Last season’s run to the national championship game was a dream season for Rollins College and Coach Alicia Schuck.
Except for how it ended, with a 3-0 loss to Grand Valley State in the title game.
“It was like a fairy tale,” said Schuck who was named Coach of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America after last year’s campaign. “But now it’s my nightmare. You know, thinking, ‘What could I have done differently?'”
Rather than bask in the glow of that dream season that got them to the championship game, Schuck and her players are driven to change the nightmare ending as the Tars open the season as the top ranked DI team by BennettRank, and arguably the most driven to finish the year as the top team.
“They aren’t satisfied with the result,” Schuck said of her returning players, a group that includes last year’s leading scorer Mora Johnson, who had 15 goals, and All-American Paxton Sickler, who contributed 14 goals last season. “We loved getting to where we were. But there’s just an unsatisfied feeling. We missed it that day.”
One of just six teams to win at least 20 games last year with its 20-3 final record, Rollins won’t have an easy path to a high NCAA seed, playing in the competitive Sunshine State Conference. The league also includes BR-8 Barry and BR-17 St. Leo, both of whom could provide tough competition for the Tars.
“It’s so hard,” Schuck said of the conference schedule. “We worry about everybody. There is not one that we overlook.”
Last year, the Tars scored 69 goals, third best in the country, with 29 of those goals coming from Johnson and Sickler. In all, five of the team’s top scorers from last year return. While the Tars will miss Brenna McKee,who netted 14 times last season, Emma Bloom and Mackenzie Miller, who can also be counted on to find the net, also will be back on the pitch for Rollins this season.
Where the team has to rebuild is in the middle and in the back. That starts with the center midfield spot.
“Emma Jones (who graduated) was kind of our silent warrior … so there’s definitely a void in there,” Schuck said. “So we’re going to have to figure that out. That’s going to be a new spot for somebody.” Schuck said several of her incoming freshmen are top quality players who can immediately contribute, including a couple who may compete for the starting center midfield role.
There’s also a question about defense.
“We lost some leadership from our back line so we do have to kind of re-create that,” Schuck said of the team’s defensive outlook.
The Tars’ spring has gone well, including a win over Division I powerhouse Central Florida.
Those nightmares Schuck has about what might have been done differently involve mostly defensive questions. After an injury last year forced defender Madison Taylor out of commission, Ali Jenkins stepped in and played very well for Rollins. But Taylor returned for the national championship game, and Schuck wonders whether she brought her back too early. “She hadn’t played since the Elite Eight… I feel like tactically I got that one wrong.”
There are other things she second guesses herself about, but Schuck now has to put that behind her and focus on trying to completely erase the bad part of the dream, just as she’s asking her players to do.
“I tell them they need to have short term memory loss,” Schuck said. “That was last season.”
Schuck has tried to put the national championship game out of her mind – she said earlier this spring she recoiled a bit when thinking about a possible trip to Michigan – home to Grand Valley State. “I can’t even go in that state – can’t be around it,” she said. She wouldn’t mind seeing the Lakers again, however, on the pitch.
“They’re a phenomenal side, and if we faced them again, it would be awesome to beat somebody that beat us,” Schuck said. She knows that GVSU, which has won the last two national championships, is one of several powerhouse teams reluctant to let a newcomer like Rollins, which played in its first championship game last year, into the club.
“There’s only one happy team at the end of the year, and it hasn’t been us,” Schuck said. “Yet.”