The fall sports season is rapidly approaching. Football always gets the most attention, but they are not the first team to don the Black and Gold for the 2023-24 academic year. The first Commodores into battle are the soccer team. The ladies are coming off a 12-5-4 (5-3-2) 2022 campaign that ended in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, where the Dores fell 2-1 to the Northwestern Wildcats after dispatching Clemson 1-0 in the First Round.
Coach Darren Ambrose is back for his ninth season at the helm. He has turned Vanderbilt into a perennial contender for SEC titles and NCAA Tournament births. Ambrose guided the Commodores to an SEC Regular Season title in 2018, the SEC East title in 2019, and the SEC Tournament title in 2020. The 2021 season was a big letdown, but the soccer team responded for an impressive 2022 where Vanderbilt could have captured the SEC East again in the final match of the regular season but failed to secure a victory.
The 2023 season will be a test in reloading. Vanderbilt loses 4 of their top 5 goal scorers from a last season. Raegan Kelley (8G 10A), Alex Kerr (6G 1A), and Peyton Cutshall (5G 1A) have all moved on with no remaining eligibility. The 5th leading scorer was also a stalwart CB and captain in Ella Shamburger (4G). Kelley’s 10 assists were twice as many as the next Commodore.
Vanderbilt starts their preseason with an exhibition at UAB Monday, August 7th, so I will breakdown what the roster looks like over the next three days. The goalkeepers and defenders are up first today then midfield on Thursday and forwards on Friday. Players will be grouped as shown on the official roster, but I may throw in how some players may fit tactically as we go. When it comes to team tactics and formations, I will try to hold off on speculating until after the second exhibition against Memphis on August 12th, which will presumably be open to the public.
Goalkeeper should be where Vanderbilt is strongest this season. The presumptive starter is Kate Devine. She took the reigns for the 2020 NCAA Tournament match against Penn State then started all 19 matches in 2021. She shared starting duties in 2022, but most, if not all, of her time missed was due to injury not performance. Devine has allowed 34 goals against in 2,882 minutes between the sticks. Allowing 1.06 G/90 is a testament to how rock-solid she is. Devine’s biggest strength is her decision making. She rarely hesitates or makes the wrong choice which allows her to be in the best position possible the overwhelming majority of the time.
The worthy challenger is Sara Wojdelko. Wojdelko started the season opener last year against an overmatched Evansville then got 45 minutes against ETSU during a 6-0 blowout win. She was called upon as an injury replacement for Devine against LSU then started the next 3 matches, all against SEC opposition. For her first 296 minutes of SEC play (and 135 minutes of nonconference play), Wojdelko was scored upon only once. Still, Devine was reinserted when healthy. Wojdelko would be called upon again for the regular season finale and SEC tournament, though it was never disclosed if this was another injury situation or a coach’s decision. Wojdelko would finish the season allowing 8 goals in 901 minutes for a 0.80 G/90. Wojdelko shines as a pure shot stopper and had some highlight-reel saves.
Whichever one starts, there will be a very capable backup. The concern is that the pressure makes the starter worry too much about making mistakes, but Coach Ambrose has a history of playing multiple keepers successfully. He also does not have a track record of giving his keepers a short leash. They are allowed to play without fear of losing playing time for a mistake or two. We may well see a similar situation to last season where the season opener starting goalkeeper is not the true starter since the first two games are against UT-Chattanooga and UMass. The one that starts at Kansas on August 24th is likely the true “starter.”
Of course, I would be wrong not to mention the third goalkeeper on the roster. Alex Gianoplus has the best G/90 on the team at 0.00 after not conceding in her 4 minutes of playing time last season. Her only chance at any meaningful time would likely be an injury to both of Devine and Wojdelko. I have not seen enough of her to make any sort of assessment except that she looks perfectly viable in warmups. Beyond that, I need more data that I hope not to get, except for maybe against Memphis or one of those first two matches.
The loss of Shamburger leaves a huge hole at CB. The good news is that her long-time partner Maya Antoine is using her extra year of eligibility from COVID. Antoine has been more prone to a mistake than Shamburger, but so are 95% of CBs to ever play in the SEC. Antoine does bring something extra in her ability to carry the ball up field by herself to go with good long-distance passing. She backed up a 2nd Team All-SEC performance in 2021 by being named to the 1st Team in 2022.
Her partner is a huge question mark though. I think Coach Ambrose will stick with the back 4 used last season, but he may surprise me since I thought a back 3 was the better option last season. Vanderbilt only lists 4 other defenders. Whether that suggests a back 3 or simply that someone listed as a midfielder or even forward (Tina Bruni comes to mind as playing RB) may slot as fullback rotation is not worth debating.
My immediate guesses are Ella Zimmerman or Ava Hetzel. Zimmerman played some CB last year as a freshman but mostly played fullback due to the strength of the CB pairing. Hetzel played a ton in 2021 after transferring but saw only 118 minutes in all of 2022. She was primarily a RB before but was, I believe, used as a CB in a back 3 a few times. My gut says Zimmerman based on last season, but I think Hetzel, while undersized as a CB, could bring a similar mobility that Shamburger did to help cover any issues or holes in the back line, especially as fullbacks join the attack.
At fullback, I think Alex Wagner (RB) and Maddie Baker (LB) are pretty much locked in place. Wagner could be another candidate at CB, but she is so dangerous getting forward on the flanks due to her speed. The same is true for Baker, and she appears to be even smaller than Wagner. These two, if they are Vanderbilt’s starting fullbacks, will give other teams fits as they try to track their pace. They both need to take another step forward in what to do once their speed gets them into good positions as Wagner had 1 goal and 1 assist in 1,374 minutes played while Baker had 1 goal in 678 minutes.
For completeness, if Vanderbilt does primarily use a 3-back system, I would expect that all 5 players listed as defenders see the field and potentially from the start. Wagner and Baker would be excellent options as the wide midfielders because their pace will let them cover the flanks from end line to end line.
The back line has some questions about how they fit together and what system Coach Ambrose deploys. It will be strange seeing Vanderbilt without #22 anchoring things, but I would expect them to sort it out before SEC play starts even if there are some rocky moments getting there.