MaKenzie Lawrence retraces her steps in the penalty box moments after the game ended. She moves in slow motion just beyond the top of the six yard box, pretends to take the ball at her feet and then mimes slotting the ball into the lower left corner with her right foot.
She then returns to the pack of players celebrating out near midfield. It was an intensely cathartic moment after a long, loss-heavy season for SUU Soccer.
Lawrence scored the golden goal in overtime that set off the celebration from the spot she returned to while her teammates celebrated. It was a moment too sweet to experience once. She had to walk to the same spot and pretend to score the goal again.
It was the only winning goal the T-Birds scored all season, and it came in their second to last home contest of 2019, against Idaho State. SUU finished the season 1-15-2, the fewest wins in program history.
That didn’t matter to Lawrence. The redshirt senior led the conference in goals and points and was the Big Sky Golden Boot award winner. She finished her career just three goals short of SUU’s career scoring record holder, Ally Thimsen, who scored 20 goals as a T-Bird from 2014-2017.
Lawrence was named to the All-Big Sky first team, but her performance wasn’t even close to enough to pull the team out of the cellar. It didn’t help that head coach Fred Thompson didn’t even last in his position until conference play.
The T-Birds were dealt a rough hand, and after a season as tough as this one, it can be easy to sweep it under the rug and move on. That’s not how you learn. SUU Soccer has to own this season’s failures and internalize the lows so that they never have to experience them again.
So let’s look at back at this season and savor every morsel of positivity. How can we fix anything if we don’t acknowledge what went wrong?
What Went Right
Interim head coach Jonas Tanzer took over a team that had scored one goal in eight games heading into conference play. The T-Birds scored eight goals in nine conference games after he took over.
Tanzer might not be the coach of the future (the athletic department mentioned a national search for a new head coach in their press release), but he found a way to put points on the board.
The T-Birds switched to a five-man back line, something they had toyed with under Thompson, with Emma Leong as the anchor. Leong was solid all season, and while SUU did give up their fair share of shots, they usually weren’t from very dangerous positions.
Leong played in the center, Quincy Pfeffer played to her left and Rachel Wolter played to her right. The three center-back approach really clogged up the attacking third, and that kept SUU in games all season.
Freshman Isabella Whitmore stepped up nicely in the place of Brianna Aldridge, who left the team in the wake of Thompson’s departure. Aldridge’s departure thrust Whitmore into the deep end and she swam her way out. It’s hard to blame Aldridge for leaving, after initially transferring from Mississippi State to play for Thompson.
Whitmore led the Big Sky in saves per game with 7.00, and kept clean sheets in double overtime contests against Weber State and league leaders Montana. Whitmore is only a freshman and is an exciting building block.
Those exciting building blocks are essential to the team’s future, and there were a few bright moments from young players. Leong looked like one of the best center backs in the conference at times in her sophomore season. Pfeffer also just finished her sophomore year and was second on the team in minutes.
Freshman Jaylynn Barton finished third in minutes and started 14 games of 18 games. She’s got good feet and could develop into a solid number six distributor.
Only five players scored a goal for SUU this season, and three of them were freshmen. Barton and forwards Amberly Hastings and Alia Shatswell landed on the scoresheet and could develop into major contributors on a winning team.
Freshmen Emilia Palsdottir and Annie Wolter gave the team good minutes at outside back. They struggled to defend one on one at times, but they’re still young.
The hope is that this year’s experience builds these freshmen into high level players. They weren’t good enough to contend this year, and at times looked overwhelmed by Big Sky competition, but that doesn’t mean they can’t develop into something greater. There’s potential in this squad.
If anything, this is a fresh start of SUU Athletic Director Debbie Corum and the soccer team. She’s got her last few hires right (Tracy Sanders, Todd Simon and Pete Hoyer have seen major improvements with their respective teams), and she’ll put the work into finding another bright coach to turn the program around.
Coaching is so much more than strategy, and hopefully the next coach can find a way to create a positive atmosphere that will get the most out of the players.
What Went Wrong:
Thompson “parting ways” with the team two days before the start of conference play is a very bad look. His contract ran through the end of this season, so either the athletic department told him to scoot, or he couldn’t bear to see through conference play. Pick your poison.
The 2019 campaign will set a lot of records for program lows. Things like consecutive losses, fewest goals in a season and the like will haunt this program for a long time. They should.
Hopefully this was the worst season in school history, because that implies that the future will be better. It’s hard to find rock bottom deeper than a near winless season.
A former player told SUU News that “[Thompson] created a cancerous culture that thrived on stepping on the throats of your fellow teammates just to get five minutes of playing time.”
That’s as volatile as it gets, and the exact opposite of what other SUU athletic teams have done to build success. Competition or playing time is good, but a lack of unity in the squad can tear it down from the inside.
SUU struggled offensively, and Lawrence couldn’t do it all herself. She’s great in front of goal and works hard, but she was not the type of player to beat four players at a time because no one can, unless Lionel Messi or Eden Hazard walk through that door. Lawrence would be isolated against three players on nearly every clearance, and she had no choice but to give the ball away at times.
Thompson and Tanzer put ten players behind the ball, clogged up their defensive third with midfielders and wingers and hoped to score on the counter attack or a free kick. Usually it didn’t work, but at times it felt like they had no other choice.
The T-Birds got pinned into their own half with frustrating regularity. Leong and Pfeffer would make an interception and have to hoof the ball out of bounds to avoid turning it over. They sustained so much pressure because the midfield struggled to retain the ball.
That comes as part of the five player back line, but no one looked confident with the ball at their feet in the midfield.
Maybe the young players can develop into more comfortable passers, but priority one for the next coaching staff needs to be upgrading the midfield.
That can come internally, with transfers or with incoming freshmen, but SUU cannot trot out the same quality of playmakers and hope to win more.
Replacing Lawrence is another daunting task. She’s one of the best forwards in school history, and she didn’t get much support from her midfielders. Lawrence wasn’t the most deft in playing quick passes, but she was SUU’s only intimidating option in front of goal.
There’s no clear replacement for Lawrence on the squad. Hastings and Shatswell played well on the wings, but aren’t target forwards who can hold the ball until help arrives. If they can’t find a capable replacement, then they’ll have to redesign their offensive strategy to create chances.
The next head coach has to learn from Thompson’s ultimate exit. This program needs a new energy, a renewed commitment to improvement. The only way to go from here is up.
Final Verdict (TL;DR): The defense was solid, but the team struggled offensively, even with Golden Boot winner MaKenzie Lawrence. Fred Thompson couldn’t turn things around, and the next coach will need to develop the young core if they want to improve any time soon. There’s a long road ahead for SUU Soccer, but it can’t get much worse than 2019.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of Mitchell Quartz