As Sept. 18 looms closer, the Tennessee soccer team is anxious and ready to play. In a year that will look totally different from any season to date, one thing remains the same for the Lady Vols -- they are ready to play, and ready to win.
“I think they’re tired of training, tired of playing against each other, and they just want to play games,” head coach Brian Pensky said. “They’re going to be excited, they’re going to be jacked up, and even more ready to go.”
Though the Lady Vols are ready to get back to action, their schedule is going to be a little different this year. The SEC announced last Thursday that the season will consist of an eight-match, conference-only regular season over eight weeks of competition beginning Sept. 18.
The eight-game, one game per week format was something that Pensky and many other coaches pushed for. Only playing one game each weekend is more forgiving for a team that could be short several players to COVID or other injuries.
“Our old schedule coming into this fall, if you have one positive test or a quarantine, you’d miss potentially three of four games, on multiple game weekends,” Pensky said. “Now, hopefully, kids won’t miss more than one game at a time.”
The postseason format will also look different this season. Following the eight-game season, the SEC Championship will take place from Nov. 13-22, in Orange Beach, Ala. All 14 schools will compete in the SEC Championship with each team guaranteed at least two matches.
Even in a shortened season when all teams are guaranteed a spot in the tournament, Pensky was adamant that their strategy and approach to each game would not change.
“We’re not going to play kids just because it’s Howdy Doody time and it’s a free season. We want to finish as high as we can in the league,” Pensky said. “We’re going to take it each week at a time. And do so trying to win, balanced with trying to keep our kids healthy first and foremost.”
Regardless of the shape that their schedule takes, the Lady Vols remain a young team eager to prove themselves. On their roster of 23 players, 15 of them are freshmen or sophomores. Of the other eight, only two of them are seniors, forward Erin Gilroy and center back Wrenne French.
“We’re still a young and new team, but it’s an excited bunch,” Pensky said. “A bunch that came out in spring and trained really hard until life got shut down because of COVID.”
The obvious star of the team is sophomore goalkeeper Lindsey Romig. As a true freshman last season, Romig had one of the best seasons in program history. She started 13 games as the goalkeeper, made the SEC All-Freshman team, and broke the single-season program record with a 0.58 goals-against average. Following an offseason hip surgery, Romig is healthy and feeling better than ever.
“She’s having a really good preseason, and she’s a sophomore now and she’s more comfortable in her own skin,” Pensky said. “She’s more comfortable speaking up. She made some great saves in preseason so far, and we just hope and expect for her to continue that growth.”
Romig’s best advantage is her frame. She stands at an even six feet tall, two inches more than the next tallest Vol, and uses her height to generate strength as a goalkeeper. And after her prolific freshman season, she has more confidence and a bigger presence in the box.
“Lindsey can hit a big ball. Whether it’s her goal kicks, or within the run of play, she can hit about a fifty to sixty-yard ball,” Pensky said. “When you can eliminate five to ten opponents with one big ball like that, that’s something we’re going to look to use. That’s certainly an asset that’s massive.”
Tennessee is almost at full strength in terms of health. The biggest injury concern is sophomore center back Maria Nelson, who sustained a knee injury earlier this week. The Lady Vols also had one player opt-out of the season due to COVID concerns.
“Maria’s out with her knee, so that leaves us with 20 field players,” Pensky said. “All twenty will be on the field for us for training in some capacity. Some might be a little bit lighter than others, but we’re in a pretty good place, knock on wood.”