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2018 Soccer Preview

NCAA Basketball: Middle Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Vanderbilt Soccer team is coming off of one the best seasons in school history. This season is one of transition and growth for the uber young and highly talented team. They come in receiving four votes in the United States Soccer Coaches Preseason Top 25, but are looking to make their mark in what was the most difficult conference in Division I last year.

Last year, the Commodores finished fourth in the SEC standings behind South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Florida. They finished ahead of the Volunteers. Despite defeating Tennessee head-to-head in the SEC Tournament, Tennessee finished the season with a top 25 ranking, and the Lady ‘Dores received 13 votes in the final poll.

Nationally, the 2017 Vandy squad made their first NCAA Tournament since 2006 and defeated four seed, Ohio St, in Columbus, for their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1998. The SEC had the most NCAAT berths with nine programs. Vanderbilt is slowly moving into the upper tier of the most competitive conference in the country.

Last year’s squad was laden with decorated upper classmen with the likes of Simone Charley (All-SEC Second Team), Lydia Simmons, Kaitlyn Fahrner, Steph Amack (All-SEC First Team), and Tina Dezeeuw.

This year’s team will be a transition, but is arguably as talented as the last. There at 19 freshman or sophomores on the 29 person roster. Senior Defender Gabby Rademaker says, “We have eight new freshmen and are still a pretty young team, but we have a lot more speed. The depth of our bench is going to help us a lot. Each girl is so talented and the freshmen are already holding their own out there. Out of my four preseasons, this has been the most competitive [in practice].” A big part of that depth the addition of Ella Shamburger, a freshman defender, who has made two appearances with USA Soccer’s U-18 team.

Additionally, the Commodores lost their keeper. There are three players vying for the spot, Taiana Tolleson, Lauren Demarchi, and Sarah Fuller. Tolleson has the most experience with six starts last year. Fuller, as sophomore, is healthy and has a big upside. Head Coach Darren Ambrose said her work ethic and desire to improve “will allow her to emerge as a top goalkeeper in the SEC.”

Last year, the squad was a defensively minded team using possession and passing to break teams down. The strength was in the defense with the likes of Myra Konte, who was named to the 2017 SEC All-Freshman team. They would find seams to move the ball up the field rather than counterattack with speed or launch long balls over the top.

Ambrose historically has used possession to wear down opponents, and he changes his formations game to game to expose their weaknesses. This year, with speed in the line up, and the return of Leila Azari and Jackie Welch, and a healthy Haley Hopkins, the Commodores might see a more offensive minded game. Azari and Welch played every game last year and combined for 17 points. Hopkins is a redshirt freshman forward who was injured last year, but she was a highly decorated high school player and showed out during two exhibition games in Japan. (yes, the team went to Japan as part of an educational and athletic trip. It looked awesome. Read all about it here.)

Youth can be deemed a negative in sports, but for Vanderbilt, it is a strength this year. The energy and talent levels are high. Becoming a unit that can work together is their priority.

“I am excited to work with them through the season to grow and to see who emerges as key personalities,” said Ambrose. He continued, “Our biggest challenge right now is that we have a lot to learn tactically but the group does have a competitive mindset.” Notice, he is not concerned with ability or motivation. Those are things you can’t or don’t want to teach. His focus will be molding the program to fit the talents of the players.

The truest measurement for a season is not just the end result, but the progress made from during the season. Rademaker is encouraged about where this year’s team can go, “It’s always amazing to see how much we improve from preseason to SEC games.”

Vanderbilt opens their schedule in Tallahassee against perennial power, Florida State, on August 16. After hosting Jacksonville on the 19th, the Lady ‘Dores host The Music City Invitational from August 24-26 in Nashville, including the University of Miami, Ohio University, and Lipscomb University.

They will play four more non conference games before squaring off at UF on September 19. The conference schedule is ten games with Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Kentucky at home; while Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Auburn, and Ole Miss are away.

The SEC Tournament is played October 28-Novermber 3 in Orange Beach, Alabama.

The NCAA Tournament first round starts November 9 and national seeds host at their home sites. Second, Third, and Quarterfinal Rounds are hosted at campus sites as well. The College Cup is held November 30 and December 2 in Cary, North Carolina.

Coach Darren Ambrose is in his fourth season at Vanderbilt. He has a 31-24-7 overall record and is 15-12-5 in the SEC. Previous head coaching experience was at Penn and was an assistant at Florida State University. Prior to FSU, he was an assistant at Rhodes College in Memphis and UCONN.