“We hungry” used to be the chant that got the Illinois State soccer squad pumped-up before games, and it describes perfectly the attitude that head coach Drew Roff and his team have as the 2013 season gets under way. The team, which has made it to conference championship three of the last four years, has an insatiable appetite for yet another conference championship.
Roff says that his team has three major goals this season: to win the conference outright in the regular season, to win the conference championship and to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“If we can accomplish those three things, we can look back on it and say that it was a pretty special year. Every year since I’ve been here, my number one goal has been to win the Missouri Valley Conference,” Roff said. “The conference is always of the utmost importance to us, because we take a lot of pride in the level of play. We take a lot of pride in striving to be the best team in The Valley. Every year we try to give a little bit more.”
If the Redbirds were to achieve the first of these three goals, it would be their third straight year in doing so. And if they were to strive for the last of the three, it would be the first time for Roff’s team. In order to get there, the ’Birds will face a tougher schedule and build off of their consecutive NCAA appearances over the last two seasons.
“Just the experience from being there two-out-of-three years is eventually going to pay off,” Roff said. “It’s another level of competition and the stakes are very high. The more our players are in that kind of environment, the better prepared they’ll be.
“We’re a good team; we’ve played well. But I feel like we haven’t always played as well as we could. So it’s only a matter of time. I feel like eventually we’re going to break through.”
The Redbird soccer program still has hopes of being the first MVC team to win a NCAA tournament game. But with the NCAA tournament still a full schedule away, the team will be focusing more on each day and each game this year, rather than getting ahead of themselves.
“I think last year we got so caught up in wanting to do well in the tournament that we ended up letting some things slip,” Roff said. “One thing we have learned is that if you want to do well in the NCAA tournament, you have to focus on every day. That way when the opportunity comes we’ll be more successful, and hopefully advance.”
In the short term, ISU will first set its sights on Miami-Ohio. A home game will follow against Wisconsin on Sunday before four away games in the early weeks of September. During their road trip, the Redbirds will face Illinois ― which is ranked in the nation’s top-50 ― as well as Minnesota and TCU, which have RPI’s placing them in the top-100 teams in the country.
Later in the season the Redbirds will see competition in rivals Drake and Evansville at home. Building RPI to prepare for NCAA play will be another focus of the team this time around.
With the loss of some seniors from last season, the team has been working on strengthening their back four, as well as focusing on defending as a whole. With a team that has a strong, animated offense, Roff says that a strong defense will be the key to the season.
“We’re improving our offense by defending well … so we’ve been working on our midfield defending and the organization of our back four. So far it’s been working really well,” he said.
Roff recognizes that goalkeeper Aryn Newsom will be a major role-player for the Redbird defense, along with Alyse Williams in the center-back position, calling them both “impact players.”
In the midfield, seniors Allie Newsom and Anna Stinson will offer experience and leadership.
Last season, Allie Newsom scored the first goal since 2010 against Florida Atlantic, and Stinson started 16 games, tallying eight points on three goals and two assists.
The key to their success on attacking will be junior forward Rachel Tejada, who has been one of the nation’s leading scorers. Last year Tejada was named MVC Player of the Year for the second-straight season, and led the conference with 18 goals, 10 assists, 46 points, 80 shots and four game-winning goals.
Tejada, who scored two goals in less than one minute in an exhibition game last weekend, was ranked in the top seven nationally in goals last season.
New to the team this year will be Kara Morroway and Dagny Olson. Morroway has become one of the team’s top one-on-one defenders and is expected to provide strength to the back line throughout her collegiate career.
Olson is an attacking midfielder who is able to create chances to score goals for herself and her teammates.
As a whole, Roff is confident that his team is going to be successful this season.
“These young players are already off to a great start as they continue to develop and get more and more comfortable with the college game. There’s great chemistry, and they’re a fun group,” he said.
The Redbirds will get their first chance to feed their hunger on Friday in their home opener against Miami-Ohio at 4 p.m. at Adelaide Street Field.