In the fall of 2020, the Lady Vols soccer team went to practice uncertain about what their season would look like, if they even had one at all. Now, the team has a 17-game slate lined up and is going into the season confident in its roster and coaching staff.
With the return of a full season comes major adjustments to be made from last season. Less preparation time, more games per week and more workload are all things that will return this season.
“We’re back to reality,” head coach Brian Pensky said. “We have a 16 day preseason, that’s not a whole lot of time. Now here we are almost one week into preseason and we’re also ten day away from our first game.
“You have to cram a whole lot of information into a very short amount of time and get their bodies and their minds ready to go. Whereas last year because of COVID, as terrible as it was, we actually had seven weeks of training before we played our first game.”
Although there has been less time for the team to prepare for the season physically and mentally, less COVID restrictions have led to more team bonding opportunities that will hopefully translate into on-field chemistry.
“Last year we couldn’t really do much team bonding and stuff outside of soccer just because it pledged a higher risk,” senior defender Abbey Burdette said. “But with things opening up we’ve been able to do more team bonding, hangout with each other, just build those deeper relationships.
“The relationships between the older players and the newer players have been great. I think our chemistry is some of the best we’ve ever had.”
Along with a newfound energy from being able to spend more time together, the team also goes into the season with the addition of seven freshman, all of whom are expected to make a big contribution to the team.
“A couple of the older kids have come to us over this first week and talked about how excited they are for the young kids,” Pensky said. “They see the talent they have, and they see the work rate and fitness level, and they’re excited to have kids that are good. That’s an automatic problem solver, now we just have to make sure we put it all together.”
Another positive for Tennessee heading into the season is its returners. The Lady Vols have 21 returners this season, including junior forward Jaida Thomas, who led the team in goals scored last season with 12. Also returning for Tennessee is senior forward Mackenzie George, a player who Pensky expects will step up in her third season playing with the team.
“Mackenzie George on the field, she’s just a dog,” Pensky said. “I can count on one hand the number of players I’ve been fortunate enough to coach that are as athletic as she is, as competitive as she is. But now entering year three with us, I think she’s kind of crossed this threshold.
“It’s time for her to step up as a leader. It’s time to step up her voice on and off the field and not just being a dog in her work rate and her play but pushing those around her and pulling those around her and stepping into a leadership role.”
Last season, Tennessee played just eight regular season games, and seven postseason games, ending its season with losses against Cincinnati and North Carolina. Tennessee’s ending last season has been a driving force for the returners heading into this season.
“We’re hungry,” Pensky said. “Last fall we won the SEC, and we lost a bummer game at Cincinnati and then came home and played Carolina. The Cincinnati loss killed us last spring, and I think there is a sense of unfinished business in the spring and these kids know it’s time to get back to the NCAA tournament.”
Not only does last year’s postseason exit motivate the team, it also marks the standard at which Tennessee hopes to play at.
“Obviously UNC is one of the best teams in the country consistently,” Burdette said. “I think we’ve been using that as our standard of where we want to be, and we want to be able to compete with teams like that at a high level. That loss just taught us a lot as a team about where we need to be in our expectations and help us build our goals for this year.”
Tennessee has its standard set and its eyes focused on the season ahead, and players and coaches alike are confident in the squad they have this season.
“We have an extremely competitive team and a team where everyone is going to buy in and everyone is going to put in 100% effort and everyone is coming to practice with an edge and an energy and just competitive desire,” George said. “We have a lot of motivated players and a lot of young players that are coming in with a lot of energy. It’s going to be inspiring for everyone.”
The Lady Vols will kickoff their season with an exhibition game against Alabama on Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET at Regal Soccer Stadium. Tennessee’s regular season will begin Thursday, August 19 at 7 p.m. against Florida Gulf Coast University at Regal Soccer Stadium.