With 15 players returning and his best recruiting class in tow, Nicholls State University soccer coach Jim Zakel has a reason to be optimistic.
Zakel said he believes the Lady Colonels could turn their fortunes around this season after a dismal year in 2015.
“I am excited this year because we have 15 returners,” Zakel said. “That is the most the program has had in its history returning. The seven newcomers that I have are undoubtedly the best class of newcomers we have ever brought in. They are really good players. They have good size, good skill, and they all came from real good clubs.”
Zakel said playing its first season of spring soccer should help the team have a reversal of fortune this fall.
“In Division I college soccer, you actually have two seasons,” Zakel said. “We played nine games in the spring. We tied Tulane, which was a big morale-booster for the kids after getting beat pretty handily by them in the fall. That showed a lot of improvement.”
The conditioning of the returning players is another reason that Zakel said he is excited about the upcoming season.
“We are in the best condition coming in that we have ever been,” Zakel said. “A lot of the kids passed the fitness test the first day which was really exciting. I know a lot of them played together in the summer and worked real hard together.”
Zakel said Friday against University of Southern Mississippi, it is up to NSU’s defense to keep the score low while the young, inexperienced offense finds its groove.
“I think we are going to have a lot of low scoring games,” Zakel said. “We have a really good defense. Our defense is composed entirely of returners. The back six are all returning players, so I think we are going to be real solid defensively.”
Ashley Bock returns to play the sweeper position after appearing in two matches last year. Zakel said Bock’s availability would provide a big boost to the defense.
“She only played in two full games last year,” Zakel said. “She is the most highly recruited player we have. She was recruited by over 30 schools when we got her, LSU being one, so having her this year is going to make a big impact on defense. She played this spring and the results showed in the spring. So Ashley Bock is the key to our defense.”
Conversely, the majority of the players at the top and middle for the Lady Colonels are new to the program.
Zakel said he expects freshmen Samantha Bledsoe, Tori Priddy, and Emily Foertsch to make immediate impacts. Kim Robinson, who led NSU with four goals in 2015, also needs to have a good year offensively.
The Lady Colonels want to possess the ball more this year and keep the scores low as they make the transition to a 3-5-2 formation.
Zakel said poor home field conditions last fall forced the team to alter its strategy.
“Last year with all of the mud and the poor field conditions, we had to play direct,” Zakel said. “We couldn’t knock the ball around at all. There was just no way we could pass the ball around in the mud, so we had to play direct. We didn’t even have the players to play that style but the field dictated that. We had half of our games at home so it was difficult because the ball just died in the mud.”
The Lady Colonels started out 2-1-1 in 2015, including wins against Northwood and Mobile. But they lost 16 straight matches, including 12 Southland Conference contests, to close out the season at 2-17-1.
Injuries and bad weather helped unravel their season last year, and it is a problem once again.
“Everything looks good right now, but I am concerned about weather and injuries,” Zakel said. “Last year, we lost 12 practice days because of weather. We had a lot of injuries last year so I am real fearful of injuries this year. If
we can avoid that we are in good shape.”
NSU’s main concern injury wise is at the goalkeeper position. While the Lady Colonels are stocked with depth at almost every position, goalkeeper is the one position where there is a glaring shortage of depth.
Returning starter Lindsay Bartlett is the only goalie on the roster.
Zakel said that if Bartlett, who is nursing a sprained wrist, stays healthy she will have a great season, but the team could be in trouble if she gets hurt.
“If she’s not healthy, that is a big concern,” Zakel said. “The question then becomes who is going to step in and play that keeper position? My biggest concern is goalkeeping. If Lindsay’s not healthy we are in trouble right there.”
Despite the goalies situation, Zakel said that NSU could struggle against its non-conference schedule. They are scheduled to play Tulane, LSU, North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette.
The tough preseason is supplemented by the fact that NSU finishes the final month of the season with eight of 10 contests at home.
“The schedule is favorable because the last eight of ten are at home,” Zakel said. “The whole last month is basically at home so that is an advantage if the weather holds up.”
If everything goes as planned, Zakel believes opponents will be in for a surprise when they face the Lady Colonels this year.
“We will surprise people because we are going to be very competitive,” Zakel said. “We are going to be in games. I can’t guarantee wins and losses but I can say that this team will catch some teams by surprise.”