NORMAN, Okla. -- The 2011 Oklahoma soccer team will report to Norman next week as it readies for the lone exhibition game on the schedule on Aug. 13 at Arkansas. The regular season opens on Aug. 19 as the Sooners will host Alabama Birmingham at 7 p.m. at the OU Soccer Complex.
In preparation for the upcoming campaign, SoonerSports.com recently sat down with Head Coach Nicole Nelson to learn more about a team that returns eight starters from last year's squad which won 12 games and was just shy of winning the program's first Big 12 Championship.
Last season, OU made it to the program's first Big 12 Championship game and back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. How do you carry that momentum into the 2011 campaign?
"One of the things that will drive this team this year lies in the fact that we let a Big 12 Championship slip away in the last 10 minutes of regulation. When you end a championship game in a tie, it keeps you coming back for more. The mentality of our program is that we want to be better every day. So although we took significant strides forward in 2010, our expectation is always to make history and to be better than the year before."
Given the team's success in 2010, have you noticed any changes in the team's mindset, work ethic, recruiting, fan base, etc ... ?
"Our culture continues to improve and mindset and work ethic are part of that culture. The players in our program continue to raise the bar concerning recruiting. They embrace competition and encourage high level players to become part of what we are building. Our fan base increases every year due to the commitment of our players and staff to reach out to the community. I think our free clinics, school assemblies, and camps all contribute to our growing fan base. The players in our program understand the crucial role they play as role models and mentors to the youth soccer community."
You return a majority of the starting lineup despite losing three key seniors in Whitney Palmer, Lauren Alkek and Tiana Dickson. What are your expectations for the 2011 season?
"Our expectation every year is to win championships and reach new heights. Although the loss of our senior class is significant, especially from an athletic standpoint, I think our team has become a better soccer team over the course of the last nine months. We are much better playing in front of a back line and with our decision making in the final third. We have added some very good athletes with our younger players stepping in to new roles and our freshman class. We have a number of players that have the potential to contribute to the attack, which is exciting. On the defensive side of the ball, I expect us to be successful given the development of our players last spring."
Whitney Palmer was the team's scoring leader each of the last four seasons, what player or players do you see stepping up to fill that void?
"Whitney has been a tremendous goal scorer for our program and role model for our younger players. When you have a teammate have the success that Whit did during her career, it motivates you to raise the bar for yourself. One of the things about our current players that make them a lot of fun to coach is their willingness to evolve. We have the potential to have multiple players score goals for us. Some of those players include Caitlin Mooney, Dria Hampton, Annalisa Hall, Michelle Alexander and the list goes on. We saw a number of players improve their finishing ability and score goals for us in the spring."
You added four freshmen and two transfers for the season, how do you see them fitting in for this campaign?
"They all have the ability to come in and compete. Our freshmen add depth and competition to every line in our system and our transfers have both been successful playing at a high collegiate level."
What are some of the strengths of this team?
"This team is as close as any team I've ever coached. They have bought in to a "team first" mentality. They care about each other and will fight for each other, which is a big piece of the puzzle, in my opinion. From a performance standpoint, they are better in possession than previous teams. It seems like they all have the ability to score goals and their soccer IQ is good. The players are willing to work on both sides of the ball and they are a cohesive unit the majority of the time."
What are some of the weaknesses of this team?
"On paper, we lack experience in the back line as we have a lot of new faces on defense, but they are obviously talented. Given the nature of our schedule, they will be tested early and how we respond to adversity, especially during the course of a game, will be a big contributor to our success."
You put together another strong showing in the spring, who or what was the biggest surprise in the offseason?
"A couple of things stood out. Annalisa Hall continues to evolve as an attacking player. If she is healthy, she will be a handful for defenses to deal with. Caitlin Mooney and Dria Hampton continue to be a dynamic combination for us in the attack and both were key contributors last spring. Michelle Alexander had a very good spring as well. We moved her back to an attacking role just last fall and she continues to be a threat with an end product as a forward."
The Big 12 is always one of the toughest conferences in the nation, do you see that competitiveness being affected by the departures of Nebraska and Colorado?
"Nebraska and Colorado have undoubtably been strong programs in our conference, so we will miss those opponents. However, the other programs in our conference continue to get stronger. I expect it to be as competitive in 2011 as is has been historically given the growth of the other programs."