The last time the Tennessee soccer team stepped off of a playing field, it was following a tough loss to Washington State in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Hosting the Alabama Crimson Tide at Regal Soccer Stadium for their annual exhibition match on Friday, Tennessee found itself on the identical side of the scoreboard when the buzzer sounded, falling 1-0.
An outing highlighted by offensive struggles from both teams, the Vols were unable to muster up any points, despite holding Alabama scoreless as well.
Controlling the tempo for much of the second half, Tennessee was able to keep the ball on its side of the field during much of the game’s final stretch, but a late goal by Alabama’s Taylor Hubbard sealed the Vols’ hopes for a home victory.
Tennessee head coach Brian Pensky praised his players’ effort, despite coming up on the wrong end of a tight contest.
“We made a conscious effort that we wanted to win, but we also wanted to play 24 players,” Pensky said. “Now is the time to find out who can help us win, that’s why you play exhibition games.”
Here are three things we learned from Tennessee’s opening exhibition of the season:
Tennessee’s defensive backbone is still in tact
Coming off of a season in which she recorded eight complete shutouts and 69 total saves, goalkeeper Shae Yanez was back at it again on Friday.
Recording four saves in the first half alone, Yanez prevented the Crimson Tide from running away on the scoreboard as they outshot the Lady Vols 8-5 during that stretch.
As a unit, Pensky is confident they will mesh quickly once regular season play begins next week and a rotation is decided upon.
“I felt great, especially considering we played eight to nine kids in the back line tonight” Pensky said. “The rhythm and cohesion was not there and that’s on me, but we learned a lot tonight.”
Her effort carried over into the second half as well, recording three additional saves as Alabama continued to flood the goal line with shots. Of the 13 total shots taken with Yanez on the field, she halted seven of them before being replaced by Charli Pogany with 10 minutes remaining in the second half.
Alabama’s lone score came with less than five minutes remaining in the match, with Hubbard’s attempt squeaking by Pogany’s outstretched arms.
Offensive chemistry will come with time
One of the more prolific offensive units within the Southeastern Conference last season, Tennessee struggled on that side of the ball out of the gate.
The first shot attempt did not occur until the 16-minute mark in the first half, with Alabama already having fired off eight attempts by that point.
The Vols began to click towards the end of the first half, attempting three shots in the final five minutes of the period. That flow carried over in the second half, with Tennessee outshooting Alabama 12-7 during that span.
Khadija Shaw, a three-time SEC Offensive Player of the Week last season, attempted six shots throughout the night but failed to score on any of those attempts.
“It will come with time, we have a competitive group,” Shaw said. “We just have to grow as a group and treat every practice like it’s our last and be prepared for any given game.”
Newcomers will bring a new level of energy
While most of Tennessee’s roster remains intact from last season, the offseason has brought along nine total freshman including redshirt Charli Pogany.
Despite the Vols struggling with their shot efficiency, they were able to produce 15 total attempts following the opening 22 minutes that saw them garner just two scoring opportunities.
Keeping the ball on their side of the field for much of the second half during heavy bench minutes, Tennessee saw a seven-shot turnaround as their aggression on offense began to mount with much of the underclassmen on the field.
Now one of the team’s emotional and vocal leaders, Shaw feels every day will be a learning experience for each of the team’s eight true freshmen.
“It’s an experience for them, most of them haven’t played at this level of competition,” Shaw said. “As upperclassmen, it’s our job to encourage them.”
With a long season ahead of them and expectations beginning to mount, results will ultimately be the final judgment for the Vols.
“Sometimes it’s all about hunger and I think we’re pretty good in that category, but we have another level in us,” Pensky said. “We want to be excellent, we want to be great.”