The Tennessee soccer team kicks off a new season Thursday as the Vols host Fordham at Regal Soccer Stadium. The 2019 Vols face hefty expectations after making the program’s deepest run in the NCAA Tournament making it all the way to the Elite Eight in 2018.
Confidence in Tennessee is high as the Vols are ranked No. 10 in the preseason Coaches’ Poll, making them the highest rated team in the SEC.
“I think it says we’ve had a couple good years in a row,” head coach Brian Pensky said. “We’re on the right path, but no person, no good program can rest on their laurels, and this is a new team, this is the 2019 team, and this is a new season. While it’s nice to receive that kind of recognition it truly means nothing in terms of us moving forward.”
Pensky, who will start his eighth season as the Vols’ head coach Thursday, has led the program to new heights.
After a 2017 season that saw him lead the Vols back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, Tennessee recorded its most wins in program history in 2018 with 16 and finishing second in the SEC behind Vanderbilt.
Seniors Katie Cousins and Maya Neal return after receiving first team All-SEC honors for the second consecutive year in 2018.
“I think mentality goes into it a lot more especially as you get older,” Neal said. “It’s mostly getting mentally prepared for the season to start and knowing where your body is supposed to be physically and keeping it to a high standard.”
Despite the returning talent Tennessee did lose some key talent from the 2018 team including All-American Bunny Shaw and Danielle Marcano. In total the Vols lost 61% of their goal production from 2018.
While the Vols don’t have as much production returning on offense they still return plenty of talent and potential on that end of the field.
“Erin Gilroy, she thinks she had the worst season of her life last year, but she was still an All-SEC player (second team). Certainly the expectations remain high for her,” Pensky said. “Mary Alice Vignola I think is one of the deadliest weapons in this league. We’ve played her mostly at outside back, but we’re really gonna try to get her as far forward as possible. We think she can be ruthless.”
“Salera (Jordan) has been in the shadows of Bunny Shaw and Danielle Marcano for two years now, but she always manages to do something,” Pensky said. “She scored very important goals down the stretch in the NCAA Tournament. She scored some important goals in the regular season even these last few years. I believe in Salera.”
Another question for the Vols is in the net as Tennessee lost Yanez Shae, who started all 22 games at goalie last season, to graduation. Who the starter in net is remains unclear as redshirt-sophomore Charli Pogany and freshman Lindsey Romig have battled for the starting spot this preseason.
“We’re still evaluating that,” Pensky said Tuesday when asked who would get the start in goal in Thursday’s opener. “Charli had a late start to the preseason because she had a quad thing going on, but she’s trained the last couple of days and has looked pretty good. Lindsey has done well so far, as well. I think we have a pretty good competition going on there."
Tennessee went out and signed an impressive recruiting class in the offseason that ranked No. 6 nationally on TopDrawerSoccer.com. Additionally the Vols added a graduate transfer in Michelle Allozay who was an All-Ivy League player at Yale and a transfer in Mackenzie George who was the Big West freshman of the year last season at Cal Poly.
“I never even wanted to leave the state for soccer. I just wanted to stay in California,” George said. “When I came here (to visit) I had no intent to come here until I saw the campus and saw how the team environment was and how the people cared about what they were doing and took pride in it… They made it hard not to come here.”
This year’s team will look to build off of last year’s success while trying to reach new heights for this program.
“Our goal is to build upon what we did last year,” Neal said. “Not necessarily to go based on the past, but to get better and build a more cohesive team.”
For George, that means going out and trying to claim a victory in every match.
“To win, everything,” George said laughing. “To go as far as we can go. That’s my goal and I’m sure that’s everyone else’s goal. Just to keep winning.”
Tennessee will look to start that winning Thursday night as it hosts Fordham at 7 p.m. ET in the season opener.