Soccer: Eleven needed for a team, more needed for a program

Note:  What follows may well be the rantings and ravings of somebody completely clueless about the women’s soccer program at The Citadel, as opposed to mostly clueless.  I apologize in advance if I’ve completely missed the boat here, which is possible.  I’m just a dude with a computer.

The Citadel’s women’s soccer team opened its 2009 season with a resounding 14-0 defeat of Alabama State at WLI Field.  I was startled to see that, even from my vantage point, which is decidedly at a distance from the soccer program.

It was just last season that The Citadel finally won its first Southern Conference match in women’s soccer, a 2-1 triumph over Georgia Southern.  Prior to that victory the Bulldogs had been 0-74-2 all-time in league play.  Now all of the sudden The Citadel had beaten a Division I opponent 14-0, and no touchdowns were involved.  This bore closer examination.

Alas, there was a catch.  It turned out that Alabama State had played the match without a full complement of players — in fact, the Lady Hornets didn’t even have eleven players.  They had eight.

It’s hard to compete, much less win, when you’re playing eleven against eight, and The Citadel also had three substitutes who played.  The Bulldogs set numerous school records, as you might expect.  To his credit, coach Bob Winch didn’t emphasize the score; instead, in his post-game interview he said rather bland things like the team had “moved the ball very well.”  I’m sure he was less than thrilled to open regular-season play against a team with just eight players.

Actually, Alabama State played two matches while in the Low Country.  With the same eight-player squad, the Lady Hornets lost by an identical 14-0 scoreline to Charleston Southern in a game shortened by a thunderstorm.  In case you were wondering, a team needs to have at least seven players on the field for a match to be viable, per NCAA rule.  Against Troy last week, Alabama State played with exactly seven players, losing 15-0 in a match called after 70 minutes.

I don’t know how you can legitimately compete as a Division I program (or call a program Division I, for that matter) in that situation.  According to its pre-season preview, the Lady Hornets were supposed to have a 13-woman squad.  Obviously things didn’t quite go according to plan.

However, it seems to me that you would be pushing your luck with even 13 players.  What about injuries, illness, etc.?  Most women’s soccer programs have a lot more than 13 players.  For example, the Southern Conference schools (not counting The Citadel) average 26.7 players per team.  Appalachian State lists 33 players on its roster; no school in the league has fewer than 23 players.  No school, that is…except The Citadel.

The Citadel has 14 players on its roster.

At first, I didn’t really think that was true.  Last season the Bulldogs had 21 listed players, which is a fairly small squad but not extraordinarily so.  Also, if there was going to be a school with a soccer roster of a lesser size, it would be The Citadel, what with its low number of female students (going back to the 2007-08 school year, the school had a total of 136 women enrolled as undergraduates).

The 14 players include no freshmen.  To be honest, when I initially saw the roster on the school’s website, I assumed that the incoming freshmen just hadn’t been listed on the school’s athletic website yet.  I decided to check by e-mailing The Citadel.  A hard-working staffer in Athletic Media Relations responded to my query almost immediately, telling me that in fact there are no freshmen on the roster.

That startled me more than the 14-0 score which had piqued my interest in this subject in the first place.

Last year The Citadel had nine freshmen on its roster.  All nine returned this year (yay!).  Given that, I would not have expected a sizable influx of freshmen for this season, particularly since last year just four seniors departed.  However, to have no entering freshmen strikes me as problematic for the program, from an immediate perspective and for the future.

Having only fourteen available players (two of whom are keepers) means that while finding playing time for everyone won’t be a problem, competing against teams able to play almost twice as many players (or more) means that the Bulldogs are probably at a disadvantage in terms of players wearing down during games.  For those more familiar with professional soccer at the club or international level than the college version of the sport, substitution is essentially unlimited (although there are certain restrictions that pertain to players re-entering the game).  It’s not like competitive professional matches, where only three substitutions are allowed (and where there is no re-entry).

I will say, though, that other teams generally aren’t playing many more players than The Citadel, so perhaps I am overselling this as a significant issue.  In The Citadel’s loss to Charleston Southern this week, CSU played 15 members of its 23-woman roster.  The Bulldogs only had one substitute during the match.  The Citadel also employed just one substitute in last season’s big win over Georgia Southern.

I also wonder a little bit about how having a small roster affects practices.  Intra-team scrimmages obviously aren’t going to be 11-on-11.  This is probably a minor point, however.

The other issue, in terms of this season, is what happens when a player is injured or becomes ill.  Nineteen regular-season matches, plus all the practices in between, is a grind.  It’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs going through the entire season unscathed from a health standpoint.  What happens when/if half the team contracts the H1N1 virus?  (Of course, that could be a problem with a 30-player roster, too.)

Tangent:  I think the H1N1 virus (swine flu) is going to be a much bigger factor in the sports world than the general public may realize (although it’s starting to draw more interest from the press).  It’s obviously been major news all over the world, but wait until late fall/early winter rolls around.  This is not your grandmother’s flu.   Last week it affected the schedules of the football team at Stillman College (which had to cancel its home opener because of the flu) and several members of Tulane’s volleyball team (which had to cancel a trip to a tournament).  There will be many, many more stories like those to come as the year rolls along (including the flu’s impact on the football teams at Mississippi and Wisconsin).

Down the road, the larger issue with having no freshmen is that there is a “hole” in the program as far as continuity is concerned.  Ideally, there would be a roughly equal number of players in each class, so that each year there is a modest amount of turnover as players graduate, to be replaced by freshmen.  That also means there would always be several seniors in the program who would be able to provide leadership and experience.

Three years from now that isn’t likely to be the case, since there won’t be any seniors from the incoming class, as there is no incoming class.  It is difficult to maintain a program’s momentum in those circumstances.

Caveat:  sometimes classes can get skewed because players stay, rather than leave.  As I mentioned earlier, all nine of last year’s freshmen returned this season.  If most or all of them are on scholarship, either full or partial (a Division I women’s soccer program is allowed up to 14 schollies), it may be that there wasn’t a lot of money available to bring in new talent.

I don’t pretend to have a great understanding of the history of women’s soccer at The Citadel, and don’t know what happened in this particular circumstance, but regardless, having a smaller roster with no freshmen is surely not the preferred method of building a program.  Bob Winch knows that, and it’s not like he didn’t try to bring in anybody (see this article on a recruit who apparently didn’t make it to campus).

Everyone associated with The Citadel knows that it is not easy to recruit male athletes who can successfully navigate all the responsibilities of being a cadet-student-athlete.  I suspect recruiting female athletes is even more difficult, perhaps exponentially so.

The coaching staff has searched far and wide for players.  There are three cadets from Ontario on the roster, which is one more than are from South Carolina.  One of those Canadians, Amy Loughran, scored a goal and had an assist when the Bulldogs beat GSU last year, so apparently going north of the border for players isn’t a bad idea at all.  The team also features players from Germany, Pennsylvania, and Nevada.

I guess the coaches will just have to cast their recruiting nets even wider.  Canada does have several other provinces…

One Response

  1. For someone who does not have close ties to the women’s soccer program at The Citadel, you did an excellent job summarizing the trials and tribulations of the program. My daughter was one of the 4 graduating seniors from last year’s squad, so I have a bit of perspective on this topic.

    Yes, it is extremely difficult to recruit talented female athletes to The Citadel. It’s not impossible, but very difficult. If a young lady had a choice between playing soccer for the College of Charleston or The Citadel, very few would choose to attend The Citadel. While the education is first class, the atmosphere is not attractive to most young women. There are the unflattering uniforms that must be worn everywhere. They have very few free nights and limited free weekends, especially for the freshmen (knobs). Plus there’s the joy of constant verbal abuse from your upper classmates. Add to that the reality of actually winning very few of the matches you participate in during your athletic career and its hard to imagine why anyone would subject themselves to that. It’s the road less traveled. The accomplishment of personal goals and learning to handle stress under pressure. And learning to handle defeat.

    As for Alabama State, I’m at a loss as to why their coach would have put those 8 players on a bus and driven them 7.5 hours from Montgomery, AL to Charleston, SC for these “contests” versus The Citadel and Charleston Southern. Why did the AD allow them to spend their scarce resources on such a boondoggle? Did they learn anything? Did they improve their competitiveness?

    Getting back to your original blog post, I too was surprised that they don’t have a single freshman on this year’s roster. Yes, they recruited one who didn’t make it beyond the first week, but if you understand the system you know that that happens at The Citadel. You have to expect some early attrition.

    Speaking of attrition, if you study the rosters of nearly any other women’s soccer team in the Southern Conference, you will find that they are dominated by freshman and sophomores. By the time many of these athletes become juniors and seniors they stop playing soccer, either to concentrate on other things or because they’ve been surpassed by younger, faster players. At The Citadel, once a player makes it through the infamous hell week, they have a very high likelihood of graduating in 4 years and playing 4 years of soccer. Of the 6 female soccer knobs who arrived in my daughter’s class, 5 now wear the ring.

    Other reasons that the athletes at The Citadel tend to stay with their sport for the full 4 years are the added benefits. Athletes have their own mess hall and have the opportunity to leave campus for out-of-town matches, while their classmates endure PT and yet another thrilling SMI.

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