As Elon University is poised to kick off its inaugural Colonial Athletic Association campaign, fans and players alike are eager to check out each new opponent the Phoenix will face.
For the Elon women’s soccer team, there are plenty of exciting fixtures before its conference opener Sept. 26 against Hofstra University.
“We’ve got a full spectrum of teams and RPI [Rankings],” said Elon women’s soccer coach Chris Neal.
The Phoenix will once again have a formidable nonconference schedule that includes matchups with two power conference schools: the Big 12’s West Virginia University and the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Clemson University.
Elon rekindled its Southern Conference rivalry with Appalachian State University in the team’s second game of the year. Appalachian State won 3-1.
After a pair of exhibition contests against Liberty University and Catawba College, the Phoenix opened up its season with a 2-0 victory against Jacksonville State University Aug. 22. With matches against Jacksonville State, Appalachian State and Clemson, Elon opens with three consecutive home games at Rudd Field.
“It’s going to be a great homestand,” said junior midfielder Taylor Glenn.
As a young team that’s still learning to play with one another, Elon could use a homestand to start the year.
“It’ll be great to play together and get our style down,” said senior forward Marissa Russo.
The contest with Appalachian State was one between two teams who know each other very well.
“It [was] nice to see some familiar faces,” said sophomore defender Erin Tanhauser.
Last season, neither team was able to get the better of the other as the match ended in a 3-3 draw. In 2012, the teams split their two meetings with Elon losing to the Mountaineers in the regular season, but knocked out their rivals in the opening round of the SoCon tournament.
On Aug. 24, Appalachian State scored three goals during an 11-minute span in the second half for the victory.
Although both schools have left the SoCon for larger pastures (Appalachian State is now in the Sun Belt Conference), the meeting was an opportunity to rekindle a fierce rivalry.
“When we play App State it’s always a physical, tough game,” Russo said. “It’s a game of who wants it more.”
Neal said he enjoys scheduling not only Appalachian State but also other in-state rivals.
“I think it’s really important to continue those in-state rivalries,” Neal said. “Those are always great games. Both teams don’t have to travel very far, and there’s a lot of coaching friendships. A lot of players have friends and family that may have ended up at other schools, so there’s that unique element as well.”
Neal added how beating in-state rivals can boost Elon’s reputation in the recruiting game. He said creating a recruiting hotbed within the state can give Elon a much-needed boost heading into a new conference.
“[The CAA] is a league that, from a women’s soccer perspective, has a richer tradition than the Southern Conference,” Neal said.
Admittedly, many CAA schools have the tradition and history to recruit top talent. But Neal said he feels Elon’s program is making the necessary adjustments.
The Phoenix will face two more in-state rivals to open up the month of September. The Phoenix will travel to take on High Point University Sept. 5, and will stay on the road to take on East Carolina University in Greenville two days later.
After Appalachian State comes to town, the Phoenix will wrap up its homestand with a matchup against Clemson. It will kick off two straight matches against power conference schools as the Phoenix heads to Morgantown, West Virginia, to take on West Virginia University. This will mark the first time since 2012 that the Phoenix has faced a team from a “big five” conference. During that season, Elon faced three of them, drawing with the Big East’s University of Cincinnati and losing to the ACC’s Duke University and North Carolina State University.
It was a tough stretch for the Phoenix, as it scored only one goal in three matches. But this squad is excited for a new opportunity.
“[These games] challenge us and force us to be better players,” Russo said.
The games against Clemson and West Virginia will give the Phoenix an opportunity to close in on its season-long goal.
“These games will be great opportunities for us to increase our national ranking,” Glenn said. “Last year, we broke into the top 75, and this year our goal is to get into the top 50. If we can get good results against good teams like that it’ll really help us out.”
In all, what the Phoenix wants is a solid preparation for its inaugural CAA season. The team has a one-game-at-a-time approach, but Glenn admitted it’s the conference games that “matter the most.” With a new conference comes new challenges, and aside from unfamiliar opponents, the conference brings with it a decidedly heightened level of play. For Neal, the matchups with West Virginia and Clemson will prepare the team for the new competition.
“Playing the Clemsons and West Virginias will give us a better idea of how we can athletically match up against the James Madisons, the William & Marys, and Hofstras of the CAA,” Neal said.
Neal, who served as an assistant at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for eight years, knows firsthand the top-level athletes that grace the CAA.
“You’re going to have less time and space on the ball,” Neal said. “The level of athletes in the Colonial is going to make it very uncomfortable. It’s going to be a faster game.”
He found the Phoenix was the most athletic team on the field in almost all of its conference matchups last year, but knows this year will be a completely different story.
“The hurdle for us, in the first year, is we’re going to face some teams that are more athletic than us,” Neal said.
Elon will have nine non-conference matches before it gets into the swing of conference play. After posting a 6-1-2 record in last year’s non-conference slate, there’s certainly a lot to look forward to.
Regardless of how things go, Neal is committed to making adjustments to get the team playing the right way.
“Based on how we do in the non-conference, we may have to change tactics to compete the way we want to compete in the Colonial,” he said.