Alabama Soccer Kicks off UA's Fall Athletics Schedule on Saturday
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — This weekend, Alabama football returns to the field of competition.
And no, I’m not talking about the American football team.
Alabama soccer is slated to open its season on Saturday against Tennessee, taking to the field for a game for the first time since its spring season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last fall, the Crimson Tide finished 10-7-3, a dramatic improvement over prior years. Powered by an impressive freshman class and senior leadership, Alabama soccer was eliminated in the second round of the SEC tournament in Gulf Shores, a significant success for a team that did not have much preseason fanfare heading into the 2019 season.
After the spring season was cut short, Alabama soccer spent its summer not knowing whether or not a fall season was going to be played. Even after returning to practice last month, the team was still unsure whether their work was for nothing or what awaited them this fall.
In a press conference held via Zoom on Thursday afternoon, fifth-year Crimson Tide soccer coach Wes Hart said that the team faced much uncertainty and adversity over the summer but held out hope that a season would be played.
“In the back of our mind we were always — what I communicated to the group was we needed to plan for a season,” Hart said. “Obviously if we would have canceled that’s not a big deal but we wanted to make sure that we were prepared. All along we were kind of preparing for the normal season which I think originally began with a game in early August so, you know, we kind of had that date circled on our calendar and we were focused on that and then as the SEC started shifting dates and pushing things back we kept just going with ‘Hey you know what? We’re going to play. We’re going to have a season and we just need to keep preparing for it.’
“I think our group did a fantastic job of staying ready and staying focused and staying prepared and here we are now. It’s crazy to think that we’ll be kicking off in two days but we’re certainly excited about it.”
Instead of a typical 20-game schedule consisting of both SEC and non conference foes, the season has been abridged to just eight SEC games due to the pandemic.
This Saturday, the Crimson Tide opens the season against the Volunteers, a team that Alabama bested not only last season but also again in the spring. In fact, Tennessee was ironically the last opponent that Alabama faced prior to the pandemic shutting down the spring season for good.
While a shortened season isn’t exactly what both teams and fans alike were wanting to hear, the fact that a season is happening at all is better than the alternative of no games for Hart and his team.
Hart expressed that while it has been difficult for his team to prepare for the upcoming season, he is comforted by the fact that all of the other teams of the SEC are having the same difficulties.
“The good news is all of the teams that we’re going to be playing are all in the same boat as us,” Hart said. “Clearly during the non conference portion of the schedule you get to mess around, you get to tinker with different lineups, different formations, you get to learn a little bit about yourself, learn your strengths and your weaknesses, you get to scout your opponents, so obviously the non conference portion is very helpful and very beneficial. The fact that we don’t have it, obviously it hurts us a bit but at the same time none of our opponents have it either so it’s not like anyone’s getting an advantage over us. In a perfect world I wish we had five or six games under our belt but again we’re at the same starting point as Tennessee. This’ll be our first game for either of our teams.”
Preparing for this season will be more challenging than any other. As Hart said, typically teams are able to gather film of their conference opponents during the non conference schedule, forming strategies and scouting players in order to provide them a competitive advantage. This season, with no non conference play to survey before matching up with opponents, difficulties abound for coaches and players across the conference.
For Hart, preparing his team for the upcoming season was no easy task especially when as of a couple of weeks ago the SEC still had not issued a solid schedule.
“We started without having a firm date for the first few weeks of our preseason,” Hart said. “Again, we prepared as if the season was going to happen and thankfully we did that but we kept the first few weeks very generic [and] general in terms of focusing. In a normal season within three or four days you’re already putting a starting lineup out there, you’re already kinda working on some specific things that you know you need to hit but I think our first three, four weeks we kept it pretty generic in general and just kinda hit generic topics and kept it loose and fun and competitive all at the same time. Once we found out who our opponent was, Tennessee, and once we had a firm date set we kind of tried to narrow in a little bit more and get a little bit more focused on specific areas.”
As stated earlier, last season saw much success for Alabama due to its freshmen class. Those freshmen are now sophomore and have been fully-integrated into the team. In general, the Crimson Tide returns most of their core players that helped spur the team to a 10-win season.
Senior defender Brynn Martin is excited about returning to the pitch and believes that returning the core players of their team will provide them even greater success this year.
“We are returning a lot of experienced personnel with the six or seven seniors and the juniors and the freshmen class that gave us a lot of success last year,” Martin said. “With that in addition to the new incoming freshmen I think we will be extremely successful this year and I think if we just play like we did last year with the new incoming freshmen it will even give us a better boost and more success on the field this year.”
In addition to Martin, both she and senior forward Casey Wertz were named to the SEC Soccer Preseason Watch List. Wertz led the team in goals (six), assists (seven) and points (19), propelling the Crimson Tide’s offense.
For Wertz, returning to play and a sense of normalcy means a lot to her and her squad.
“It’s obviously really special,” Wertz said. “We haven’t had a game in six months and we really didn’t know — say two or three weeks ago — if we were even going to be able to play again. Just going off of that fact I think we’re all very grateful and really excited. I mean, we’ve been training for one or two months now not even knowing if it was going to happen so [we’re] extremely grateful and excited especially since it’s Tennessee so we’re going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got.”
Alabama soccer is the first Crimson Tide athletics team to host a formal competition since March, a return to some sense of normalcy for both athletes and fans alike. While the coronavirus pandemic rages on across the United States, players and coaches are happy that despite frequent testing and other precautions that are being taken to ensure their health, a season is still happening regardless.
With all of the speculation, doubt and inability to practice on a field together until the past few weeks, Hart is confident that his team is motivated for the fight on the pitch coming up on Saturday.
“I’ll certainly let them speak for it,” Hart said. “I have to believe that they’re excited. Obviously we wanted a normal season — a 20-game season — with non conference and everything. We wish it were normal but under the circumstances considering a pandemic is going on, considering probably 85-percent of the teams around the country have canceled their seasons, I think we’re pretty fortunate and I gotta believe that our players feel pretty blessed that they have this opportunity.
“Hopefully they’re motivated by just the first game out. I gotta believe that sitting around for six months waiting for this game I gotta believe that they’re going to be hungry to come out so really it’s kinda up to them — and I put it on them — to be motivated and I don’t think it’s going to be hard to be motivated to be ready for this game.”
Alabama soccer will take on Tennessee this Saturday at 1 p.m. CT (SEC Network) in Tuscaloosa. In compliance with social distancing guidelines, fans will be limited to coaches and players pass only.