Striving to be the best
La Salle uses preseason slight to motivate defense
Never underestimate the power of the written word. Just ask the La Salle women's soccer team.
In August, the Explorers read an Atlantic-10 Conference preview on a popular women's soccer blog and they were not happy with what it said. The writer had described the team's defense as "atrocious." While the article did not mince words, the fact was the Explorers had finished 216th of 314 Division I teams with a 1.491 goals against average in 2010.
The truth hurt, and La Salle vowed to improve overall defensively this season. But, the Explorers did not just improve -- they became one of the best defenses in the nation, posting a 0.287 goals against average, which ranks second nationally in Division I. Only No. 2 Oklahoma State boasts a better GAA at 0.256 this season.
"We don't settle for good, we strive to be the best," sophomore defender Courtney Niemiec said. "When we realized what people thought of us, we stepped up our level of play to gain some respect. It's crazy how much we've changed in one season."
"This is a really high-achieving group," head coach Paul Royal said. "I think whenever you tell them they can't do something they really want to prove people wrong. They're driven like that in the classroom and their personal lives, too. I think that's a great quality for them. We used [the article] as a motivator."
The results of that motivation have been phenomenal this season. The Explorers have compiled a 15-0-3 record, earned their first-ever Atlantic-10 regular season title and garnered their first ever national ranking in the NSCAA Division I Top 25. And while the offensive production of freshman forward Kelsey Haycook (36 points) and sophomore midfielder Renee Washington (25 points) have certainly been a factor in La Salle's success, the defensive improvement has been the key to their consistent play.
"We've always had a lot of attacking flair in past years, but I think this year the kids really bought into everyone committing themselves as defenders from the forward line to the midfielders to the backline, obviously to one of the best goalkeepers in the country," Royal said.
Royal, former goalkeeper at UW-Milwaukee, has been at the helm of the program since 2003, but this team is undoubtedly his best. The Explorers had qualified for the A-10 Tournament just three times in the preview eight seasons, including a trip to the conference semifinals last year.
"I'm a real passionate guy, and we've been fortunate to recruit a lot of similar kids in that sense," Royal said. "They take a lot of pride in all the hard work they do, and their commitment level has been amazing throughout the offseason. We have incredible leadership that filters down throughout the team. They achieve great pride in their accomplishments on the defensive side of the ball."
Fifth-year senior Melissa Sanger believes the team's communication is an integral part of their defensive success. Sanger sparked La Salle to 11 straight shutouts to open the season, and has posted 13 in 18 contests. She ranks fourth in the nation with a .918 save percentage.
"Everyone takes pride in their defending," Sanger said. "In multiple games, we've had forwards track runners all the way back to our end just to help on defense. Our defenders take pride in their 1-v-1 defending and they take it personally if a player on another team gets by them."
Sanger says Royal's point of view as a former goalkeeper has helped her with little things like improving her range of distribution and her positioning on angle play.
"I've seen myself improve greatly working with him," Sanger said. "I haven't always had the best technique as goalkeeper, but working every practice with Paul, little by little, I have seen great improvement. Even since the preseason, I've seen myself improve. He has really helped me grow my confidence as well."
"All the knowledge in the world is great, but (Sanger) had to grasp hold of it," Royal said. "That's one of her greatest qualities - she wants to improve each day. She wants to get extra touches and practice - she is one of the hardest workers and has tremendous talent."
La Salle may not yet be a nationally-recognized name in collegiate women's soccer, but Explorers' hard-working group has scratched and clawed for everything they've earned. The team concluded the regular season with five conference games on the road, and in their final two contests, came from behind twice to battle to a pair of double-overtime ties as they clinched the A-10 title.
"This year we've gained a lot of recognition, but it is because we've had the same mindset and focus that we want to develop and go far as a team," Sanger said.
The Explorers enter the week ranked as high as No. 17 in the Soccer America Top 25, and will have a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament on Nov. 4. They will play the lowest remaining seed (No. 4, 5 or 6) on Nov. 5, looking to advance to the program's first A-10 championship game. The winner of the A-10 Championship receives an automatic berth in the NCAA Championship - something that also would be a first for the program.
"Even though we have gained some respect, we still view ourselves as underdogs," Neimiec said. "Not many people know who La Salle is. We might be on top in the A-10, but we have to make it to NCAAs to keep gaining that respect."