August 17, 2016

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MARTIN, Tenn. - Be consistent. Stay healthy. That is the simple recipe that University of Tennessee at Martin head soccer coach Phil McNamara has been reiterating to his team during the 2016 fall camp.

Last year the Skyhawks boasted the title of NCAA’s youngest team with 15 of the 19 players being freshmen. McNamara said with that many underclassmen playing significant roles, mistakes and injuries were bound to happen.

“We’ve got to be more consistent than last year and we have to stay healthy,” McNamara said. “Our numbers are short and we have a small squad, but a qualified one.”

Injuries were a key factor as the Skyhawks struggled out of the gate last year. McNamara says it is something that every team has to deal with.

“It’s just a part of women’s soccer,” McNamara said. “Sometimes you’re just going to lose one or two players for the season.”

However, having so many freshmen is not always a bad thing. Since everyone is so young, the competition for playing time makes camps and practices that much more competitive and with the coaching staff bringing in another strong class of recruits, McNamara is hoping that intensity carries over to the pitch.

“I think the freshmen we have this year are a little more experienced and qualified,” McNamara said. “There’s going to be four or five new faces in the starting 11, which is a step forward. We are excited about that.”

Building depth was an important part of the offseason. That was the emphasis of the coaching staff and it showed in the new players that were brought in. The Skyhawks added forwards Nicole Collins, Sam Clymer, and Danae Kaldaridou to build on what is one of the strongest groups in the OVC.

The Skyhawk forwards will be led by their lone senior Saphyra Coombs-James. During her career, Coombs-James ranks in the top-10 in UT Martin history in points, goals, assists, and shots. She is also currently tied for the most game-winning goals in Skyhawk history with eight. Coming into the year so highly touted is something that she has come to expect from McNamara, who knows how big a role she plays in his team’s success.

“She’s key,” McNamara said. “She is very capable of handling a lot of pressure and taking two or three players out of the game, which releases other players for opportunities.”

After an injury ended her 2013 season, Coombs-James has been searching for the form that earned her OVC Freshman of the Year honors in 2012. The coaching staff has been impressed with her leadership during camp and they hope is it something other players build off of.

“So far this has been the best preseason (Coombs-James) has had in her time here,” McNamara said. “Obviously she had a phenomenal freshman year, but she’s arrived fitter this year and more determined with a better attitude.”

Coombs-James led the team last year in goals, assists, points and shots. While the UT Martin coaching staff wants her continued success, they also would like to see major contributions from the new players. McNamara says those players have fit in nicely thus far.

“A few individuals have come in and done really well,” McNamara said. “They have actually gone above and beyond expectations on the front end, so that’s exciting moving forward.”

Controlling the mid-field was one of the strong points for the Skyhawks in 2015. Sophomore Maggie Burkett is back and looking to build off her first team All-OVC honors from a year ago. Burkett plays a key role in set pieces, as she took 62 of 80 corners in 2015. Also returning as midfielders are sophomores Amy McGivern, Sara Ketis and redshirt freshman Sophia Sharos.

Defense and goalkeeping were big points of emphasis in the offseason for the Skyhawks. UT Martin returns first team All-OVC sophomore Rebecca Starnes to lead the defense. Also returning to the Skyhawk defense are sophomores Kaci Mitchell and Katelyn Colvin. Sophomore Shannon Grattan begins her career as a Skyhawk after sitting out last year and incoming freshman Bianca McFarland and Alexius Thomas look to add to the depth in the back-end.

Goalkeeping has always been a strong part of the UT Martin soccer program. With the addition of new goalkeepers coach Mary Mancin, the Skyhawks will look to build on their strong tradition at that position. Sophomore MaKenzie Crawford returns after a promising freshman season that included three shutouts. Sophomore Maya Jamison is also back in net for the Skyhawks. Incoming freshman Callie Thomas will be joining the goalkeepers as well.

The OVC appears to be up for grabs this year with several teams losing key players to graduation. Defending champions Murray State were voted as the preseason favorite to win the conference, but McNamara said the championship is there for the taking.

“Like most years in the OVC, it is extremely wide open,” McNamara said. “Murray State will certainly be near the top, but a few programs have had a good bit of turnover.”

During the OVC tournament last year, the Skyhawks suffered a 4-2 first round loss to Morehead State. Having beat the Eagles earlier in the season, youth and inexperience may have gotten the best of the Skyhawks down the stretch. With a year of experience now under their belts, the Skyhawks look to be right in the mix to compete for the conference title.

“I don’t think we are going to be far off anyone,” McNamara said. “We weren’t far off last year, our inexperience just got us in the last game against Morehead State.”

Something that added to the difficulty of having so many young players a year ago was the lack of home matches to start the year. In 2015, the Skyhawks started the season with eight straight contests away from home. This year is a different story with five of the nine non-conference games taking place at Skyhawk Field. The Skyhawks have been very difficult to beat at home over the course of McNamara’s tenure at UT Martin boasting a record of 31-15-6. Having a few more games in front of the home crowd is something that the coaching staff and players are looking forward to.

“Hopefully, with these home games, we can get off to a better start this year,” McNamara said. “We want to build a product and be ready for the OVC. It’s good to play some games here and typically, in our history, we have been very difficult to beat at home.”


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