For the first time in a long time, there may be real hope in Starkville. After a continued string of futility in which Mississippi State finished on bottom of the SEC for three straight seasons, there was finally a little light at the end of the tunnel for Neil MacDonald and his charges. It was a more than welcome change from the litany of losing that’s afflicted the MSU program throughout its history. These Bulldogs have only made the postseason twice despite having played SEC soccer since 1995. Their next closest conference competitor in futility has six appearances. Mississippi State have never won a postseason game. Ever.
The Bulldogs enter this season with an all-time SEC record of 33-121-11, a whopping eighty-eight matches under .500. Mississippi State has finished on bottom of the mythical “West” Division five times out of the last seven seasons and haven’t made the postseason since 2004. The program hasn’t enjoyed much success since current Cal head coach Neil McGuire pulled one of the SEC’s great Houdini acts in leading Mississippi State to a divisional title in 2001. Current head coach MacDonald was an assistant on McGuire’s later MSU teams and did quite an admirable job in getting Mississippi State back to the SEC Tournament in 2004 after taking the job on ridiculously short notice.
It’s been a horrific fall since then, as MSU have found themselves rooted to the bottom of the league more often than not since then. 2006 may have been rock bottom, with the team posting a seemingly unthinkable 2-16-0 record with losses to the likes of Sam Houston State and Gardner-Webb. While it’s not gotten quite THAT bad since, Mississippi State has still found ways to confound observers with their uncompetitiveness. The Bulldogs lost seventeen SEC matches in a row between 2007-2009 before drawing against #7 Florida and #8 South Carolina in a stunning turn of events (albeit on terrible field conditions after torrential downpours in the area). The winless run in league play would stretch twenty-four matches before a 2-0 home win against Kentucky finally ended the pain.
While the final record book may show that MSU finished 9-8-2 in 2009, it might have been the most gimmicked and trumped up record in major conference history as the Bulldogs scheduled five teams below 250 in the RPI and didn’t play a non-conference foe that finished above 147. 2010 wasn’t much better, with more “creative” scheduling and heavy losses to the respectable opposition MSU did come across. Conceding seven to Florida and South Carolina on the same weekend may have been one of the lowest points in program history, and the only faint bright spot for the Bulldogs was avoiding another 0-11 SEC season after upsetting Ole Miss in the final game of the regular season.
With some feeling that that win had saved MacDonald’s job, the pressure was still likely on to improve in 2011. The season started out ignominiously though, with defeats to the likes of Arkansas State and UC Riverside as the Bulldogs lost their first three of the new campaign. MSU would win their next three, but it was accomplished in wobbly fashion, with MacDonald’s team needing extra time to beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Lipscomb, teams an SEC program should be sweeping aside with ease. Subsequent draws with Southern Miss and Troy had most thinking it was going to be another season at the bottom for MacDonald’s Bulldogs.
It certainly didn’t start out well for MSU, as they were clobbered by LSU before dropping a close one to fellow strugglers Arkansas. But to the surprise of most, Mississippi State would rally a little and pick themselves off the mat, first with a draw against Alabama before a shocking 2-0 win against Auburn. MacDonald’s side so nearly made it three unbeaten in the league when they were up 3-0 on Georgia in Athens before seeing it all slip away as they lost, 4-3. That could have so easily wrecked the rest of the season, and it seemed it might have, with MSU losing two more after that Georgia defeat.
But the Bulldogs would again fight back, stunning Florida in Starkville to breathe new life into their postseason hopes. A win at Vanderbilt a week later gave MSU real hope of making it back to the SEC Tournament if they beat Ole Miss in the regular season finale and got help elsewhere. Alas, the Rebels would pay MacDonald’s side back for 2010, winning in Oxford, 2-0. When all was said and done, MSU wouldn’t have made it into the SEC Tournament had they won, but it still had to have been disappointing to not have produced a better showing with the postseason potentially on the line. Still, tenth in the league was a few places higher than almost everyone had envisioned for Mississippi State at the beginning of the season and has likely renewed hopes that the program can at least be competitive again in the SEC.
For the Bulldogs to continue last season’s upward arc though, they still need to improve. If they want to get a sniff of the postseason, they need to improve a lot. Far too often last season, Mississippi State tried to soak up inordinate amounts of pressure while hitting teams on the break. While it worked to some effect thanks to a defense that finished eighth in the league in goals allowed a year following one of the worst defensive showings in league history, MSU couldn’t keep the dam from breaking all the time.
Playing from behind certainly wasn’t easy either, as the club averaged just a goal a game, a mark that paled in comparison to much of the rest of the league. Signs at least appear to be positive going into the new year though. The club loses just two senior starters from last year’s club while returning both of last year’s leading scorers. MacDonald also brings in a decent recruiting class with a couple of promising freshmen and transfers that could make an immediate impact. They’ll still be outsiders for the postseason when the season starts in August, but any SEC club treating these Bulldogs as pushovers could be in for a rude awakening.
Judging by recent history at this position, MSU’s netminder better be prepared for a lot of action in between the posts. Incumbent Skylar Rosson was kept exceedingly busy in 2010, making one hundred ten saves in seventeen games and found herself even busier last year, making a hundred thirty-eight saves despite missing a game. She was forced into five or more saves thirteen times and ten or more saves four times, including the absurd match against Georgia, where she had to make nineteen saves. After having missed most of two seasons following knee injuries, Rosson has stepped in as the club’s starter as a sophomore and junior and will be hoping to make it three seasons in a row as the club’s #1.
Rosson has lacked consistency at times though and could see her position under threat from UAB transfer C.J. Winship. UAB’s starting goalkeeper last season, Winship still has three years of eligibility remaining and will probably still have a future as the club’s keeper of the future even if she doesn’t beat out Rosson for the starting job this season. Whoever’s in goal, they’ll probably have to deal with another barrage of shots as the backline defends deep and tries to strike on the counter.
Though from a shots conceded point of view it may not have seemed like MSU made much progress defensively last year, they did improve markedly in the amount of goals they conceded in the league and overall, shipping twenty-three less goals than in 2010’s abhorrent showing. There’s hope that the Bulldogs could go even better this year with the return of plenty of starting experience, including four players who started at least ten games last year. The team does have to replace full-back Serena Prendergast, long a reserve for the club who turned into a full-time starter on the flank last year, cracking the first XI all but one time.
MSU is perhaps strongest in the center, where the duo of Shannen Jainudeen and Morganne Grimes were unshakable last season. Jainudeen’s arrival was met with some fanfare from Bulldogs supporters as the Scarborough native had been a mainstay for the Canadian U17 team heading into her collegiate career. Player’s like Jainudeen don’t stop off in Starkville all that often, and MSU will hope for more throughout her Bulldog career. Grimes has been a mainstay in the lineup for two seasons now, leading the team in minutes as a rookie before starting eighteen games last year. The Georgia native has also shown an ability to tally the odd goal and assist, certainly a plus for a side needing every bit off offense it can get.
There’s also experience out wide with the return of Julie Waddle and Olivia Drapes. A senior, Waddle had barely played in two seasons with the Bulldogs before breaking through last season and playing in sixteen games and starting eleven as a junior. Drapes was similarly involved as a rookie, starting ten games, though neither she nor Waddle were too interested in adventurous forays up the pitch.
Depth isn’t exactly great at this position in Starkville, but the club does add Shelby Jordan, arguably the best freshman in this year’s MSU class and a mainstay in the Region III ODP Team in recent years. Those looking for star power and risk taking in the back four need look elsewhere, but these Bulldogs were much better last season than in 2010 and have room for more improvement this year. They aren’t going to be a lights out defense any time soon, but they could approach middle of the road status if all goes well this year.
MacDonald will be hoping that continuity breeds dividends, with the midfield returning all but intact from last year’s unit. Heading up this group this season will be a pair of seniors in Lauren Morgan and Madison McKee. Morgan had recorded twenty-six starts in two years before missing almost all of 2010 and was looking for a return to form last season. She’d make a successful return from that injury and would start eighteen games while assisting on goals against LSU and Auburn in league play. McKee had broken into the starting lineup full-time as a sophomore and had nabbed three goals, sparking hopes that she could potentially be an offensive solution in midfield for the club. She’d retain her place in the lineup last year but only scored once, though it was a huge goal, a golden one in extra time against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, sparing MSU’s blushes against the minnows.
Joining them last year in the starting lineup was another of the Bulldogs’ budding Canadian legion, Dana Forbes. The sophomore came in highly touted and hardly disappointed as a rookie, starting sixteen matches for the club and could be another building block for the future for the club. Adding depth are senior Zehra Syed, who had started seventeen games in her first two years before sliding into a reserve role last year, and junior Abbey Curington, who had two seasons of experience being one of the club’s top reserves.
They’ll be joined by some intriguing additions to the midfield from this year’s recruiting class. Sasha Vrany, a Czech Republic youth international, comes to the club after two seasons at DII Incarnate Word and will be hoping to make an immediate impact in the engine room this year. Kentucky native Marissa Williams also joins up after raking in plaudits and should add even more depth at the very least. It’ll probably always be graft over craft for this group, at least in the short-term, and in that sense, MSU isn’t that bad off with some promising youngsters joining experienced campaigners. They could struggle against teams with more dynamic presences in the midfield but should hold their own otherwise this season.
An area of rather sizable concern could be if this team has enough firepower in the tank to contend for even a spot in the SEC Tournament. Joint top scorers Elisabeth Sullivan and Jasmine Simmons only scored five goals each last season, certainly not enough to put them amongst the league’s best. That’s only half the story though, as each was still surprisingly effective against league opposition. Each managed four goals in SEC play, which had to be considered something of a shock when you see that both scored just once in a very forgiving non-conference schedule.
Simmons, a senior, came into 2011 having started every game through two years of her MSU career and having combined for seven assists in those two seasons from midfield. She had shown a little nous in front of goal as well, but few could have expected her to spark to life in SEC play. Replicating that form throughout is key though, as Simmons scored just once in the final six league games. She’ll have an able partner up top in Elisabeth Sullivan, who continued to score after six goals and five assists as a rookie in 2010. Sullivan wasn’t that prolific last year but was more consistent in the league, with four in the club’s final eight league games.
With a proven ability to score in the league, the duo definitely makes for an interesting proposition against opposing defenses in the SEC and beyond. The third of MSU’s three-headed snake up front, Tarah Henderson, must be replaced this season though. While she wasn’t very acute in front of goal, Henderson still had plenty of starting experience and could be tough to replace on a team with little depth in attack. Key reserve Taylor Turnipseed also departs after seeing plenty of time off the bench last year.
The sister act of Amy Hoover, a senior, and Katy Hoover, a sophomore, appear to be the crux of the returning depth this year, though neither has done much in front of goal thus far in their MSU careers. Sullivan and Simmons are capable and solid building blocks for this group, but a lack of depth could prove detrimental in a grueling SEC season.
At the very least, these Bulldogs should be respectable this year. MSU has, again, loaded up with a rather timid non-conference schedule and should go into league play unbeaten if they play up to their ability. Once in SEC play though, one wonders if the club’s gameplan of soaking up pressure before breaking out the other way can really get the club the results needed to rise to tenth and a spot in the conference tournament. Such tactics may help spring an upset or two, but over the course of a thirteen game league season, it may not be enough in the end.
It’s not like MSU has much of a choice though. Playing straight up, possession style against much more talented teams is a sure route to slaughter, thus necessitating more pragmatic thinking. The Bulldogs are a team crying out for a star figure to carry the program on their back. Jainudeen has the potential to be a great player for the club, and the team is bringing in some solid talent these next few seasons, but on the whole, it’s still a long and winding road to contending consistently with many of their league rivals. This year’s squad looks just as good, if not better, than last year’s team though, meaning they should have a puncher’s chance of making it to the postseason.