KNOXVILLE — Last November, after not making the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year, the Tennessee soccer team had what coach Brian Pensky called a "come to Jesus" meeting.
In that meeting the Volunteers set goals for this season to try to get the program back on track. It worked, helped by multiple players returning from injuries and redshirting.
The Vols are 13-1-1 and ranked 11th nationally as they prepare to play Thursday night at Vanderbilt with three regular-season games remaining. Pensky credits much of the success to having a veteran team.
"We have a lot of kids who are redshirt juniors or true juniors or redshirt sophomores," Pensky said. "So they are kids who have been around the block a little bit and have experienced some pain in losing, which I think helped lead to that meeting back in November last year of 'we're not letting this happen again.'"facebook
After losing top goal scorer Hannah Wilkinson from last year's 11-9-1 squad, the Vols seemed to need multiple players to replace her production.
Enter Khadija Shaw.
Shaw, a junior nicknamed "Bunny," played two seasons at Eastern Florida State College before transferring to Tennessee this year. Shaw scored two goals in her first game and now has 13, plus four assists, and she was ranked as the No. 36 overall player on Top Drawer Soccer's midseason list of the nation's top 100.
"Obviously I'm a little surprised in terms of she has more goals than any player Tennessee has had since 1998," Pensky said. "Those are big numbers. Did I expect 13 goals in 15 games? No. Did I think she was going to be a force to be reckoned with within this league? No doubt. Her intelligence, her touch, her ability around the goal — we knew she was going to be pretty darn good up top."
Shaw has had help, however, with 11 teammates also contributing goals. Anna Bialzcak is next behind Shaw with five and also has four assists. Erin Gilroy leads the team with eight assists.
Pensky credited those figures with fueling the team's turnaround.
Strong midfield play from redshirt sophomore Kate Cousins has helped, too.
After playing her freshman year at Tennessee, Cousins redshirted last year to play for the United States under-20 team. Cousins is now back for her second season with the Vols and was rated 23rd on the Top Drawer list.
After visiting Vanderbilt, Tennessee closes the regular season with games against Florida and Arkansas. The SEC tournament begins Oct. 30 in Orange Beach, Ala. The NCAA tournament begins Nov. 10, and Tennessee is on track to be part of the field this year.
"We just need to continue to do what we're doing and playing with urgency — and playing with desperation and, as we've said the last couple of days, playing angry," Pensky said. "At this point, we don't need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to improve the things we've been doing well all season, and stay healthy and be smart about kids' bodies, keeping them mentally and physically fresh. And I think if we do that, we'll give ourselves a chance."
Contact Rob Harvey at email@example.com.