As the New Mexico State women's soccer team prepares to open the 2011 season of play there is an air of mystery about the Aggie program despite it being in its third year of existence. The Aggies' offseason saw a changing of the guard at the head coaching position as the program's first coach, Michael Needham, left to take over his alma mater Rhode Island. In steps former Arizona State Sun Devil assistant coach Blair Quinn who like his predecessor is making his head coaching debut as the Aggies' front man. Quinn hopes to bring the Aggies back to the conference tournament after the Aggies missed out on postseason play in 2010.
The Aggie head man promoted graduate assistant Cortney Sobrero to assistant coach. "Courtney obviously, she's been here since day one of the program which is tremendously helpful to me and the team," said Quinn. "For me it was a no-brainer to keep someone like that here in terms of her knowledge of this program, her knowledge of the kids, the conference, it was a no-brainer. She's done a great job. The team loves her and respects her tremendously, especially for what she did for them in the spring. She was head coach, assistant coach, grad assistant, friend, person to talk to. She pretty much filled every role for the kids and did a great job doing it."
Quinn also retained volunteer assistant coach Chris Vaudrey to work with the goal keepers. "That was an easy one too. He's done a very good job with the goal keepers here, they all really like him," said Quinn. "He's a genuinely really great person. The kids like and respect him, I like and respect him."
Joining the staff this season as the Aggies' graduate assistant is Jill Shoquist, a person that Quinn is very familiar with after Shoquist played for Arizona State during Quinn's time as an assistant there. "I saw the kid pretty much grow up through college from an 18-year old freshman to a 22-year old graduating senior. She's someone we thought was going to be a very good coach if it was something she wanted to do and it looks like it is," said Quinn. "As soon as I got this job I immediately went to Jill and asked her if she would be interested in being a grad assistant so she was someone who was on my radar from day one."
Shoquist brings an intimate familiarity of the system as well as an ability to connect with the players being only one year removed from play. "Jill knows the system we're implementing, it's essentially what we did at Arizona State. There are some tweaks to it but it's essentially the same," said Quinn.
"She literally played every position in that system in her four year time. I knew that she'd know it really well and would be a tremendous help in explaining to the girls in one-v-one situations. Courtney and I are coaching the overall team and what it looks like and she can pull players aside and say, "Hey, this is really where you're supposed to be going or what you're supposed to be doing," because she knows the system intimately inside and out."
"Being that younger person on the staff, Jill is a year out and so she's recently been there and done that and the girls know that and respect where she came from. They go to her for help already. She's been here three weeks and they go to her for a lot of stuff and I think that's great."
Quinn plans to implement a similar system to the one used at Arizona State, a 4-3-3 attacking formation utilizing four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. "I learned the system from Kevin Boyd at ASU but I've got my own ways of doing stuff as well that I think will be effective so there are some tweaks to the system and how we approach things but the system itself is essentially the same," said Quinn. "Ideally the ball is going to be on the ground and going through the midfield as often as possible," said Quinn. "It's a 4-3-3 where the three center mids are the key to our success. They've got to be very dynamic, very mobile, technically and tactically sound."
"You'll see some hopefully more dynamic forward runs in terms of specific tactical awareness of their runs and not just running to run and the ball going through the midfield as often as possible. By controlling the ball you can control the tempo and the pace of the game and play the game the way we want to play."
"It's no secret how we're going to play," says Quinn. "They have to be good enough to stop it and if they are, we have to be good enough to make adjustments to it."
Quinn likes his personnel and feels confident in the quality of the players he'll be putting out on the field. The Aggies have a mix of returners and upperclassmen as well as a promising group of freshmen.
One of the biggest keys to the Aggies' success this season will be in the defensive third of the field. "Philosophically I always build my team from the back because if you're sound defensively it's a lot easier to be sound offensively once you have the ball," said Quinn.
The Aggies have not settled on a starting goal keeper yet but have a pair of young talents in sophomore Erin Wosick and redshirt sophomore Jessica Schutter. Wosick and Schutter are battling for the starting job as last year's primary starter, Mikaela Bitner, suffered an injury in the offseason and is redshirting in 2011. "Right now that position is still up for grabs. Erin and Jessica are both doing a good job this preseason of battling it out to grab that spot," said Quinn. "Each one has had a better days than the other so that's a spot that's still open right now but it's been good competition the whole preseason and that's encouraging. That's what you want."
Wosick saw playing time in eight games last season as a true freshman recording 695 minutes in goal allowing 14 goals making 31 saves. She finished with a 3-3-1 record and recorded a pair of shutouts. Schutter redshirted in 2010 and saw limited action in her freshman season in 2009 appearing twice for a total of 55:38. She did not allow a goal in either of her two appearances.
Anchoring the back four will be veterans Courtney Irwin and Elise Nordin. The duo have missed just one of the Aggies' 37 contests in their two seasons with the Aggies. "Courtney Irwin and Elise Nordin both have played just about every minute of their time here at center back and both are doing a good job again," said Quinn. Also in the mix for playing time at center back is sophomore Mickey Giles. "Mickey has done a very good job as well and will certainly see time at center back as well," said Quinn.
Joining the Aggies on the back line are fellow upperclassman Vanessa Thomas as well as senior Cassie Branch and Megan Hendler, both of whom transferred in after the inaugural season in 2009. "Those three have been the most consistent wide backs that we've had in the preseason so far," said Quinn. "Those three are battling for the two starting spots but in the system that we play really the demand on the wide back would almost preclude them from playing 90 minutes a game. Ideally we have two wide backs playing each side for every game so that we can keep up the pace we want to play and the demands of the position."
Hendler has been nice surprise for Coach Quinn in the defensive backfield. "Right now we have her in to start as our left back. She was an attacking player at her first school, a D-III school in Iowa, then she came here and played here in a similar role as an attacking center mid or a wide forward. I had the same thoughts about her and then we had a conversation over the summer as to what the best role would be for her to contribute more and she mentioned trying out wide back. I said, "Absolutely", I'll try anybody anywhere. She's absolutely rocking that position now and that's where we're going to use her."
Also figuring into the mix at wide back is freshman Alexys Brownell (Escondido, Calif.) "She's started to get better in the last few days of preseason. She's started to figure out the pace of the college game and the physicality of it so she's definitely in the mix there as well."
The midfield holds the key to the Aggies' success offensively. "I think the new system, the formation, will probably be the biggest change for the midfielders. There's a lot more demand on them," said Quinn. "Having three center mids, they can share the load more but there's a lot more demand on them in terms of the way we want to play, in terms of playing through them so they really have to be on their games tactically." The group is led by sophomore Mary Kate Koziol. "Mary Kate has done a very good job picking up the new system," said Quinn. "She's done a very good job in that defensive center mid, holding mid position."
Looking to make an impact immediately for the Aggies is freshman Amber Harrington (Albuquerque, N.M.) "Amber is an athletic specimen, she will definitely see playing time. We think she can play anywhere in the back. Wide back, center back, we also think she can play holding mid or attacking mid. She's done a very good job and to be honest she'd probably do a better job of it if we hadn't moved her all over the field the first few days of preseason because we think there's about five different spots the kid can play," said Quinn. "It's just a matter of finding where she can help us the most now but I think her playing the holding mid spot is a definite possibility."
Sophomore Daisy Hernandez should see time at the attacking midfield position and the coaching staff is high on another true freshman in Katie Smith (Albuquerque, N.M.) "She [Katie] has been a very very pleasant surprise," said Quinn. "She absolutely has a handle on that attacking mid position. She's a smaller, very quick player, quick with her feet, very technical, she reads the game well."
"She's got to get with the pace and physicality of the college game a little bit. She doesn't have the time and space to do a lot of the tricky things she did in high school and club but she's still a very talented player, she's very technical and she'll be good in that role. It's just a matter of her adjusting to our system. It's a different kind of midfield system than what she came from. She's a smart soccer player. If she stays healthy the kid is going to play a lot. She gets the game and she's already connecting well with the players around her. She's been a very nice surprise."
Along the front line is the Aggies' leading goal scorer from 2010, junior Yolanda McMillion. "Yolanda has done a very good job this preseason," said Quinn. Hernandez got off to a quick start in 2010 scoring seven goals, however, just one of her seven goals came in conference play, a stat that will need to be much better for the Aggies to compete for one of the spots in the conference tournament. Also returning along the attacking front is Cassie De Leon who scored two goals last season in 17 games. The Aggies will looking to get significant contributions from a bevy of freshmen as they look to bolster their depth at the forward position. "The forward line numbers-wise isn't as deep as we'd like it but we like the talent that we have there," said Quinn. Among the group of newcomers hoping to make an impact are Jennae Cambra (Morgan Hill, Calif.), Katelyn Tupponce (Phoenix, Ariz.) and Layla Todd (Irwindale, Calif.). "Jennae's a little tiny quick left-footed player who plays a good ball. She understands the tactical side of the position because she played in that position before she came here," said Quinn. Katelyn Tupponce or "Kay Kay" as she's referred to by the team is coming on strong towards the end of fall camp. "Kay Kay's done a very good job in the last several days of preseason. She's really started to click with understanding the role of the three front and just works really hard, works her tail off and does a good job technically to keep the ball for us," said Quinn.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing freshmen for the Aggies is Layla Todd who was second in the nation in goals scored last year with 48 and scored 132 goals in her high school career. "She's done a good job, she's just taking a little bit longer to adjust to the speed and physicality," said Quinn. "Other than obvious tactical nuances, there's more depth tactically to what you do in the collegiate game than the way you typically do things in high school or club. It's basically the pace and physicality of the game. It's something that she's taking a little bit longer to pick up on but she has started to click and started to show flashes of brilliance in the last two or three days. She's starting to get it. The kid has great pace and she's pretty good on the ball, she just needs to be a little bit more physical in the game."
The Aggies' schedule sets up nicely for them as they try to adjust to a new coach and new system and style of play. "The schedule is good, we've got some challenging games," said Quinn. The Aggies will be tested immediately as they open up the season on the road at I-10 rival UTEP and then at Texas Tech. "That's a great way to measure yourself right off the bat. On the road, two very difficult environments to play in. Both of those places are going to have at least 1,000, probably more, fans in attendance. They're both great teams, they both finished in the Top 100 RPI which is a big deal. That's a great way to start."
The Aggies will play their first two home games at Aggie Memorial Stadium against Prairie View A&M and Houston Baptist but then will christen a new home against Northern Colorado on September 9th. "We've got some other very good challenging games here. Northern Colorado, Arkansas-Little Rock is an up and coming team in the last couple of years. Their coach, Freddy Delgado, has done a great job with them in the last couple of years improving that program," said Quinn. The Aggies then hit the road to take on Idaho State and Weber State. "We're at Weber State which is always a tough place to play," The Aggies then host Embry-Riddle and close out non-conference play with in-state rival New Mexico. "That's just a grudge match in that one. It's an in-state rivalry, I'm sure it's going to be everything it's hyped up to be in terms of intensity and physicality which is a great way to lead us into conference. I love that we play UNM as the last game before we get into our conference games because I think that's the best way we could be prepared to get into the games that carry a little more weight to them," said Quinn.
With the departure of Boise State from the WAC the Aggies will play an unbalanced conference schedule with four games on the road and just three at home as they try to qualify for the conference tournament which will be held in Fresno in early November.
The Aggies were picked to finish last by the WAC's coaches in the preseason poll but just like their inaugural season the Aggies could sneak up on a lot of teams this year and with a new head coach, a new home, new system and style of play and a solid mix of returners and newcomers, there is plenty of reason to be excited about as the Aggies take to the pitch for the 2011 season.