To be aligned, Angela Kelly has always believed that her soccer teams need to be together. That belief was challenged this spring and summer, as Texas prepared for a fall season while distancing due to the pandemic.
“I always would prefer in-person, and I never would have guessed that a group of individuals or a squad could have become closer through this virtual time. I believe we did,” Kelly said on Wednesday over Zoom.
The Longhorns are back together now, and will begin a shortened season Friday at 7 p.m. against Kansas at Myers Stadium. Admission is free, and fans are required to wear masks and keep six feet of distance.
The NCAA fall championships have been canceled, and the Big 12 won’t hold its normal postseason tournament. What’s left is a nine-match slate of Friday showdowns with every Big 12 foe.
As friends in other conferences grapple with the reality of no season, Texas players know how lucky there are to have a season at all. And they’re ready.
“We train because we love to play soccer, and staying in shape just comes with that,” senior midfielder Haley Berg said. “I think we had hope in the back of our minds that maybe we will get to play. If we do, we want to be ready. We don’t want to waste the opportunity.”
This spring, that meant video calls, solo training sessions and workout selfies. Players held each other accountable by forming fitness groups and sending photos to their partners. Kelly said there were full-team video calls once or twice per week, with positional groups holding their own meetings and coaches checking in with individual players every three weeks during the throes of the pandemic.
“For me it was really refreshing to see everyone together as one,” junior midfielder Julia Grosso said. “I know we would talk to each other individually all the time, but to be together as one in one call was really nice to see.”
Had things gone according to plan, Grosso would be relating tales from her first Olympics as a member of Team Canada. She was on track to make the roster before the pandemic hit, and was part of the team’s camp in Austin in January as part of a successful qualifying campaign.
Instead, she and Berg will hope to recapture the form they had together last fall, when they each scored eight goals and Berg dished nine assists (Grosso had eight) as Texas advanced to its third straight NCAA Tournament. The Longhorns finished 11-8-1 overall and 6-3 in the Big 12, and lost 4-1 in the first round to Texas A&M.
Clutch striker Cyera Hintzen, fearless captain Atu Mshana and dynamic winger Cydney Billups are among those who have moved on, replaced by a freshman recruiting class ranked No. 11 by TopDrawerSoccer. The group includes national top 150 recruits in midfielder Kelsey Hranicky, forward Presley Echols, and defenders Lauren Lapomarda, Morgan Pace and Charlotte Bluemel, who played for Germany at the youth levels.
“We recruited talented young ladies that are expected to contribute right away,” Kelly said. “Although it’s been a different preseason, I think the freshmen have come in and really competed, investing everything they have in every session.”