Five years ago, Elon University women’s soccer coach Chris Neal was hired to turn around a program that had just completed its eighth consecutive losing season.
With the new coach came a new slogan: “Together.”
“This was a program that needed a
The 2012 campaign was the first losing season under Neal’s leadership, ending with a loss to eventual champion Georgia Southern University in the Southern Conference Championships. In fact, it’s the first losing season Neal has ever had as a head coach. However, he and the players don’t feel it was a losing season at all.
This year was the fourth in a row Elon has had a winning record in SoCon play, finishing with a mark of 4-3-4. Only two other teams in the league have accomplished the feat: Samford University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Coincidentally, they were the top two teams in the league this season.
“Having a winning season four straight years in this conference is nothing to shake a stick at,” Neal said. “Overall, our record shows we had a losing season, but it really doesn’t feel like that at all. Anyone who’s followed us throughout the season knows this was a successful season, even if the record doesn’t show that.”
Plagued by injuries from start to finish, the team somehow got to conference play with enough able bodies.
“There were certainly points I was worried about what was going to happen,” Neal said. “No question.”
Sitting at 1-4-1 just six games into the season and coming off a double overtime loss in the final seconds against Troy University in Wilmington, Neal thought his team could be in trouble.
“It was really hard to swallow how we lost that game,” Neal said. “We were only a weekend away from going into conference play at that point. That’s when coaches start looking at the schedule and think, ‘If we don’t get this turned around, what’s going to happen?’”
To this point in the season, Neal said the team also had 15 healthy field players, which kept the same players on the field for extended minutes game after game.
The easy way to escape the pain and the anguish was to crumble. That’s not what happened though.
“The heart of this team is why we didn’t crumble,” freshman defender Mel Insley said. “Together, we have a lot of heart and a lot of passion. We really wanted to succeed and we used those setbacks in the beginning as motivation to do well going forward.”
Two days later, though, against Campbell University came the turning point in the season. Although the Phoenix lost the game, a sense of resurrection was felt throughout the program.
“In that loss to Campbell, we played really well,” Neal said. “It just started to feel like we were starting to gel even though we lost. We left that weekend 1-5-1, but it just felt different. After that, there was a lot of hope on the coaching staff, from the players, really all around.”
In the 11 games that followed the match against Campbell, the Phoenix dropped just one of them, going 5-1-5 over that stretch.
Not at any point during the 11-game run did Elon trail. The only loss during the stretch was an overtime loss to Appalachian State University. Since overtime is sudden victory, the Phoenix was never actually behind in a game.
As the season came to a close, the defense got stronger, recording three shutouts in a row against Georgia Southern Oct. 12, Davidson College Oct. 14 and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Oct. 19. That tied the program record for consecutive shutouts, which was set by the 2008 squad.
Although Elon stumbled down the stretch, dropping matches against Samford Oct. 21 and UNCG Oct. 23, the Phoenix locked up the No. 5 seed in the SoCon tournament. Awaiting them was an Oct. 28 rematch against fourth-seeded Appalachian State.
Powered by senior midfielder Jaclyn Wood’s second goal of the season, the Phoenix got payback on the Mountaineers, earning a spot in the tournament semifinals in Birmingham, Ala.
The Phoenix ran into the Cinderella of the SoCon in the semifinals, eighth-seeded Georgia Southern. The Eagles not only defeated the Phoenix in double overtime Nov. 2, they went on to win the tournament two days later.
“This season certainly didn’t give us the result we wanted, but it’s not a lost season,” Neal said. “This team never stopped working and they never gave up. We could have crumbled early on with all of the injuries and all of the adversity, but injuries don’t define our season. This team’s toughness and togetherness is what defines our season.”
Five seniors depart from the program as graduates of Elon University in the spring of 2013. But to Neal, Insley and junior defender Jennifer McGorty, the lone captain returning next season, those five laid the foundation for not only the current team to continue on, but also the program as a whole moving forward past this generation.
“They’ve set a very high standard and a very good example,” McGorty said. “It kind of makes my job finishing junior year and going into senior year very easy because I literally just have to follow in their footsteps.”
Although a rising sophomore, Insley’s radar caught the leadership abilities the seniors brought to the table. It’s something she wants to help grow in the future as she moves forward.
“I have grown as a player from all of the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve played with this season,” she said. “To see how inspirational the seniors and the captains were and to see most of them go, we want to carry on what they left for us and carry the tradition they set for us.”
As for what the seniors have brought to this program, that’s something not far off on Wood.
“This group of seniors, the main thing we’ve done is shown commitment and kind of changed everyone’s mindset to be totally committed on and off the field in every aspect so that all of the pieces fit together,” Wood said. “This group really cared and we never wanted this run to end.”
According to Neal, there are only two words he needs to say to his seniors: “Thank you.”
“Thank you for the dedication and hard work,” he said. “They built a foundation of winning that the younger generation can build on. All I can say is thank you for the dedication to this program.”
Together, the Phoenix will regroup for 2013. The five graduating seniors have left a tradition and a foundation for the younger generation to build on: a foundation of winning, and a tradition of doing it together.
“This team does everything together,” Neal said. “They fight together. They win together. They lose together. They draw together. Together, we’ll move on to next year, and we’ll see what awaits us, but man, am I excited.”