#ONE: Only Now Exists.
That’s the motto the Oklahoma women’s soccer team is playing by in 2016, a constant reminder to focus on and be present in any and all situations.
This is a group playing for a common purpose: to reach the fourth NCAA Tournament in school history and second in the last three seasons. A group that find its strength in each other, in the sum of its parts.
Fifth-year OU head coach Matt Potter will lead a team onto the field that features 19 student-athletes who saw playing time in 2015, including 10 starters. With the bulk of its lineup returning, OU benefits from its combined talents.
“We are always going to be a program that believes the sum of the parts is better than any one piece,” Potter says. “The beauty of the team is that there’s a lot of people that are very good and if you put the right individuals together, they’re great. The beauty of this group is that if X player can’t go, somebody else can and the performance doesn’t skip a beat.”
"We are always going to be a program that believes the sum of the parts is better than any one piece. The beauty of the team is that there’s a lot of people that are very good and if you put the right individuals together, they’re great."
The Sooners’ returning wealth of experience led to them being picked third in the Big 12 Soccer Preseason Poll by the conference’s coaches, their highest preseason ranking in program history. They will be tested early and often, facing a demanding schedule that features six opponents ranked within the top 25 of the NSCAA Poll, including both opening weekend teams of No. 24 South Carolina and No. 25 Loyola Marymount.
On average, OU keeps an average of 85 percent of its contributions from a year ago, including 90.6 of goals scored, including all 10 of its game-winning goals, 83.3 percent of its total points, 81.1 percent of shots taken and 82.5 percent of its shots on goal.
In total, nine Sooners on OU’s 2016 roster scored at least one goal last year. Senior Caren Nelson led the Sooners with five goals and 10 points as a junior, while Kaylee Dao tallied four, three of which were game winners, as a freshman. Liz Keester, Emily Parker and Rasha Roberts each recorded a trio of scores. Finishing with two goals were Paige Welch, Lizzie Luallin and Tori Bowman, while Marissa McMahand added one.
Defensively, the Sooners lost just one player from its backline that allowed just 17 goals, the lowest number in OU history. Last season, goalkeeper Kassidie Stade played all but 180 minutes in goal, recording 75 saves and a school-record-matching seven shutouts.
Joining the Sooners for 2016 are a pair of assistant coaches in Alexis Vizarelis, who served as an assistant at his alma mater the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma since 2002, and Brandi Vega, who worked as a volunteer coach for OU in 2015 and played under Potter at Washington State.
With new faces on the coaching staff, OU’s group of eight seniors, led by team captains Shiloh Price, Rachel Ressler and Jemma Cota, will be instrumental in setting the tone for this squad.
“To be perfectly honest, I’ve explained to them because of all the changes we’ve had this season is going to go how we go, and it’s up to the seniors and myself, nobody else, to make sure it goes the right way,” Potter explains. “I know they’re capable and ready to handle that pressure because individually they’re all great people and they all have pieces of leadership, but together they are a very powerful group. We are all a work in progress, but they all have great pieces that if you put them together, they really are a strong, strong group that stands for all the right reasons.”
"It’s important that we recognize those that came before and it’s important that we continue to strive to drive the program forward."
Potter says the fact that this team has so many familiar faces and has been together for so long is beneficial, which was already evident once preseason practice began.
“The first day of preseason, we jumped into something that we probably would do midway through a non-conference schedule because we’ve had everybody together,” Potter explains. “The pressure that we feel, I think the attitude is that we’ve earned that pressure. We’ve earned the right to be on those types of stages now, so I think the disappointment of not making the postseason last year hasn’t sat well so they’ve had a really good spring.
“Clearly only losing Devin (Barrett) and Laura (Rayfield) to graduation, everybody’s been together for a long time now, so there’s really no excuses,” Potter continues. “On the flip side, there’s some talent that’s coming in, but they also don’t have that pressure of having to excel right off the bat. They can kind of grow within it.”
This season has added meaning for the Sooners as they celebrate 20 years of OU soccer, a program which began in 1996. Each year, the Sooners play for those who wore their jersey numbers before them, with the goal of leaving the number even better than they found it. The Sooners are approaching the anniversary season with the exact same mentality.
“The 20th anniversary season is something that the team has been reminded of,” Potter shares. “It’s a responsibility to see if you can make it special for all the people that came before us. It’s important that we recognize those that came before and it’s important that we continue to strive to drive the program forward.”
One group, working together and striving to make its mark on the OU program.