LITTLE ROCK - Fans catching a UALR soccer game at the Coleman Sports & Entertainment Complex this year might not see a lot they recognize from seasons past.
On the sideline this year is a new head coach, Adrian Blewitt, who comes to Little Rock from Division II school Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina.
On the field will be 14 new players ranging from freshmen to a senior and from locals to internationals.
But maybe the biggest change this year is in the team’s mentality. After a 2-16 season in 2012, the influx of fresh faces has given the program new life, renewed vitality and overall positivity.
“We come out here and we work for each other, and I definitely feel a difference from last year,” says senior midfielder Paige Mason. “Our mentality is that we’re coming out with a vengeance. We have nothing to lose, we really don’t, and so we see that this is the turning point.”
After an exhibition on Wednesday at Christian Brothers in Memphis, Tenn., UALR kicks off its regular season against Southern on Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Coleman Sports & Recreation Complex.
That’s when the new era of Trojans’ soccer begins. Blewitt, ready for the challenge, is excited to get onto the field after spending all spring and summer preparing for his first year as a Division I head coach.
“The level [of play is] probably going to be a bit higher than what it has been,” Blewitt says. “Overall it’s just a great sense of excitement about the start of the season coming up."
A native of England, Blewitt has incredible success at the Division II level on his résumé. His overall record stands at an impressive 167-66-12, and he was a stellar 36-5-3 in his final two years at Lenoir-Rhyne. Blewitt’s Division II teams made the NCAA Sweet 16 on three separate occasions and finished the season with a top-five national ranking once.
But besides the numbers, Blewitt has been instilling practices with greater organization and building camaraderie with off-the-field actives including a team trip to a theme park last weekend. Despite only two weeks with the entire group together, the players are already seeing an improvement.
“He’s bringing a lot of positive energy,” says senior defender Ashley Barksdale. “We have a bunch of team-building and bonding things that we’ve been doing. It’s something different that we’ve never seen with any other coach. It’s a breath of fresh air, and the practices we’ve had so far are very structured. I think he’s going to be a really good coach for us this year.”
Possibly the biggest task for Blewitt once the practices began was getting 14 new players fused with the established group of 11 returners. Blewitt says he was concerned that the returning players would hold animosity toward the newcomers and be worried that their spots on the field were in jeopardy.
That fear hasn’t come true at all. The 14 newest Trojans – 11 freshmen, two junior transfers and a senior transfer – are mixing perfectly with the 11 returners and forming tight bonds right away. Even the six new Trojans who come from Europe (three from Sweden, two from England and one from Germany) are fitting in well.
“The integration works very well because I feel fine, and I think all the new players feel fine as well,” says senior Andrea Letzel, a transfer from Germany. “It’s a good opportunity for us to change the team and start all over again. I think everyone is doing really well, and everyone has good spirits so far even if we have new combinations.”
Despite all the fresh faces, there will be plenty of talent returning to the field from the 2012 roster. Besides Mason, Barksdale and Letzel, the Trojans’ senior class also includes Holly Holland and Adrianna Queen, both forwards. Combined, the four returning seniors had more than 3,000 minutes of playing time and four of the team’s 13 goals last year.
Most of the offense last season came from now-junior Ariel Galletti, who scored five times and added three assists for a team-high 13 points. She and fellow junior Betsy Blackwood were named to the Pre-Season Sun Belt All-Conference Team by CollegeSportsMadness.com. Other returning players include juniors Kailie Holloway, Hannah McIntyre, Alyson Rohane, Lexus VanPelt and Amanda Wilkinson. Combined, that quintet had 42 starts and more than 3,500 minutes played last season.
The team’s 2013 schedule features 10 home games at the Coleman Sports & Recreation Complex and seven contests on the road. The conference schedule begins on Sept. 29 at Arkansas State, and the Trojans will play their last regular-season game on Oct. 25 at Texas State. If UALR makes the conference tournament, it will head back to Texas State two weeks later for a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth. Ask the players or Blewitt, and they know the conference tournament is a goal that is in reach.
“Right now our goal is to get as many wins as we can,” Blewitt says. “Sometimes it might be pretty, sometimes it might be ugly. I don’t really care particularly much right now. We’re going to try to play some nice stuff when we can, that’s what develops players, and we’re about doing that, but the utmost goal is to do whatever it takes to get a win.”
The Sun Belt Conference pre-season coaches’ poll, released Tuesday, has the Trojans projected to finish eighth out of nine programs in the league. That would make the Trojans the final team into the conference tournament in Texas in November.
To motivate them to reaching their goal, Mason and the rest of the Trojans hope they get excellent crowd support from the UALR faithful.
“We are a team that needs fans, and it’s free, first of all, and I think it’s worth it,” Mason says. “We’re girls, we’re here to compete, and it’s not a pretty sport. There’s going to be some action in there, so I hope people come out and see us win.”
“The training that we’ve had so far, our standard is a lot higher than expected,” she says. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people with the talent we have on the team.”