and close-knit, the constant losses often tempted them to place blame on each other.
“When you’re working really hard and you’re not getting results, it kind of gets guys pointing fingers at each other, like, ‘what are we doing wrong?’” Moon said. “It’s really hard.”
Even in the middle of a tense season, Moon still points to spending time with his teammates off the field as a highlight. Other highlights he listed included several goals scored by underclassmen, as well as preserving the program’s winning streak at home. The men’s team has not lost a regular season game at home since the 2019 season.
Vardy said the team will focus on growing leadership and maturity among younger players during the off season, in addition to working for a large recruiting class. Moon is one of two seniors currently planning to take a fifth year, awarded to NCAA Division III student athletes who were playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and return as a graduate student on the team.
Moon plans to build on team unity and preparation during the off-season by encouraging others to train with him in their free time. The team aspect is exemplified by Moon winning a spot on the All-SAA Second Team along with sophomore Andrew Guzman. Moon said this means a lot to him, since he played on the same team with Guzman when they were in high school.
“Team sport is worth a lot more than just winning,” Moon said. “It’s awesome just to work hard alongside guys you’d call friends, brothers, and be able to do life so closely with [them],” Moon said.
The women’s team also expected to excel in a tough schedule this year, according to Head Coach Kathy Brown. Brown said they would have been prepared to tackle if they were healthy, but four knee injuries and two concussions throughout the course of one season meant the team was simply trying to survive.
“You can’t control an ACL tear, a concussion,” Brown said. “With the hand we were dealt, I think we did the best we could do.”
Junior and co-captain Molly Hellwig said that players had to proactively remind themselves that injuries are a normal risk of soccer, but the high incidence still made them hesitant to go on the offensive at times.
“It started to get a little more scary to go into tackles and to work your hardest,” Hellwig said. “We just had to get a new mindset of ‘it happens’ and just keep doing what we know how to do.”
The team’s five record of five wins, 10 losses and one tie included hard-fought games on the road against Emory University, the College of New Jersey and the University of Cabrini, all at the beginning of September. While these matches had varying outcomes, graduate student and goalkeeper Maggie Jones said they exemplified the best from a team performance standpoint.
“Looking back on those games and seeing the rest of the season, it’s just very aggravating,” Jones said. “I saw what we could do, but when it got down to it, where it really matters, we just couldn’t perform.”
Due to injuries, Brown had to move players around on the field based on the opponent’s tactics, rather than using the new formation implemented by the team during pre-season. This led to additional challenges on offense, according to Brown.
Younger players navigated the different line-ups well: The team’s top scorer this year is Nicole Knight, one of the team’s 13 returning sophomores. However, being outshot in most games reinforced a defensive mindset that discouraged players from taking shots on goal, Hellwig said, thus lowering their chances of scoring.
Brown hopes to address this statistic by heavily recruiting attacking players to join the team in 2024. Hellwig said having this year as motivation will also help as they prepare for next season.
“Knowing that it can only go up gives you a little fire,” Hellwig said.
Brown and Hellwig agreed that morale sustained the team during a record low season. Even Jones, who missed out on most team-bonding due to graduate school, described trips to play in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as some of the best trips she has taken with the team.
Despite losing one co-captain to injury, Brown said that her student leaders maintained team unity. After hard losses, for example, the captains would still rally fellow players to thank spectators together. Brown regrets that this perseverance goes unnoted on paper when others look back on the season.
“That’s not a statistic, that’s not something the fans see, that’s not something the parents even see,” Brown said. “But I see it, and that’s what kept us together.”