Change is afoot in the Southeastern Conference.
Offseason moves mean that the conference is going have a new look in the fall, with Missouri and Texas A&M joining up for 2012.
Along with that, Tennessee’s Angela Kelly moved on to coach at Texas, and was replaced by former Maryland head coach Brian Pensky.
His first impressions of the shifting conference after two months on the job are glowing.
“The growth of this conference I think is really occurring right now,” he told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “It’s inspiring all of us to be better, it’s inspiring all of us to work harder and therefore be better.”
This year, the 14-school landscape is certain to provide a unique challenge, as the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri means that this fall each team plays each other once, offering very little wiggle room in non-conference action.
Georgia head coach Steve Holeman is pleased about the two new programs coming aboard.
“We’re adding two quality opponents – Texas A&M is a perennial top 10 team in the country and Missouri is usually a top 25 program, NCAA team,” he told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “It’s just going to make our conference better and strong, more competitive.”
For now, however, the shifting landscape is something on the horizon, not immediately impacting spring preparations. Schools like Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, Florida that are angling for the top spots next season are hard at work in spring preparations.
In Tennessee, life for new head coach Pensky is busy as he gets to know his new team, new surroundings, and an entirely new set of opposition. That isn’t putting a damper on anything, however.
“Right now I’m learning about our team and the areas in which we are good and the areas in which we need to get better,” he said. “And we’re going to be the best we can be. I think there’s no reason why we can’t compete at a high level in this league and give ourselves to do very, very well in this league.”
Pensky has a big challenge on his hands, as he looks to replace two of Tennessee’s three leading scorers from the fall – although he’s hopeful that the speedy tandem of Iyana Moore and Alexis Steadman will be a handful up front.
Regardless, this fall is going to provide a testing ground for Pensky, although adjusting from the ACC shouldn’t be too difficult of a process.
One team with its work cut out for it is Georgia. Looking to build on last fall’s at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs are without six important players for the entire spring season because of injuries. That includes Alexa Newfield, the conference’s leading scorer in the fall who is out with a meniscus tear in her knee.
Fortunately there is a silver lining, as the injuries are providing opportunity for others to shine at this time of year.
“You’re seeing some of our forwards that came off the bench and played probably anywhere from 20-40 minutes a game that are really playing 80-90 minutes in the spring games,” Holeman said. “They’re getting a lot of quality playing time, it’s only going to make them better, improve them and give them more chances to play in the fall.”
Every team in the SEC is going to be dealing with one thing this fall – the nature of the schedule creating must-win situations almost every time teams play outside the conference, as it’ll impact the chances of an at-large bid at the end of the season.
“Since we’re actually playing everyone in our conference, it becomes imperative that we all do extremely well in our non-conference games,” Holeman said. “Most teams in the SEC are only going to have six non-conference games, so it’s hard to get it exactly right because RPI is such a big factor.”
Of course, the exact implications won’t be known until this fall. But despite the numerous changes and new look, there’s little doubting the SEC is going to be just as deep, if not even more challenging, come this fall.
Players to Watch
Alexa Newfield, Georgia – A sterling sophomore season where she scored 16 goals and added eight assists has Newfield poised for big things. And while she’ll miss most of the spring with an injury, her importance to a strong Georgia side cannot be overstated.
Erika Tymrak, Florida – An offensive juggernaut on the SEC’s most prolific attack last fall, Tymrak is a senior this year and will no doubt be looking to go out with a bang.
Sabrina D’Angelo, South Carolina – Last fall’s SEC Freshman of the Year, D’Angelo is fresh off a successful U20 World Cup qualifying campaign with Canada which means she’ll miss part of the fall season. An excellent goalkeeper, her presence at the back provides a security blanket to the South Carolina back line