After some delays to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Loyola women’s soccer team is ready to start its season. The Ramblers are going for their third consecutive Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) title, but tied with Missouri State University Feb. 28 to start MVC play this season.
The soccer season, usually in the fall, is taking place in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Head coach Barry Bimbi said this change will call for a bit of “retraining” on the team’s part.
“It’s retraining the brain and body that it’s not just a developmental segment, it’s a competitive segment for us,” Bimbi said. “The first couple games are going to be interesting because a lot of talented but inexperienced players are going to get the chance to play.”
There are seven new first-year players, replacing the six seniors and graduate students that left after last season.
Junior midfielder Abby Swanson said the team’s biggest challenge as the season starts is more mental than physical.
“Physically we have taken this time off to be fit, ready to go, but mentally we are just taking time to go through the scouts.”
Swanson is a staple of Loyola’s roster, starting in all 20 games last season and notching two goals and an assist, along with being First Team All MVC in 2019. This adds to her impressive resume, as she was also named Freshman Of The Year in 2018.
Senior midfielder Lindsey Hardiman said she thinks getting back into a routine will help prepare the team, and she agreed with Swanson on the importance of mental readiness.
“Making sure we are getting back into a groove of playing soccer, I mean working out and getting scouts,” Hardiman said. “It’s remembering what that feels like, to look at game film, what players we need to focus on and then getting back to the mindset of playing a game.”
Hardiman is a strong contributor offensively to the Ramblers, especially in close games. Last season, she notched the game-winning goals last season against Eastern Michigan University and Valparaiso University. She scored 17 of 24 shots, earning a 70 percent shooting success rate.
Loyola’s first regular season opponent Missouri State finished third in the MVC at 5-2-1 – just shy of Loyola’s 7-0 MVC record. Considering this matchup is Loyola’s first MVC game of the 2021 season, Bimbi said it’s all hands on deck after their exhibition game at Marquette on Feb. 14, which the team lost, 1-0. The Missouri State game ended in a tie in double overtime.
“It’s about results at that point,” Bimbi said. “We know that because of the shortened season and because of the structure of the conference tournament this year. It’s different from years past where the higher seeded institutions host the [MVC] tournament … now it’s really important to get that [No.] 1 seed because we’ll be hosting the tournament.
Despite a rescheduled season and a smaller NCAA Tournament, the Ramblers’ goal of a tournament win has stayed constant. The bracket has shrunk from 64 to 48 teams due to the pandemic.
“I think if we take care of our business and win the [MVC] tournament, we are going to be in the NCAA tournament,” said Bimbi. “It’s been our goal for the past two years to win a game in the NCAA tournament and make it to the second round. But we have to get there first and put the work in.”
The players also are focused on each game by itself, rather than making it to the NCAA tournament, their ultimate goal.
“I think we treat it the same as every other year,” Swanson said. “We definitely, definitely want it for ourselves to win the first game. We thought we would do it last year, it didn’t go our way. I think building on that fire of the past two years of wanting to get to the next level is our driving force. We really try to look at one game at a time.”
Swanson said the team is acting as if this is a normal season, saying the team’s’ motivation is very high to reach the threshold of an NCAA tournament win.
Hardiman concurred, focusing only on the regular season at this point.
“It’s one game at a time and getting in our groove,” Hardiman said. “There is a huge motivation to get there, and that is the end goal.”
Although the team has not had much change to its normal practice schedule due to COVID-19, Bimbi said there have been adjustments to off-the-field activities. He said this has created a bit of a void in terms of team building since players can’t socialize as normal.
“There are just things you can’t replicate because of the times we are in…anything from the girls hanging out at study table, being able to gather in our locker room here at Norville and just spend time together,” said Bimbi. “The biggest adjustment for the group is we don’t feel as tight as we normally do.”
However, Bimbi said the upperclassmen have been stepping up to try to make first-years feel more included. He said he’s encouraged them to hang out one-on-one with the new players by getting coffee or doing other activities together.
Loyola is scheduled to play its next regular season game versus Drake University March 5 at 2:30 p.m. CST.