LSU’s soccer team was nearly three months into its COVID-impacted 2020 season under first-year coach Sian Hudson still in search of its first win.
Because the Southeastern Conference allowed all of 14 of its teams to play in its postseason tournament, the Tigers got a new lease on their season and came to life while in Orange Beach, Ala.
LSU recorded a pair of upsets over Alabama and Ole Miss before running out of steam in a 1-0 setback against Texas A&M in the tournament semifinals.
“Last year everyone went to the tournament, and it sort of took us until then to really hit our stride,” said Hudson, whose team played an SEC-only schedule of eight matches last fall. “This year we have to hit the ground running as soon as SEC play opens (Sept. 17) against Mississippi State.”
Five months after completing the first spring season in program history – winning six of eight matches – LSU finds itself in a much more advantageous position to start the 2021 season at 7 p.m. Thursday hosting Southern Mississippi.
It’s the second year for Hudson and her coaching staff with a more talented and deeper roster that had the benefit of fall training that concluded with three exhibition wins by a combined score of 11-1. The Tigers have a 17-match schedule this season, ending Oct. 31 with the SEC tournament again in Orange Beach.
The way LSU played in spring, plus a solid recruiting year, has raised Hudson’s expectations.
“We want to be up there competing for honors in the SEC,” Hudson said. “I think we’ve got the strength and depth to compete with any team on any day.”
LSU returns 21 players from last year’s 8-8-3 season, including 12 players that made at least 10 starts and played a minimum of 1,000 minutes in the combined 2020-21 season.
Both of the Tigers All-SEC second team selections, junior defender Maya Gordon and junior forward Rammie Noel , are top returnees. Also, senior center back Shannon Cooke, senior forward Tinaya Alexander, fifth-year senior midfielder Chiara Ritchie-Williams, senior Wasila Diwura-Soale and sophomore goalkeeper Mollee Swift are on the SEC’s preseason watch list.
“We’re going out there to compete with the top of the tree and put ourselves in the mix,” Hudson said. “We want to qualify for the (NCAA) postseason. It’s about one game at a time. We have to keep possession, build and play the same style as we did in the spring with a goal threat and a cut-throat mentality in and around the goal.”
LSU turned its furious finish at the SEC tournament into the catalyst for a promising spring that’s provided a springboard for this fall.
Against a schedule that was predominately a mixture of SEC and Big 12 opponents, the Tigers went 6-1-1 and concluded the spring with consecutive shutouts of Baylor and Texas Tech.
Not only does LSU return the foundation of that team, but Hudson has added 11 new players that include eight transfers and three high school signees to further broaden a 32-player roster with improved depth.
“To me the biggest thing in the preseason was just building confidence, certainly in front of goal, and just getting some consistency in terms of players playing together for the first time,” Hudson said.
Alexander scored four of her team’s 11 goals in the preseason and senior forward Meghan Johnson added two more. But Hudson got a glimpse of impact newcomers University of New Mexico graduate transfer Alesia Garcia and University of Minnesota graduate transfer Athena Kuehn, whom combined for three combined goals.
“We just have a lot more options in the attacking third that we didn’t have last year, a lot more depth across the board,” Hudson said. “We have more ways to adapt if the game model is not working for us. With the squad we have, we can make changes.”
Alexander scored nine of her 12 career goals to lead LSU last season to go along with three assists. The Tigers offense also returns senior forward Molly Thompson (5 goals) and sophomore forward Taylor Dobles (3 goals, 2 assists), senior midfielder Wasila Diwura-Soale (4 assists) and Noel (1 goal) at forward. Hudson is also looking forward to scoring contributions from Garcia, Delaware graduate transfer Riley Dixon and Kuehn, a converted defender, and senior midfield transfer Brenna McPartlan who scored 21 goals with 18 assists in her career at South Alabama.
Another player in the midfield that Hudson looks forward to seeing in a full-time capacity this fall is graduate student Tiana Caffey. The native of Port St. Lucia, Fla. played in five games in the spring after missing the entire fall with an injury.
Ritchie-Williams and Moreau (3 assists), two of the team’s three captains along with Cook, will also provide stable options for LSU to play through in the midfield with freshman Nevaeh Johnson, a mid-term graduate, also in the mix.
Swift, who made 17 starts last season, is part of deep pool of goalkeepers after LSU picked up graduate transfer Jade Odom of Colorado College where she had seven shutouts in 2018 to go with the return of sophomore Bella Zanotelli who had a shutout in four appearances.
Swift produced a 7-6-3 record with 80 saves, four shutouts and yielded 16 goals or 0.95 per match.
“She’s riding really high in terms of confidence and we’re looking for her to come in start this year where she left off last year,” Hudson said of Swift. “She wants to push and improve herself as one of the best goalkeepers in the SEC.”
LSU’s backline was a terrific complement for Swift in 2020 and will be another source of strength with the return of seniors Reese Moffatt (1 goal, 1 assist) and Cooke that join Gordon and additional defenders such as senior Grace Haggerty, senior transfer Lindsi Jennings of Northern Colorado and junior Anna Rockett that gained experience last season.
“The girls can see that we’ve become a lot better in terms of the additions we have,” Hudson said. “The development of the players that were on our roster, and adding these quality players, the excitement’s high going into our season.”