STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Aaron Gordon had his first opportunity to gauge his Mississippi State soccer team this spring, and the first-year head coach came away optimistic about where the Bulldog program could go.
The spring had its obstacles, with injuries limiting MSU to just 11-13 players and persistent rains wreaking havoc on the exhibition schedule. Despite those challenges, Gordon saw his unit buy into his system and come together as a team on the field and in the weight room.
“Being with the team for three months, I think we had the opportunity to see a lot. We had a small group, and one thing that became apparent immediately was they came together and wanted to work really hard to prove to us that they were capable of helping this program take the next step,” Gordon said. “We asked them to do things they had never done before, and in every player’s case, they embraced the challenge and made progress.”
The Bulldogs posted an unbeaten spring slate, claiming three victories while tying two more contests. Gordon’s squad scored seven goals and surrendered just one in the five-match stretch, a remarkable feat considering the limited roster.
Gordon came away impressed with the team’s defensive efforts since the small roster hindered the ability to work on it in practice.
“I saw improvement in our team defense in every single game,” Gordon said. “The team now understands the concepts the staff was trying to develop. When we get started in the fall, we won’t have to rehash a lot of things, which will allow our returnees to help guide the freshmen.”
After putting in grueling hours with strength and conditioning coach Brian Neal, State made a five-hour trek to Georgia State. Playing with no subs in freezing cold conditions, the Bulldogs came away with a hard-fought 1-0 win that excited the first-year coach.
“My expectations were to see how we competed as a team. You don’t really get an idea of that in practice. You are defined against another opponent in how you fight and compete,” Gordon said. “I had no live experience to draw from, and they showed me a lot in that game. Afterward, I thought to myself, ‘We have something to work with here.’ To drive five hours, play a game in the cold with no subs and win, was a good start to the spring.”
The Bulldogs found themselves waiting over a month to play their next contest, an April 6 home outing against Jackson State.
Coming off a weeklong spring break, State regained its rhythm in the second period and scored all of its goals in a 4-0 win.
Returning second-team All-SEC selection Elisabeth Sullivan had a hand in three of the goals, netting one and assisting on two more. Shannon Palmer, Shelby Jordon and Dana Forbes also scored goals while the defense and goalie CJ Winship posted its second-straight clean sheet.
“It took us about 15 minutes to get back in a rhythm, but once we did it was a good performance,” Gordon said. “We were able to build on what we did at Georgia State and put some balls in the net while not allowing a goal. Looking back, we started to see some concepts we talked about in training start to be put in place.”
A week later Gordon took his team to Jackson to meet Northwestern State in his first look at the team in a 90-minute contest. Despite not being able to finish several scoring opportunities, Gordon once again left the pitch pleased with the strides his team made.
“Northwestern State competed very hard, but we created several good chances and probably could have won the match,” Gordon said. “It was the type of game we needed to play before Memphis. It tested us fitness wise, and I think we came out feeling good about where we were.”
Persistent rains caused the Memphis match in Tupelo to be rescheduled three times, and the teams were finally able to meet three days after the Northwestern State game.
Facing a Tigers squad that consistently rates among the top of the Conference USA table, the Bulldogs put together a gritty, physical performance and claimed a 1-0 win on a Sullivan strike.
“We went into that match with the mindset of giving the best performance we could give. We wanted to just go out and compete and not worry about the result,” Gordon said. “It was a measuring stick to see where we were as a team, and it was the highlight of our spring.
“Our team saw that if we work hard for each other, results like that are possible. It showed that we have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of us, but we can compete with the top teams if we bring our best effort.”
State closed the spring slate four days later at home against Southern Miss as part of Super Bulldog Weekend.
Playing its third match in seven days in front of a capacity crowd, Mississippi State excited the fans by taking a 1-0 lead off a Sullivan goal 10 minutes in.
After USM equalized, the Bulldogs were unable to net the winner as the match ended in a 1-1 draw.
“I think playing Saturday, Tuesday and Saturday caught up with us against a Southern Miss team that played really well. We got an early goal, but I thought we ran out of legs,” Gordon said. “Even though we weren’t at our best, we still played hard and together and created some good chances.”
Gordon believes some building blocks were established for when the team re-convenes in the fall with nine talented newcomers.
“We saw some performances from players that we can count on in the fall. They’ll be building blocks for the program moving forward. What we did this spring will enable us to start building a culture that every team coming in can follow moving forward,” Gordon said. “We have some senior-junior-sophomore leadership coming back that the freshman class can look to as an example of what to do and how to do it. The newcomers will fill in those gaps and be able to play alongside and behind players that will help them in making the transition to college soccer.”