As the Elon University women’s soccer team enters its third season in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), head coach Chris Neal says he knows what it takes to win in this conference.
Neal spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, working under head coach Paul Cairney as the Seahawks improved its CAA record from 0-4-1 in 2001 to 8-3 in 2006.
“I feel very fortunate that I have that experience,” Neal said. “At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple equation. The CAA is a very, very athletic league and a skilled league.”
The athleticism across the league overwhelmed the Phoenix in 2014, as it limped to a 1-8 conference record, getting outscored in its eight losses 20-3. Neal described the season as “demoralizing” when Elon ended the year.
While the 2015 team’s 1-7-1 record doesn’t look much better than 2014, the Phoenix was markedly improved, losing twice in overtime — including a 1-0 defeat at eventual conference champion James Madison University. For Neal, the difference at the end of the season was noticeable.
“Were we upset? Sure,” Neal said. “But we knew the gap had been closed, and there were a couple of those games that could have gone our way but did not. This year, we go in with a significant amount of optimism because I think we’re a better team than last year, and I think the kids have continued to improve.”
Elon’s season is already underway, and the Phoenix has dropped three straight matches after opening the year with a 2-0 win over Charleston Southern University. But Neal anticipated that, with a lot of position changes and new faces, chemistry would be an issue early on.
“I think that’s probably going to take a little bit longer than normal [this year],” Neal said. “We’ve been a little more black-and-white with the decisions that were right in front of us — it was a little bit easier in the past — but this year, we’ve got a little more depth and different types of players in each position.
“The chemistry’s going to be a big part of it — finding out who plays well with each other, who coexists well in certain areas of the field together. That’s a good problem, but that’s a very difficult problem.”
One of the big changes for the Phoenix comes from one of their captains, as junior Grace Bennett is moving from forward to a defending midfielder spot. Neal made the switch in the spring, and says the “Olympic-quality athlete” has been effective so far. Bennett sees energy conservation as her biggest personal challenge for the season.
“Up forward, you have a lot more time to recover because you choose your time to make runs,” Bennett said. “But it’s a different recovery when you’re playing midfield. You choose a time to defend or attack, but you also have to transition a lot more. It’s a lot more running that’s involved, so I trained a lot differently this summer than I usually have trained — more distance and short sprints.”
Bennett’s movement back will mean sophomore forward Tori Baliatico leads the way for the Phoenix up front. After scoring four goals last year — which was tied for the team-high — Baliatico was selected as a Preseason Honorable Mention All-CAA player, a recognition from the other coaches of her strong speed and good first step.
With a strong first-step burst and good pace, Baliatico can beat defenders and keepers to loose balls near the net, which she did Aug. 21 for Elon’s lone goal against High Point University. But Baliatico sees the depth developing around her as a big difference from last year.
“Our team has so much depth this year,” Baliatico said. “We’ve gained so many great players that add to the athleticism. We now have players that have the same amount of pace as me up top, and we have Grace in the middle with the same pace.”
The depth means that Neal has a lot of juggling to do before CAA play starts in late September. And while Bennett’s stated goal is to “get to the CAA finals,” Neal looks at the conference landscape and — while understanding the challenges ahead — finds a lot of hope.
“It is not an easy league to move up the ranks of — there are a lot of teams that have been here for 20-plus years that have never won anything,” Neal said. “You’ve got some traditional powers that you have to be fully committed to knocking off that pedestal. It’s not easy, because they have great leadership, too. I think our kids are doing all the right things, and they’re closing that gap significantly.”