Trial by fire? Yeah, you could say that. San Diego State hardly eased their way into the 2016 season, putting together the 11th hardest non-conference slate based on last year’s numbers and have the battle wounds to prove it heading into the fifth weekend of the season. The likes of UCLA and Penn State are perennial College Cup contenders, while even clubs like Long Beach State are fearsome enough to give any club pause.
Said trials are reflective in SDSU’s record coming into this weekend, with the Aztecs having won just one of their first five matches in the opening four weeks of the season, that coming against Cornell at the end of a grueling road trip last week. Aztecs head coach Mike Friesen hopes that the breakthrough in Ithaca is the first step to the club making a return to the NCAA Tournament after last season’s heartbreaking exit to San Jose State in the Mountain West Tournament after penalties.
While Friesen knows that a 1-4-0 start “is not the plan going into any season,” it still allowed him and the Aztecs coaches to put his players under adversity against difficult opposition to strengthen the side before league play. Such a slate has allowed SDSU to have weaknesses exposed and, ideally, corrected, before they become fatal flaws in league play and beyond. Said bumps in the road will be a lot more tolerable in retrospect if they lead to a more refined Aztecs side that lifts Mountain West silverware at season’s end.
Coach Friesen is in year No. 10 at the helm of the Aztecs' women's soccer program. (Photo Courtesy: SDSU Athletics)
Though Friesen acknowledges that the rough start has shown him that his club is “a bit younger than I thought we were,” it has also allowed the Aztecs to correct course a bit and improve towards the team’s first win of the season last Sunday. With the pressure on to overcome some performance not to the club’s potential, Friesen noted that SDSU worried about “our process” before the Sunday showdown with Cornell, an emphasis that helped the Aztecs to their first win of the year.
The victory over Cornell was a sigh of relief for the Aztecs, who, though not where they want to be, have to be pleased with entering this weekend at 1-4-0 instead of 0-5-0. It was also a sign of the day-to-day improvement with SDSU that they were able to bounce back right away after what could have been a painful letdown following a big defeat at the hands of defending national champs Penn State at the beginning of last weekend. Friesen spoke of the win being a catalyst for increased energy and optimism in training ahead of another big weekend this week.
Despite the disappointments of early defeat, the rigorous schedule allowed Friesen to learn more about the mettle of his club. Such tests should hold SDSU in good stead as they head into one of the most grueling conference slates in all the land in the form of the Mountain West. A conference where arduous travel treks meet searing heat and lung squeezing altitude, whoever wins the twelve team round robin at the end of October deserves more than their fair share of credit.
Part of the charm of the league is some of the unique venues that member clubs boast, including, arguably, one of the most unique in all of DI Soccer, SDSU’s Sports Deck. A natural grass field on top of a parking deck, there’s nothing else even remotely like it in the rest of Division 1, and it’s a clever and ingenious way of working around some of the worries of finding a perfect venue that other California clubs have had to battle through over the years.
Often, the team at the top of the pile has been these San Diego State Aztecs. Friesen’s team has often dominated the league, from it’s current makeup, to previous incarnations with only a fraction of these rivals coming in pursuit of SDSU. Mid-major life on the west coast has been known as that of an unpredictable one, with many teams who are able to capture lightning in a bottle fading from the spotlight just a few years later.
But San Diego State has almost always managed to keep themselves in the forefront of the discussion of best mid-majors in D1 women’s soccer for much of the period of time since Friesen took over. A side that was an afterthought for much of the period before Friesen took over has evolved into a perennial contender. That includes the twenty-one wins of 2012, a dream season that SDSU has looked to build on in the years since.
Sometimes though, it takes some hard lessons brought about by losses to top calibre teams such as the ones SDSU has suffered through early this season. Friesen’s built a program that’s “focused on each performance, week in and week out,” as a way to deliver a fully fledged contender come season’s end. Sometimes, as it has this year, it’s led to some painful lessons being learned early for Friesen’s Aztecs.
It’s the Aztecs that are going to look to teach some lessons this Sunday though, as they host yet another power conference foe, with Big 12 contenders Texas Tech journeying to California. While Tom Stone’s side has suffered through some growing pains of their one as they try to deal with life without Janine Beckie (among others), they remain a dangerous opponent with no shortage of attacking talent. Typified by Friesen as “an athletic group that can play some really good soccer,” the Red Raiders will be another side eager to push SDSU to the limit.
Tests like Sunday are all a part of the long game for Friesen and his Aztecs. He notes that his side have evolved as a program to the point that they aren’t just happy with showing up in the Big Dance any more, this is a club that expects to compete for the right to play in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and beyond. In that regard, SDSU’s early season efforts might be a matter of taking a few steps back early to make a giant leap forward when it counts most.