Women’s soccer shoots for consistency as season starts

Junior defender Skylar Herrera-Ross, one of a relatively small group of upperclassmen on a team that lost nine seniors last year. While the Brewers achieved some historic firsts last season, they struggled with maintaining consistency against every opponent. Courtesy of Carlisle Stockton

Stalking the informal locker room outside Gordon Field at halftime of Vassar’s Liberty League opener last Saturday Sept. 28, women’s soccer coach Corey Holton was tired of repeating herself. Vassar, which finished second in the Liberty League in 2016 and 2017 before securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament last season, was locked in a scoreless draw against a bottom-feeding Union team. As junior midfielder Emily Longo put it, “[Holton] was sick of having the same conversation at every halftime.”

That conversation, which Longo and junior defender Megan Saari explained was about the Brewers’ defensive intensity and grit in the final third, speaks to Vassar’s up-and-down season to this point. There are growing pains: Graduating nine seniors from the 2019 team and fielding a 15deep lineup half-filled with freshmen and sophomores, the Brewers are still learning to play together. As Saari said, “We had to build new relationships.”

After a scoreless second half, the Brewers and Dutchwomen went to overtime. The extra 20 minutes are familiar territory for Vassar this season—a little too familiar, to hear the players tell it. “We’re used to overtime but we shouldn’t be,” said Longo of the Brewers, who have already played in three contests that went beyond the usual 90 minutes.

In overtime, the urgency of a superior team needing to put its foe to rest was evident: In the six extra minutes, Vassar did not allow a shot on goal and recorded two of their own. The second, a stab from sophomore midfielder Gabi Tulk after a scramble in front of the net, closed the book on a frustrating but rewarding game for the Brewers. Of her late winner, Tulk said, “I saw the goalkeeper running at me, and I knew I had to get there. It’s one of the gritty things you need to do. It’s not the prettiest, but I got enough on it. A goal is a goal.”

Vassar, which moved to 4-4-1 on the young season with the win on Saturday, was more upbeat going into the overtime period than after the first half, secure that they were the better team. They outshot Union 16-10 on the game, and junior goalie Fiona Walsh made all three saves required of her. As Tulk explained, “It was just a matter of time. We knew [the goal] was coming.” The Brewers start Liberty League play 1-0, but they know there’s work to be done. Tulk reinforced the idea that Vassar’s intensity from kick-off is the biggest point to improve upon: “A big theme this season has been digging ourselves out of a hole. We usually get scored on first.”

While the learning curve for a team that has only spent a month together is steep, the Brewers’ youth movement has undeniable talent. Vassar’s three leading goalscorers are sophomores. Forward Emma Tanner, who led the team in scoring as a first-year, has returned to her dominant form in 2019, pacing the Brewers in goals, assists, shots and shots on goal; she is in the top 10 in the Liberty League in the latter two categories. Tulk, who missed much of last season with an unspecified illness, has found her feet quickly, with three goals and an assist thus far. Supersub Madio Wallner rounds out the dynamic sophomore trio, having scored twice, including the game-winner in the Brewers’ season-opening double-overtime win over Moravian.

Vassar had a strange but undeniably successful season in 2018. The Brewers knocked off perennial powerhouse William Smith in Geneva for the first time in program history, spoiling an otherwise perfect Liberty League record for the Herons. They also shut out #15-ranked RIT, 2-0. They also lost four Liberty League contests and bowed out in the opening round of the conference playoffs. Assuming the season was over, the Brewers didn’t practice in the week leading up to the announcement of the NCAA tournament field. Suffice it to say they were surprised to hear their name called. The shock never really faded, even as Vassar fell to MIT in the first round, but the at-large bid was a testament to their impressive regular-season wins over conference heavyweights.

Looking even further ahead, which is the job of the reporter and not the player, Vassar does have long-term targets by which to measure itself. The Brewers want to win the Liberty League, return to the NCAA tournament and play more than one game there. Saari offered more: “We’re aiming to pitch eight shutouts, finish corner kicks at a high rate and win more than we lose on Gordon Field.”

One thing the team has going for it is interpersonal chemistry. The unknowns that come with such a young team create a vacuum of team culture, one that the players feel has been filled positively. Saari said, “Our team dynamic is unique, inclusive and unified.” Tulk added, “We play for each other.” Hoping to address the issue of intensity, the Brewers practice weekly with former men’s soccer standouts Kevin Baliat, Carlos Espina and Nate Kim. A practice common in Division I women’s athletics, having mixed-gender scrimmages challenges players in new ways, forcing them to play more physically.

This season, both the volatility and ability of Vassar’s 2018 team are clearly present. With so much roster turnover and skill, the Brewers are capable of both falling to a scrappier, less talented opponent, and of toppling seemingly insurmountable giants. Vassar will hopefully move to 2-0 in the Liberty League after a Tuesday bout with Bard (that has yet to be played as of writing [the Brewers won 5-1]), a wonderfully consistent cellar dweller in a number of sports.

Looking ahead, Saari offered a confident prediction not fit to print, which Tulk edited: “We can’t underestimate any opponent.” Their preview of the tilt with Bard speaks to a pattern they’ve established halfway through the 2019 campaign: one step forward, one step back. Hopefully, as was the case with Tulk in the 96th minute of Saturday’s game, the last step is the best one.

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