MARTIN, Tenn.—The University of Tennessee at Martin soccer squad is preparing to get back to its winning ways in 2017 under eighth year head coach Phil McNamara.
The Skyhawks are set to open with Marshall for the first time in program history next Friday, Aug. 18. UT Martin then travels to Missouri Valley Conference foe Evansville before coming back home to play UAB for the second year in a row. A road trip to perennial opponent Western Kentucky is next for the Skyhawks before a home match against in-state foe Chattanooga. Next, UT Martin travels to Lipscomb then Jackson State for a two-game road series. To round out the nonconference schedule, the Skyhawks host Arkansas State and make one last stop before Ohio Valley Conference play at Western Carolina.
“The schedule itself is nicely balanced which is a positive compared to the last few seasons where we have been the road runners,” McNamara said. “Hopefully we can get off to a good start at home through the nonconference segment to transition into the conference season.”
OVC action begins with a home match against Jacksonville State on Sept. 15. For the second straight year, Murray State has been picked to win the OVC title. UT Martin will look to disrupt the Racers’ odds by coming out with all cylinders firing.
“Every year is such a new and different prospect,” McNamara said. “I think the conference has shown that it has been getting deeper from top to bottom for each of the last three or four years. The top teams are rotating – there isn’t one program that is head and shoulders above the rest. We know we were in every game last year but on the wrong side of results so that’s the challenge for this squad is to not only compete but also get on the right side of the winning column and take that momentum and make sure we are at least a tournament team this season.”
One year after the squad featured only one upperclassman, UT Martin’s 12 freshmen are the third-most in NCAA Division-I soccer (trailing only New Mexico’s 15 and Akron’s 13). When the Skyhawks officially began their practice season on Aug. 3, McNamara oversaw a fresh roster that included the aforementioned 12 freshmen and 11 returners – each of whom are juniors or sophomores.
“We are young but I think we’ve got more talent than we’ve had the last couple of years and within that group there’s a good bit of experience with players who have played a lot of minutes,” McNamara said. “Although some of them are not the most vocal on the team, hopefully they can lead by example with the quality of play and the minutes they’ll be on the field and get to the point where the respect factor is there from the new players.”
A little over a week into the preseason, McNamara has been pleased with the team’s attitude and willingness to get better each and every day.
“To this point, the majority of the preseason has been very positive,” McNamara said. “The team spirit is good and the talent is up, no question. I am very happy with the new players at this stage and I believe that a good five or six will find themselves in the starting 11 so that’s good for this season as well as the future. It’s also encouraging for the returners that they’re not complacent and that they use these freshmen and the talent they possess to make the team and the program better than what it’s been the last year or two. The athletic ability is stronger than what it has been and hopefully that will translate to better performances and better results.”
McNamara feels that the 2017 squad is perhaps the deepest and most well-rounded team he has had in his tenure at UT Martin.
“We’re really balanced and I think the key is that this year we are much deeper at every position,” McNamara said. “We’ve got eight defenders for four spots, seven or eight midfielders for three to four spots and five to six strikers for the two or three forward spots, depending on what system we play. There are a few players that can either play one or two positions and even a couple of players that can play three positions. That gives us a lot more opportunities and that’s exciting for the staff to play around a little bit in the early part of the season to see what system fits our players and how we can put our best foot forward. Every single player is going to give us a contribution this year. I think there is a hunger there and there is a reality of knowing that playing minutes are available right now.”
This season’s squad features the junior trio of Amy McGivern, Danae Kaldaridou and Maggie Burkett – each of whom have earned All-OVC honors in their decorated careers. McGivern bolstered her first team All-OVC resume last fall as she ranked in the OVC’s top-10 in three categories: shots per game (2.17, ninth); points per game (0.72, ninth) and goals (five, 10th). Kaldaridou accumulated 10 points (four goals, two assists) on her way to OVC All-Newcomer honors as a sophomore last season. Burkett garnered All-OVC first team status as a freshman and has started 34 matches in two seasons as a Skyhawk.
On paper, UT Martin’s troop of midfielders appears to be the team’s strongest position. McGivern, Burkett, junior Katelyn Colvin (the only other player besides McGivern to start in all 18 matches last year) and Sara Ketis (medical redshirt in 2016 after starting 14 matches in 2015) headline the returners. Newcomers Alice Adams, Vanessa Dwumfour-Poku, Isabella Roberts and Jacalyn Schubring will also vie for playing time as freshmen in 2017.
At defender, Bianca McFarland returns after starting in all but one game as a freshman in 2016. Alexius Thomas also logged 14 starts last season as a freshman while redshirt junior Kaci Mitchell (26 career starts) also returns for her fourth year in the program. Five freshmen (Kamryn Chappell, Blare Gerido, Morgan Glaenzer, Jaden Hildreth, Miah Olaleye) will also be eager to crack the starting lineup at a defender slot.
Kaldaridou paces the returning forwards alongside Nicole Collins, who showed tremendous potential while starting in 14 matches last season as a true freshman. Freshmen Jillian Hildreth and Ashley Levingston will join the aforementioned Jaden Hildreth, Roberts and Dwumfour-Poku for added scoring punch in 2017.
In goal, junior Makenzie Crawford ranked fifth in the OVC in saves per game (4.77), 10th in total saves (62) and ranked third in conference play with 50 saves last season while accounting for 24 career starts between the posts. Sophomore Callie Thomas also returns while freshman Erica Myers gives McNamara three reliable options at goalkeeper.
The Skyhawks are no strangers to success as UT Martin has won four of its five OVC championships with McNamara at the helm. The Skyhawks graduated the winningest class in program history in 2014 and followed with a 2015 OVC Tournament appearance before missing out on the OVC Tournament last season with a 4-14 overall record. Seven conference matches ended in just a one-goal deficit while the young Skyhawks also played in three overtime matches in 2016. McNamara is looking for this season’s squad to regain the championship swagger.
“We want to make this squad aware of the success we’ve had at UT Martin,” McNamara said. “Rather than rattling on about yesteryear, we want this group to provide their own future and their own success.”
For the first time this season, the OVC Soccer Championship has been expanded to eight teams. First round and quarterfinal matches will take place on Oct. 27-29 at the campus of the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds. The semifinals and championship will be held at the campus of the No. 1 seed on Nov. 3-5.
“Our challenge is to create a team that has the confidence to win games in the regular season to guarantee a tournament spot as early as possible and as high on the board as possible,” McNamara said. “Even with a young team, we have the opportunity to compete for the regular season title and give ourselves a chance to host.”