NASHVILLE, Ten. - The Belmont women's soccer team reported on Monday. Six days later, they will be playing its first exhibition game of the season.
The Bruins square off at Vanderbilt on Sunday at 7 p.m. in the earliest exhibition match under head coach Heather Henson. Belmont has hit the ground running with eager anticipation on the field, something that has caught the attention of the coaching staff.
"We've jumped into training sessions in terms of our attack, our defense and really being able to have battles on the field," Henson said. "They're really engaging in those physical games and those first three days, that's what you want to see. Their energy and their effort is at a level that I'm extremely proud of. They know where they want to go this season and they're taking it training session by training session and even into our chalk talks. I'm pleased with us so far."
Belmont first week of training has consisted of team meetings, play diagramming, two-a-day on-field practices and mental training sessions. Even when the team has breaks for meals, they are spending time together in order to build team chemistry.
While the hours make the days longer, the players, especially newcomers, feel it's beneficial as the first game comes around the corner.
"It seems like we've been here so long and it's only been three days because we're so spread out when you're getting in meetings, chalk talks, matches, practices," freshman midfielder Avery Nowak said. "It's bringing that team chemistry built for the games since it's coming up so quick. I think doing two-a-days helps us build a connection and get our flow right for when we start playing in the season."
The Bruins have focused on the fundamentals in addition to scrimmaging during their training sessions. According to senior defender Shannon Maitland, the team is ready to compete against someone other than their teammates.
"I think it's going to be good to get the ball rolling," Maitland said. "Just being able to get out there and see all of us together in a real life scenario. It's one thing going up against your own teammates, but it's a completely different game going up against someone you don't see every single day. It'll definitely be nice to go out there against a different opponent that's not someone you play with and it'll really show what we'll be made of this year."
Not only are the Bruins facing the challenge of playing an exhibition game earlier than usual, but facing a team with sky-high momentum from last season. Vanderbilt won the regular season SEC title last season, winning a game in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Baylor in the second round. The Commodores enter the season ranked 17th in the United Soccer Coaches poll.
With winning its first OVC title in program history in mind, Henson and the Bruins welcome the tougher challenges in order to better prepare themselves for conference play.
"Vanderbilt is a very solid team. (Head coach) Darren (Ambrose) does a great job with them. Their young ladies are well trained, well disciplined, well focused. And that's the people we want to put on our schedule," Henson said. "This is the earliest we've ever played in an exhibition. This was a new challenge for us, saying 'let's have one early.' Because you know what, we need to step into new challenges to accomplish new things."
Vanderbilt is coming off a successful season in 2018, finishing the year with a 16-4-1 overall record and claiming the regular season SEC title. The Commodores carried that momentum into the postseason, defeating Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Baylor 3-1. The Lady Commodores have 76 percent of their scoring returning last season, including four All-SEC award winners.
The Commodores are led by 2018 SEC Freshman of the Year Haley Hopkins, who led Vanderbilt in scoring with 14 goals and 35 points. First Team All-SEC member Grace Jackson and Second Team All-SEC member Nia Dorsey are weapons in Vanderbilt's system while Kaylann Boyd adds some scoring depth, scoring eight goals last season. Vanderbilt also returns their two leading goalkeepers in Lauren Demarchi and Taiana Tolleson. Demarchi led the Commodores in saves with 50 and had a save percentage of .847.