Alabama soccer travels tomorrow to kick off its SEC schedule to Ole Miss that evening in Oxford, and the team's collective eyes are fixed to a trend in need of reversing. Through eight games, the Crimson Tide has four wins and four losses, including a three-game losing streak snapped a few days ago to in-state UAB.
But even that win took overtime, and that was to a Blazers bunch that had a losing record before it boarded Tuscaloosa-bound buses.
The Tide hasn’t been good enough, and for Wes Hart, the seventh-year coach of Alabama, moral victories turn stale when they’re relayed audibly, and consistently, to a dressing room of competitors who think better of the whole and themselves.
“Having lost a few games in a row, it’s hard to stay confident and believe in what you’re doing without the results to validate it,” Hart said after the UAB match. “It was important that we got a win just to keep our heads up. Our performances were solid but without those wins it's hard to keep telling them, 'Hey, we're doing good things.'"
Three days prior to Alabama busting out of its slump at the Blazers’ expense, it hosted TCU, the No. 6 team in the country, and Alabama took the Horned Frogs to overtime after its midfield pair of sophomores Kate Henderson and Felicia Knox connected pass-to-goal to equalize at 1-1.
That preceded TCU scoring the game-winning goal in extra time, though, a late outcome which was detrimental to the lifeline of the Crimson Tide’s would-be momentum had the win been clinched.
Instead it marked three consecutive losses.
Reverberations were evident in the UAB game, too, at least until Alabama pulled away late. But this slow start wasn't exactly expected, either, and if so Alabama players have masked the unforeseen with optimism as summer gives way to fall and annual tests from rival schools.
"Since I've been here, this is probably the hardest-working group, so if we have things to work on we'll fix it quickly because this group really cares," junior Reyna Reyes said. "And now we're building off that. It's just little things, like connecting a long ball or checking over your shoulders when you receive a pass."
Reyes was named to the SEC Preseason Watch List in August, and the member of the Mexico National Team is also leading Alabama in shots on goal in 2021. So if you'd prefer, take it from her, Crimson Tide players aren't unbelievers despite a rough going early on.
One difficult thing to reason with in what she said, though, is that you're playing to results. Like in any sport, but particularly in soccer, you can physically and tactically outclass your opponent and there be no indication on the scoreboard. It's just tough to score. And, save for a loss to top-ranked Florida State, that's been the case, as well as consequence, for the Crimson Tide through early goings in its season.
In its home loss to Samford two weeks ago, Alabama registered 12 more shots than the Bulldogs and came away dissatisfied and defeated with nothing to show for it. There were more than twice as many shots on target, too, with the Tide tallying seven to Samford's three.
Same story in Alabama's loss to Memphis, its second of three in a row. Each squad accounted for 10 attempts, but the Tigers cashed in a higher conversion rate of shots-to-goals as the victor scored three of its seven shots on target while Bama scored one of its three shots on target.
Converting chances in front of goal, or not, has been what's defined the .500 record hovering above the Crimson Tide program as it heads west to Oxford. And it's been a talking point.
"From the second half of Samford on, we've played well but we haven't been good enough in critical moments of the game, and that's why we've gotten the results we have," Hart said. "In and around the box and in and around goal, we have to keep getting better. It's something we'll continue to work on."
Not to say the Crimson Tide's lacked moments of mastering what Hart referenced at certain moments this season, because its players have. But how consistently is another question entirely. However intuitive and obvious it appears in print, Alabama converts more of its shots on goal to, well, goals in its four wins so far.
Consistently remains the operative word, still, and objective to achieve in terms of scoring once SEC play begins Thursday night at Ole Miss, though.
"We will not give up until that ball is in the back of the net, and we'll just keeping working on that," Henderson, the second-year midfielder, said. "We have this thing called 'The Hunt,' and when we score we execute it."
With only 11 games left in the regular season, we'll find out soon enough how many hunts the Crimson Tide can finish the rest of the way.