Countdown to the College Cup Podcast – Episode 1.1: LSU head coach Brian Lee
Heading into 2015 off the back of one of the worst seasons in program history, LSU women's soccer had quite the point to prove. One year later, the tone surrounding the Tigers is entirely different. The side from Baton Rouge made a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and reached the semifinals of the SEC Tournament in 2015.
Fresh off newly created momentum, head coach Brian Lee’s squad looks set for a move up the standings in 2016.
It’s not difficult to see why there’s such a degree of enthusiasm on campus. LSU boasts a pair of forwards, Jorian Baucom and Summer Clarke, that combined for 22 goals and seven assists in 2015, a number which likely would have been higher if not for a late season injury to Clarke.
While both Baucom and Clarke are adept at scoring in bunches, Lee notes they aren’t necessarily the same type of player. In the coach’s eyes, Baucom’s “an out-and-out number nine type,” while Clarke, “the best player [Lee’s] ever coached,” is a well-rounded option capable of playing off Baucom.
Lee was also quick to mention both forwards were versatile enough to be dangerous on quick counter-attacks as well as a more controlled-possession style of offense, something sure to be useful in the SEC where styles of clubs tend to vary wildly.
The LSU Tigers broke through a year ago. Coach Brian Lee is hopeful of more in 2016. (Photo: SEC)
Clarke’s profile has surged since May, when the senior made a memorable debut for the Canadian Women’s National Team, scoring a match-winning goal in her senior debut against Belgium. It was a massive achievement for a player that has seemingly been tipped for greatness at the international level for at least half a decade. Clarke’s displays prompted an invitation to stay on with Canada to try and make the Olympic team. The senior forward declined in order focus on her commitment to LSU.
The Tigers could reap the benefits this season, with Lee claiming Clarke’s “motivation level is through the roof,” for her senior season and that “she’s become the dominant team leader,” for LSU heading into the season. Lee doesn’t hesitate in putting Clarke in the same breath as LSU legends Allysha Chapman, currently with the Canadian WNT at the Rio Olympics, and Malorie Rutledge, both key figures in LSU’s golden age.
While much of the focus on LSU through the run-up to the new season has been on the scoring duo, the Tigers also boast a rising star on defense in Alex Thomas. Thomas was a prolific scoring attacker in her own right before coming to Baton Rouge but was converted to right-back before her freshman season. She's taken to the new role well. The state of Louisiana is described by Lee as “not a traditional soccer hotbed”, but keeping Thomas in-state was, according to the coach, “a coup” that worked wonders for the club in Thomas’ rookie season.
The sophomore's emergence could be key for an LSU side that does have a few questions on defense, as the Tigers find themselves needing to replace center-back Alex Arlitt, as well as breaking in a new starting goalkeeper. It remains to be seen who partners with junior Jordane Carvery in central defense, but the keeper battle will likely focus on sophomore Caroline Brockmeier, a transfer from Florida State, and returning junior Lily Alfeld, formerly a starter for Lee's team.
Being well-rounded on both sides of the ball is more crucial than ever in the SEC, a league where the finest of margins can mean the difference between a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament or playing in the dreaded Monday games. Having a complete team also could mean the difference between breezing into the NCAA Tournament and being in the running for hosting a first-round match or having to sweat out Selection Monday, something LSU was all too familiar with a season ago.
But while LSU has been tabbed as a top five team in the SEC this season through most projections and polls, the road to such a finish is not going to be easy. Lee noted the parity of the league as a key difference between the SEC and other conferences, claiming the “bottom of the league had really come up in the last five, six years,” an assertion backed up by twelfth-place Mississippi State finishing up just three points out of the No. 8 spot in 2015.
The LSU head coach was quick to assert Baton Rouge “was one of the toughest places to play” in the conference, and the Tigers have a prime opportunity to make home advantage count in league play this season. Three of last year’s top four finishers in the league will make the trek down to Louisiana to play in Baton Rouge (the fourth, Missouri, does not play LSU in the regular season this year).
Perhaps with the grueling SEC schedule in mind, the Tigers have opted for one of the most difficult opening matchups in the league to begin the season. Lee will take his team to Charleston, South Carolina to play ACC contender Virginia Tech at a neutral site in the Charleston Classic tournament. With LSU having had trouble scheduling quality non-conference opposition in the past, Lee was quick to jump on the opportunity to play the Hokies, claiming it was something the club “just couldn’t pass up”, as a chance to provide an early test that could provide big RPI rewards come November.
In many ways, the Hokies resemble LSU; a team full of promise with a potential All-American spearheading the attack in the form of senior forward Murielle Tiernan, considered by many to be one of the best attackers at this level. They’re a club that Lee touted as “one of the very best programs in the country,” and one that has the strength and depth few clubs can boast nationwide.
It makes for one of the opening weekend’s most compelling matchups. With a renewed optimism after 2015’s resurgence, LSU will hope a potential win on Friday afternoon against Virginia Tech is just the start of a big season ahead for the Bayou Bengals.
LSU plays Virginia Tech on Friday at 5:00 PM EST and the College of Charleston at 1:30 PM EST on Sunday.
Photo Courtesy: LSU Athletics
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