SF State’s Lady Gators gear up for another strong season

xpressmagazine

By Martin Telleria

Photos by Andrew Lopez

In the storied history of SF State, no sports team had ever won a championship. After opening its doors in 1899, it wasn’t until 2010, over a hundred years later, that the women were able to bring home a title. Unfortunately for the lady gators, they fall into a separate category of history, neither positive nor negative. They are simply forgotten, not given the recognition they deserve, forced to savor the moment alone.

The 2010 lady gators exceeded all expectations, relying on their solid coaching to enter the rarefied air of champions. Coach Jack Hyde, who not only has coached the women’s soccer team for twenty-nine years but also was instrumental in starting the team in 1982, guided the lady gators to the Promised Land and expects much of the same this year.

“My expectation’s for the team this year is to perform at the highest level possible,” says Hyde. “What we try to do is build on the experiences from last year. The returning players had a wonderful experience last year in Hawaii and hopefully they bring that back this year. We’ve recruited good players to come on our squad to hopefully improve it and have the chance to build upon last year.”

Losing players is obviously tough, but incorporating new ones is even tougher. For Coach Hyde and the lady gators, any hopes of repeating last seasons success hinges upon the fresh faces being able to learn the system quickly and contribute at a high level.

“Freshmen usually have good skills but the speed and toughness of the game is hard to get accustomed to,” he said. “I need to teach the players how to take care of their bodies while also trying to get the ball. Also, while the returners from last year are the core, our job as coaches is to blend the newcomers into our system and improve them to be able to play at the NCAA level. They need to strive to reach the height of the returning players.”

While the Gators have started the season with an impressive 7-4-1 record, the manner in which the games have been played has not been quite up to snuff with Coach Hyde. Double overtime to win matches is not what he had envisioned at the start of the season. The inability to consistently score goals is the thorn in the side of Coach Hyde that has followed him from last season.

The SF State women's soccer team gets fierce during a warm up game on September 14, 2011

“We had trouble scoring last year; we need to improve that this year,” he said. “We still haven’t scored much this season but we’ve still won. Our goal is to score two goals a game. We haven’t done that thus far because the front lines haven’t gelled yet. It’s all a building process; we’re still in the stage of getting to know each other and how to react to each other.”

Fortunately for the Gators, a bright light in the form of Nicole Vanni, a returning junior this year, has emerged to keep them afloat during their scoring drought. While Vanni is a midfielder and not necessarily featured on the offense, she has come up huge this season with seven goals in twelve games, two of which were golden goals in overtime to seal wins for the gators

“Players like Nicole, that’s what it takes to go far,” said Hyde when asked about Vanni. “When a team is struggling, you need players to step up and put the team on their back. That’s what she’s done for us this season. I don’t know if I expect her to keep up the scoring pace all season but she broke out at the right time for us. Now everybody else on the front line needs to break out too.”

While the sluggish Gator offense is still looking to hit its stride, the Gator defense is a whole different story. Led by last seasons CCAA defensive most valuable player, junior Annicia Jones, who has saved a remarkable thirty-four out of thirty-seven shots this season, the lady gators defense has proved to be a nearly impenetrable fortress so far.

“At the moment defense is our strong point,” says Hyde. “But as is the case in any sport, that can’t be the formula for winning games. At some point we need to put the ball in the back of the net. Until that starts happening, however, the defense must stay strong and continue to keep us in close games. When our offense catches up to the defense, this team will be very good, good enough to perhaps propel us to greater heights than last season. We’re not looking ahead though; our only focus is the next game.”

The defense has stayed strong and the Gators have continued to win thanks in large part to the familiarity between Jones and her defenders.

“This years defense, we have that chemistry,” said Jones. “The relationship between goalkeeper and defense is important. We know each others strengths and weaknesses. We never yell at each other. No matter if I get scored on, we’re a family, we got that bond, and at the end of the game, win or lose, we’re still that family and we’re still gonna keep pushing each other. I don’t think any other team has that chemistry and that’s why I think we’re so good.”

The defense, however, hasn’t been the only crucial element for the rise to stardom of Jones. The influences of coaches and former players has continued to stick with her.

“Jack’s definitely done a great job, she said. “Replacing people, filling huge shoes from last year. That comes from all the experience he has. And when I was a freshman I learned so much when I was on the bench. Obviously I wanted to play but the former goalkeepers helped mold me into who and what I am today.”

While it’s not easy to pick up where you left off last season, playing with experience helps build a certain confidence one needs to be great. It is very rare to come into a whole new system and contribute right off the bat. If you’re anyone but freshman Justine Hernandez, that is.

“It’s definitely a different level,” said Hernandez. The players are all older, they have much more experience, and the game is so much faster. It’s been o.k. so far, though. I need to give credit to everyone, especially Coach Hyde. Without my teammates encouraging me I wouldn’t be starting at this point.”

Even with her success, however, Hernandez admits that the pressure can be great when comparing this team to last year’s championship winning team.

“You look at last year’s team, they were great,” said Hernandez. “I know it doesn’t fall on any one player, but still, there’s definitely pressure to do good. Pressure’s not always bad though. I see this as good pressure. Pressure to do better.”

While the team is currently ranked a respectable fourth in the region, Hernandez still feels the team has yet to hit its stride.

“Everyone on the team has room for improvement,” she said. “We’ve been getting better all season. We just need to keep getting better if we want to build upon what they did last season. With our coaching and dedication, I think we will.”

With the defense already in top form, the Vanni-led offense is continuing to improve.

“Nicole Vanni’s been killing out there,” said Jones. “We had history in high school playing each other in the semi-finals every year. I knew she was good and had it in her. Now she’s doing all this and everyone’s surprised but I already knew she could do that!”

Leading the team with seven goals thus far in the season, the reliance on Vanni to carry the offense will only take these Gators so far. Only two other players have managed to find the back of the net this season: Hernandez twice and senior Kiley Williams once.

“The offense does need to start stepping it up a little more,” said Hernandez. “We’re actually playing really well together. Our passing game is pretty good. It’s just that last shot that’s been the problem. Our shots just haven’t been going in enough so far.”

Even with the team not quite at top form yet, there is an air of confidence surrounding the team, confidence that was built early on in the season.

“I thought I would be nervous during those overtime games but I was fine,” said Hernandez. “I was probably just too tired at that point to be nervous. Wins like that help your psyche a lot though.”

With a few more wins, the lady gators might just find themselves in the same position they were in last year. And while the older Jones won’t get ahead of herself, Hernandez sees great potential in this team.

“We have such a great team. It’s not out of our reach. We’ll get back there.”

Go get ‘em girls.