During the 2012 NCAA soccer season, Elon University watched one team sweep the Southern Conference regular season and tournament championships on its way to a second straight NCAA tournament appearance. The other team struggled through a serious injury bug and dropped a heartbreaker in the final seconds of the conference tournament semifinals.
About the only thing the Elon men’s and women’s soccer teams had in common last season was that both Darren Powell, the head coach of the men’s team, and Chris Neal, the head coach on the women’s side, won conference Coach of the Year honors.
Powell was almost a lock for the award given his team’s success and the national attention Elon drew, due in large part to its rigorous schedule and then-senior Chris Thomas’ natural ability to put the ball in the back of the net to the tune of 23 times on the year — a mark that led the nation.
Neal earned the honor by keeping the injury-riddled Phoenix together to compete in conference play and make a run at a title, even though there were questions as to whether he and his staff would be able to field a team at all on any given night.
Although the women made the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament, the number of goals being scored lacked. Heavily.
Powered by then-junior Simi Dhaliwal, who led the team with three goals on the season, the women scored a total of 23 goals in 22 games — the same mark Thomas tallied all by himself.
With a new year upon them, both teams find themselves in the same boat — in search of goal scorers to take the reins and navigate the Phoenix through the final season of Southern Conference play before taking off for the Colonial Athletic Association.
Neal and his staff brought in a recruiting class of 12 freshmen after numerous severe injuries plagued the Phoenix a season ago. Only six players saw minutes in all 22 games on the year, with just two starting every game — Shannon Foley and Claire O’Keeffe. Both have since departed the program after graduating in May.
With fears the Phoenix wouldn’t be able to play a full team of 11 players Friday nights after a week of training, the intensity levels in practice suffered, causing goals to come few and far between throughout the season.
“We had to bubble wrap what healthy players we had between Sunday and Friday just so we could play a game last year,” Neal said. “We were handcuffed. We could only do so much in training from an intensity standpoint for fear that we may not be able to field a team on Friday nights.”
With 33 healthy players entering the 2013 season, “safe” and “low intensity” are not a part of the plan anymore for Neal and the Phoenix.
“This year, right away in preseason, it looks like a different planet from an intensity standpoint,” Neal said. “The players know playing time is on the line every practice. That’s the big difference from last year to this year — the level we can go to in training and not have to worry about not putting a team out. What we’ve seen already is remarkable.”
Senior forward Catherine Brinkman was one of the many players who found herself rotating in and out of the lineup a season ago with various injuries throughout the year. With one season left for her to right the ship and prove she can lead the Phoenix, Brinkman’s drive to finish her career on the right note with a strong, competitive senior season is not far off Neal.
“Catherine is in the best shape she’s ever been in in her four years at Elon,” Neal said. “She seems more focused. I think she recognizes the fact that it’s her senior year. This is it. That’s sunk in for her. She continues to focus on her fitness and because of that, she’s going to score more goals.”
Brinkman knows the importance of getting back to the form she played with during her sophomore season — one in which she led the Phoenix in goals scored.
“We’re going to score more goals than we have in the last three years,” Brinkman said. “We have to to win. That’s where we’ve slacked these last three years — in the goal scoring area. We can shut out any team, but the goal scoring has been light the last few years.”
With a returning core and a large freshman class, Neal said he believes there are multiple players on his roster that could boost the Phoenix to the next level.
“There’s not a Chris Thomas that comes around very often and scores 23 goals,” Neal said. “But I really expect to have multiple players with somewhere between eight to 12 goals. That’s the goal. If you’ve got multiple people that are putting up eight goals a year, that’s good times. In 2011, we might have had five players somewhere between three to six. We need five or six players with six or more goals. And we’re capable of that. Kendall Stanley, or Catherine Brinkman, or potentially one of the freshmen or somebody that just has the ball bounce the right way can score 15 goals. And Simi Dhaliwal, too. She’s definitely one of the players that can score a lot of goals.”
On the flip side, Powell brought in a class designed to help the returning core of players fill the void left by Thomas at the top.
“We recruited them to help the team and improve the team at each position they individually play,” Powell said. “It’s a pretty solid group for each and every player. It’s a very similar class to previous years. They’re a very solid group of individuals — good characters, good in the classroom. Now they have to figure out how they’re going to fit into the team. They have to earn the right to get onto the field.”
While senior midfielder Daniel Lovitz knows how much of a luxury it was having Thomas putting seemingly every ball into the back of the net, he said he thinks the Phoenix has the core to succeed without Thomas as long as the team can find its footing early on.
“We have to create an identity as early as possible on the team,” he said. “If we get that core group out there on the field and get the depth mixed in, the sooner we get that identity and the sooner we can establish ourselves in the game and can start winning games comfortably.”
A key to finding the team’s identity is getting off to a running start, according to junior goalkeeper Nathan Dean, is getting off to a running start.
“We had a fairly decent start last year, but it’s always something that we’ve been lacking a little bit,” he said. “We’ve prepared pretty well and if we can get off to a strong start, I think that will really set us up well for the season.”
Another key to success is finding a way to duplicate late results — something the Phoenix enjoyed multiple times in 2012 on the way to a 15-5-2 record.
“We really have to replicate some of the last-minute results we had last year,” Lovitz said. “That really was an application of our attitude and our fitness levels coming to the end of these really tough, grueling games where we were able to nudge it out. Luckily we were on the receiving end of a lot of that good fortune, but we need to replicate that whichever way we can because that is going to be a big factor for us as a team.”
With the departure of the College of Charleston from the Southern Conference, conference matches have become all that much more important, especially for the men’s team, with only six teams in play.
Powell acknowledged the reshuffling taking its toll on the Phoenix, saying with less conference games to play, each becomes that much more important toward the end of season standings.
“It’s a little tight this year,” Powell said. “There’s less games. That’s one thing we’ll talk about as a group with Charleston leaving is now there’s only six games, so those points are a premium. So every time you step on the field now against a conference team, it really is almost like a championship game, and we need to approach it that way so we maximize in the points we get.”
Dean said the team knows the challenge, but it will not be too much of an obstacle for the Phoenix because of their mentality from years past.
“It does make them a little more important,” Dean said. “We always take conference games very seriously, though, so it’s hard to say they’re more important this year. But in terms of racking up the points and getting to that first spot, we need to do it sooner, and it definitely makes every game a little bit more important if that’s possible.”
With the women looking for their fifth straight winning season in Southern Conference play and the men looking for their eighth in the last nine years, the two teams also come together with one common goal: taking the SoCon trophies and running to the Colonial Athletic Association. And no, it’s not out of the question.
“This year is going to be a difficult task in terms of everybody is very aware of our team and our program,” Powell said. “That’s a new challenge for us. But it’s also an exciter for us. And we believe we can get it done.”
The women were stung at the end of last season in the semifinals of the conference tournament with a loss against Georgia Southern, which has not fallen off Brinkman’s radar.
“I still remember that like it was yesterday,” Brinkman said. “I was kind of happy for them in a weird way. They were the No. 8 seed, but every single team in our conference is so close and I just want all of them this year. It would definitely be sweet to beat the champs, though.”
While senior captain Jennifer McGorty isn’t hanging onto the loss, she knows the importance of putting the game out of memory, at least for the time being, in hopes of a better result this year.
“There’s so much that is new this year so it’s kind of hard to go into the season dwelling on the past and what happened last year,” she said. “I’m not even worrying about the past. I’m just worrying about what’s about to happen this year.”
One thing McGorty is thinking about, though, is returning to the semifinals with a goal of going beyond that game.
“When I get to the semifinals this year, it’s going to mean that much more after what happened last season,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s Georgia Southern on the other side or whoever it is. When I get to that semifinal, it’s going to mean so much more because we want this and we want to move on. Bad.”
The men don’t have to worry about beating the champs. Instead, they’re the team with the target on their backs after taking back-to-back conference tournament championships.
“We just have to not even think about last year or the year before that or the year before that,” said senior midfielder Matt Wescoe. “We just have to focus on what’s ahead of us and put in the work to be the best team that we possibly can be and compete to win all of our games.”
While both coaches acknowledged there’s still an entire season to be played before either can start thinking about competition in the CAA, they both know how much it would mean for both programs to take the SoCon trophies in their final season of contention.
“It doesn’t get any sweeter than winning in your last year,” Neal said. “There’s nothing worse than losing a fight and knowing you’re not going to get another chance. We want to be the one that wins and walks away and no one gets another shot at us. So steal the trophy and leave town. That’s the idea.”