Two friends, competitors, former college teammates – and top college coaches – are going to be navigating through a slightly different landscape this coming fall.
Missouri coach Bryan Blitz and Texas A&M coach Coach G Guerrieri are swapping conferences, heading from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference as part of the recent college conference merry-go-round.
“It’s a little bit melancholy because we’ve had a great run in the Big 12,” Guerrieri told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “But at the same time, really, really excited about what we get to do. After 16 years in one conference it’s fun to have a change.”
Added Blitz: “For me, it’s like getting a new job, but I don’t have to move my family from a personal standpoint. From a soccer standpoint it’s exciting – both conferences are comparable.”
Blitz and Guerrieri go way back, having played together at Tulsa before embarking on their respective coaching careers – Guerrieri’s actually starting as an assistant at Tulsa where he coached Blitz for a season.
Each has built their respective program to a strong standing nationwide, with A&M capturing 12 Big 12 regular season and conference titles in Guerrieri’s tenure, while Blitz has steadily built a program that won a tournament title in 2008 and the regular season title in 2009.
Their deep bond adds a unique twist to these changes.
“We’re still competitors, our goals are still to win whatever conference we’re in, whether it’s the Big 12 or the SEC,” Blitz said. “But we share that unique bond because we played at the same University, both are from Dallas, both have been in the Big 12, now moving to the SEC.”
While the move doesn’t dramatically alter each team’s preparations, the biggest difference both programs face is a significant uptick in the number of conference games this fall. Only nine teams played in the Big 12 in 2011, meaning eight conference games for every team.
The shift to the SEC takes the number of schools with soccer programs to 14, which creates the biggest obstacle of this move – along with a busier schedule.
“I think the biggest change that we’re going to see is in the number of conference games that we’re going to play without a break,” Guerrieri said. “In the Big 12, this past season, we only played eight conference games because there are only nine teams that have soccer.
“Those eight conference games were spread out over six weeks. You had a chance to rest, or you had a chance to get a non-conference game in there those six weeks. In the SEC, we’re going to play 13 games in six and a half weeks.”
That kind of schedule also means preparations for the fall includes lining up more difficult non-conference schedules for both A&M and Missouri, in order to help compensate and maintain a high RPI level by winning games against difficult opposition.
On the field, the similarities between the two teams run just as deep. Both teams competed with very young rosters last fall – Missouri had a total of 11 newcomers, while A&M fielded 10. And while A&M finished the higher of the two teams (A&M capturing the Big 12 conference tournament title), both focused this spring on furthering the development of their talented groups.
“We really put a big emphasis on our development as individuals and as a team in the spring, and it’s the first time we’ve ever gone through the spring and haven’t really pushed a goal,” Guerrieri said. “It was a real productive spring, the girls come out of it having come a long way and with a lot of confidence.”
A&M will be led by midfielders Katie Perry and Beth West, and are once against expecting big things from returning leading scorer Kelley Monogue, who scored 19 goals as a freshman. Annie Kunz, another freshman, finished as second leading scorer with 14 goals despite only starting five games last fall.
Up in Missouri, there’s a hope for the senior class to take a strong leadership role, something that has progressed significantly this spring. The rising senior class began playing in 2008, the first season of the two back-to-back titles, and Blitz was pleased at how that group has led during the spring.
“Now it’s their turn to really lead the group, so I think the biggest growth has come from our senior and junior class,” he said. “I think the freshmen followed suit, all those 11 newcomers. It’s really that senior leadership that is kind of guiding us moving forward.”
Juniors include the likes of midfielder Haley Krentz defender Allison Hu, while midfielder Kaysie Clark is one of a number of young talents who was a freshman last fall. Goalkeeper McKenzie Sauerwein provides experience at the back.
And despite the new conference, ambition for both teams is high as players wrap up the spring semester and head home for the summer.
“We’re trying to win conference trophies and we’re trying to put ourselves in a position to compete for a national championship,” Guerrieri said. “We should be good in the fall, but we’re only going to be as good as you prepare in the summer. The team is on a real high right now, so I’m pretty confident they’ll take the challenge and will really hit it hard this summer.”