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Women’s soccer season preview: Bruno looks to build off 2019 Ivy League Championship

Bears went undefeated during Ivy League play, reached the second round of 2019 NCAA Championship

In 2019, Brown women’s soccer tore through Ivy League competition with six wins, zero losses and one draw before defeating Monmouth University in penalty kicks to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament. Brown’s season ended with a 14-2-3 record — its best in recent history that included a win over Penn to clinch the Ivy title for the first time since 1994.

“Everyone was smiling ear to ear (the day we won the Ivy League),” Juliette Pike ’23 said. “People were crying on the field — it was a crazy experience.”

The team was ready to carry its success into the 2020 season before COVID-19 caused its cancellation. “It was tough because you're going from the highest high you've had — going undefeated and going to the second round at the NCAA tournament — to the lowest low, having to dismiss your team with a pandemic and having to cancel the following season,” Head Coach Kia McNeill said.

Although many members of the women's soccer team remained on campus to practice during the fall of 2020, recreating a normal experience proved nearly impossible. “There was constant testing and a lot of (COVID-19) cases,” Zoe Maxwell ’22 said. “People would have to sit out and quarantine and it was hard to get effective workouts. We couldn't even touch a soccer ball all fall.”

As the 2021 season approaches, the team will return to competition motivated to build on their success in 2019, strengthened by the challenges of the past year. 2019 “just showed us as a staff and as a program that this is the new standard,” McNeill said.

The loss of the 2020 season is fueling the team’s excitement to return to the field in 2021, Maxwell said. “All of that heartbreak was negative at the moment, but I think that, going into the season this fall, we're turning it into a positive,” she added. “We had a lot taken away from us, but that just makes us even more eager to get out there and try to win another title.”

The team will begin non-conference play with matchups against Hofstra University August 27 and College of the Holy Cross August 29. 

“With the non-conference games, you're really trying to play opponents who will potentially expose some weaknesses of yours,” McNeill said. “We want to make sure that we're continuing to be sharp every single game and getting better every single game leading into conference play.”

“Hofstra is going to be a great opening team to test our limits a little bit with and see who works the best with each other,” Pike said. “In my opinion, playing on the field is the best way to get to know your teammates and get to know their strengths and weaknesses.”

The team will have just ten days of practice to prepare rising first-years and sophomores for their first games at the collegiate level before the late August matchup against Hofstra. 

Upperclassmen will prove crucial in guiding their younger teammates, McNeill said. “We're going to have to really lean on our (team) leadership” as extensions of the coaching staff, she said. “The good thing is we have a lot of players returning who were part of our success in 2019.”

“Setting a high standard of intensity will be really important,” Maxwell said. “My freshman year, that standard was set and that kind of just pushed everyone to genuinely be the best that they could be. It’s difficult with the two underclassmen classes right now because high school soccer is just a completely different game than college soccer.”

As part of their preparation for the season, all members of the women's soccer team will have to pass a rigorous fitness test August 18 in order to be eligible for inclusion in the starting lineup when games begin. “Passing the fitness test is definitely a high expectation we have for all incoming players, regardless of what grade you're in,” Sheyenne Allen ’23 said.

During the test, players must complete a series of time-based running exercises with short breaks in between. The test poses a significant challenge even for returning players. “If you don’t finish it, you can practice but you can't play in games. If you run it and don't finish it in the time that you're supposed to finish it in, you can play with the team but you can't start or travel to overnight games,” Pike said. “I started training for it in May.”

The test is representative of the team’s high-intensity, fast-paced play style. “For any elite athlete, their foundation is based on fitness,” McNeill said. “I think that's a huge reason why we were able to win in the 2019 year — we out-competed, out-hustled and were more fit than a lot of our opponents.”

“​​Coach McNeill believes that it's best to control the controllable and that's our fitness,” Allen said. “We are a very fit team, and it's all up to fitness when you're late in the 90th minute. That's the thing that pushes you through.”

In addition to fitness, a major tactical focus for this year’s team will be increasing the offense’s production in order to alleviate pressure on the back line. “I think our defense held us in games a lot in 2019, and this year I want to see our attacking front take a little bit more responsibility and relieve some of the pressure from our defenders,” McNeill said. “If we can get both our defenders and our attackers doing what they need to do, I think we're going to be a very difficult team to beat — it's just about putting those pieces of the puzzle together.”

In 2019, reliance on defense made it difficult for the team to establish commanding leads, Pike said. One of the team’s strengths in the 2019 season was its grit, but, going forward, the team is focusing on playing a “more possession-oriented” game, she added.

While it was difficult for the team to make significant strategic adjustments midseason, the addition of two new classes of players provides a blank slate for the team to experiment with new offensive and defensive schemes. “We have so many girls coming in and we have no idea how they play, so it does give us a very unique opportunity to make new combinations with old players and new players,” Pike said.

Off the playing field, this fall’s return to normalcy may provide important opportunities to cultivate a sense of community within the women's soccer team. “A lot of us had a really close relationship prior to (COVID-19) and that definitely translated to our work on the field,” Maxwell said of the importance of team bonding outside of soccer. 

“You have the training sessions, you have the games, but there's so much more to being on a team than just that,” McNeill added. “The locker room, the bus trips, hanging out in the dining hall — these are all ways that you get to know each other both on and off the field so that you can build that culture and camaraderie that we want.”

McNeill believes that as preseason training begins and the team forms its goals for the year, the success of the 2019 season should serve as a benchmark rather than a ceiling. “I do want to leave 2019 in the past,” McNeill said. “We had a great year in 2019 but I think that we all know, individually and collectively, that we can be even better than that.”



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